Saturday, June 29, 2013

Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Traditions and Catholic Consensus

Skip Sundberg's new book, Worship as Repentance: Lutheran Liturgical Tradition and Catholic Consensus, is equal parts historical recovery, liturgical renewal, and wistful theology. It is surprising that such a "modest" proposal (he is primarily proposing changes in liturgical practice) can have such deep anthropological and theological implications.

Here's Sundberg's basic definition of worship: "To call Christians to repentance; to warn them to be under no illusion as to who they are and how far they fall short when they stand before God and holy things; to teach them to worship God in humility; to feed them the Bread of Life; to make them ready to give testimony to Christ in word and deed."

This focus on repentance as definition of worship stand in contrast, for Sundberg, to much of the eucharistic piety that informs contemporary liturgical renewal. He is calling for a somewhat more sectarian voice to hold sway in what has become primarily a "churchly" approach to worship.

Sundberg makes his case in compelling fashion. He begins by examining early church traditions around penance and repentance. A lengthy middle chapter then examines Luther and the binding key in considerable detail, examining the relationship between repentance and baptism, communion, catechization, private and corporate confession, and the liturgical rites of the reformation era.

Sundberg then offers two very closely argued chapters spelling out in historical detail the attack on private confession, and the emergence of an opposing tradition to penitential piety that he dubs eucharistic piety or "worship as ritual participation in the divine."

Many of the debates presented in these chapters are not necessarily new to those who have read a bit in the liturgical renewal movement or the history of the development of Lutheran worship. Nevertheless, I have rarely if ever read such a closely reasoned and presented case comparing the pieties.

Although as a reader I myself find eucharistic piety and the emerging ecumenical consensus around it much more compelling than many of the strands of penitential piety that seem to influence Sundberg (I am thinking especially here of Oliver K. Olson and his epigones), I completely agree with Sundberg's assertion that eucharistic piety has become a rigid and controlling orthodoxy. When theologians and historians like Sundberg make their case, they receive shrill response and steady opposition. Often, they are simply silenced.

For this reason alone, I hope Sundberg's book receives a wide readership. Even if readers may disagree in certain details, the argument for worship as repentance has considerable merit. Christians can and should lead with repentance. It is a core mark of the church and the Christian life. It should imbue much of what we do in Christian worship.

If I have a quibble with the book, it is that it is perhaps too myopic. I know Sundberg is a historian, so he is addressing the specific historical details (especially Lutheran details) as they play out in orders of worship. Nevertheless, I would like to see him make the case on larger theological grounds. Christians repent. This is much bigger than the particular language employed for the public confession portion of the liturgy for corporate worship.

That being said, this is an incredibly compelling and well-written work of historical theology. And ultimately, it has a very compelling "why" to address. "It is very hard to face up to the ugliness of the true self, to take the journey that Luther took into the dark night of the soul. This culture, including the culture of the academy, resists it. But if we take the journey or God forces us to take the journey, we may find that we are able to hear the gospel in the ideal form that the confessions claim is possible--the gospel 'purely preached,' telling us that God is not done with us yet--'Fahter, forgive them,' says Jesus, 'for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:34)" (170).

No comments:

Post a Comment