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Why Use the Historic Liturgy?
A Brief Definition of and Plea to Exclusively Use the Historic Liturgy
by Reformation Today


For around two decades there has been a debate going on in the Lutheran Church in about so-called "contemporary" or "alternative" worship versus the historic liturgy of the Church. Numerous articles on both sides of the debate can be referenced, and so we won't rehash the entire argument here again. Here, a case for the exclusive use of the historic Lutheran liturgy will be made. No attempt will be made to hide my belief that the historic liturgy of the Lutheran Church is the path Lutheran congregations should take.

What the Historic Liturgy Is Not
First of all, it must be noted what the historic liturgy is not. The historic liturgy is not limited to p.15 from The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 (and it certainly is not p.5). What we mean by historic liturgy is the entire body of material, including the Holy Communion orders, Matins, Vespers, Compline, the liturgical calendar (church year) and lectionary, hymns, the traditional ceremonies, the forms of music, vestments, and the like. These things are not confined to any one particular hymnal, but are passed down from generation to generation as the liturgical tradition lives. At the center of the body of rites and ceremonies that makes up the historic liturgy is the order of the Divine Service of the Word and Sacrament (the Lords Supper). The historic liturgy is found in The Lutheran Hymnal (CPH, 1941), Lutheran Worship (CPH, 1982), and the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS, 1996), to name but a few examples in current hymnals.

By "historic liturgy" we do not mean to say that the Divine Service is simply a museum piece or that it is not contemporary or relevant now. In fact, we say that the traditional liturgy is relevant for the contemporary church and world. The historic liturgy is something which has been passed down through the centuries in many languages, many nations, and has been given various musical settings. (However, not all musical settings that are often used are fitting for the Divine Service.) The historic liturgy does not mean that we simply must use obsolete or archaic English forms of language in our services. However, the translation of texts (especially Scripture and the Creeds) must be accurate and theologically sound.

What sorts of things are included in the historic order of Holy Communion?
The historic liturgy of the western church, which includes the Lutheran Church, includes such things as Introit, Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, salutation, collect, Scripture readings from a lectionary, the Nicene Creed, sermon, Preface, Proper Preface, Sanctus, Lords Prayer, Words of Institution, Pax Domini, Agnus Dei, and the benediction. Traditionally many Lutherans have also made use of the Nunc Dimittis as a post-communion canticle. Along with these elements of the rite, Lutherans have historically sought to maintain traditional ceremonies (gestures, processions, candles, art, etc.), vestments, and church architecture.

What Our Lutheran Confessions Say About the Historic Liturgy
For example, the Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession notes about the Lutherans: At the outset it is again necessary by way of preface, to point out that we do not abolish the Mass but religiously retain and defend it. Among us Mass is celebrated every Lords day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things [Article XXIV.1].

Why would a Lutheran congregation exclusively use the historic liturgy?
Very briefly, a Lutheran congregation would desire to use the historic liturgy exclusively because it is our practice described in our Lutheran Confessions. It is also desirable because it has served so faithfully for the delivery of Gods gospel gifts throughout history. The historic liturgy protects us from the fads of our age and from the idiosyncrasies of individuals, since it belongs to not one culture or one era, but is catholic in the best sense of that word. A Lutheran congregation would maintain its use also because it is incredibly valuable for the mission of the gospel. The liturgy confesses the faith of the Scriptures in a form which engages the heart and the mind, body and soul. The historic liturgy keeps us focused on Christ and not us. It helps preserve the reverence of worship and helps cover the whole counsel of God. The historic liturgy is built around the Word and Sacraments, justification by grace through faith, and the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. One could ask rhetorically: If a pastor and congregation does a church service in a way completely different from how it has been done, how can one be sure it is genuine, proper, and God-pleasing, and orthodox? It is usually safer not to dance on the edge of a cliff. The Divine Service is not the place for experimentation.

What are our concerns with alternative or so-called contemporary worship?
The difficulty with alternative or contemporary worship practices begins with defining it. It is something which seems to be always changing and is unpredictable in many ways. But one common problem seems to be in that contemporary or alternative worship attempts to provide entertainment in what should be a reverent Service of Word and Sacrament, done in the presence of God, and done by Him. Alternative or contemporary worship tends to turn Gods work in the liturgy into something that we are doing.

Alternative or contemporary worship also is problematic in that the orders of service often do not say much. It is not that they are always heretical (teaching false doctrine) per se (although some do), but it is that they do not say much at all. To use a food analogy, they are often the nutritional equivalents of cotton candy or sometimes simply a menu of food that is never served. Alternative worship tends to place the sacraments of Christ on the side, as if they were an extra or unneeded. Alternative worship services often exhibit an overly emotional focus instead of a focus on the objective promises of God and the objective means of grace (Word and Sacraments). In addition, alternative worship also seems to ignore or forget the entire history of the church and her worship and then proceed to worship as if it had never been done before, with little continuity to the past. It is forgotten that we today are the newcomers in the church. There is much more to be said, but this touches on a few basics involved in this question.


RELATED TO THIS TOPIC:

A Quote from the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther, First President of the Missouri Synod on Ceremonies in the Divine Service:

We know and firmly hold that the character, the soul of Lutheranism, is not found in outward observances but in the pure doctrine. If a congregation had the most beautiful ceremonies in the very best order, but did not have the pure doctrine, it would be anything but Lutheran. We have from the beginning spoken earnestly of good ceremonies, not as though the important thing were outward forms, but rather to make use of our liberty in these things. For true Lutherans know that although one does not have to have these things (because there is no divine command to have them), one may nevertheless have them because good ceremonies are lovely and beautiful and are not forbidden in the Word of God. Therefore the Lutheran church has not abolished "outward ornaments, candles, altar cloths, statues and similar ornaments," [AP XXIV] but has left them free. The sects proceeded differently because they did not know how to distinguish between what is commanded, forbidden, and left free in the Word of God. We remind only of the mad actions of Carlstadt and of his adherents and followers in Germany and in Switzerland. We on our part have retained the ceremonies and church ornaments in order to prove by our actions that we have a correct understanding of Christian liberty, and know how to conduct ourselves in things which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God.

We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them. The Roman antichristendom enslaves poor consciences by imposing human ordinances on them with the command: "You must keep such and such a thing!"; the sects enslave consciences by forbidding and branding as sin what God has left free. Unfortunately, also many of our Lutheran Christians are still without a true understanding of their liberty. This is demonstrated by their aversion to ceremonies. It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when a person sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American denominations just so they won't accuse us of being Roman Catholic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving Word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that they can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them?

It is too bad that such entirely different ceremonies prevail in our Synod, and that no liturgy at all has yet been introduced in many congregations. The prejudice especially against the responsive chanting of pastor and congregations is of course still very great with many people -- this does not, however, alter the fact that it is very foolish. The pious church father Augustine said, "Qui cantat, bis orat--he who sings prays twice."

This finds its application also in the matter of the liturgy. Why should congregations or individuals in the congregation want to retain their prejudices? How foolish that would be! For first of all it is clear from the words of St. Paul (1 Cor. 14:16) that the congregations of his time had a similar custom. It has been the custom in the Lutheran Church for 250 years. It creates a solemn impression on the Christian mind when one is reminded by the solemnity of the divine service that one is in the house of God, in childlike love to their heavenly Father, also give expression to their joy in such a lovely manner.

We are not insisting that there be uniformity in perception or feeling or taste among all believing Christians-neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. Uniformity of ceremonies (perhaps according to the Saxon Church order published by the Synod, which is the simplest among the many Lutheran church orders) would be highly desirable because of its usefulness. A poor slave of the pope finds one and same form of service, no matter where he goes, by which he at once recognizes his church. With us it is different. Whoever comes from Germany without a true understanding of the doctrine often has to look for his church for a long time, and many have already been lost to our church because of this search. How different it would be if the entire Lutheran church had a uniform form of worship! This would, of course, first of all yield only an external advantage, however, one which is by no means unimportant. Has not many a Lutheran already kept his distance from the sects because he saw at the Lord's Supper they broke the bread instead of distributing wafters?

The objection: "What would be the use of uniformity of ceremonies?" was answered with the counter question, "What is the use of a flag on the battlefield? Even though a soldier cannot defeat the enemy with it, he nevertheless sees by the flag where he belongs. We ought not to refuse to walk in the footsteps of our fathers. They were so far removed from being ashamed of the good ceremonies that they publicly confess in the passage quoted: "It is not true that we do away with all such external ornaments"

(Walther, Explanation of Thesis XVIII, D, Adiaphora, of the book The True Visible Church, delivered at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, Beginning August 9, 1871, at the 16th Central District Convention, translated by Fred Kramer, printed in Essays for the Church [CPH: 1992], I:193-194).