The Future of Liturgy Marks a Memorable LTSP Day

April 20, 2004

The Lutheran Theological Seminary At Philadelphia, April 20, 2004

Professor Gordon Lathrop would have said yesterday’s gathering of liturgical scholars at LTSP was to the glory of God, rather than focusing on the notion that the day was set aside to honor Lathrop’s distinguished teaching career. And he would be right.

Still, everyone in the room knew that the day was in fact a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Gordon Lathrop, Charles Schieren Professor of Liturgy at LTSP, senior member of the seminary’s faculty and a gift of God to hundreds of seminarians from LTSP and Wartburg Theological Seminary. His teaching career has spanned 29 years, the last 20 at LTSP. And Lathrop anticipates retiring at the end of June to continue in new ways his energies on behalf of worship renewal across the church. Yesterday was a precious opportunity for Lathrop, and others, to hear five presentations on the theme, “A Future for the Ecumenical Shape of Liturgy.” The idea was broached by Seminary President Philip D. W. Krey, who brought greetings to the group.

All five presenters drew upon the contributions Lathrop had made in their lives through his teaching. The scope of the presentations was in fact a tribute to the largesse of Lathrop’s classroom intellect and energies and the teacher’s passion for what is possible, thanks be to God, by Christians gathered in worship with all its symbols and elements.

This simple report will not do justice to the scope of the presentations, but it will offer a taste.

The Rev. Dirk G. Lange, associate pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Atlanta, GA, and a doctoral student at Emory University, gave an essay rich in imagery about the role of the “hermeneutic event,” the gift of liturgical worship in the lives of believers. Lange noted that the memory evoked by the Supper in worship really can’t be recaptured by partakers. He said that living into the liturgy through worship “displaces us, disorients us,” preparing believers to live fuller lives in services in the world of human need within and beyond their congregations. He said at one point that the ecumenical shape of liturgy and its real fellowship has the capacity to send believers out into the world “where they already discover the disseminated body of Christ evident and waiting for us” amid the needy people of God’s world. Lange studied under Lathrop while earning an S.T.M. degree from LTSP in 2001.

The Rev. Melinda A. Quivik, LTSP 2004, and an adjunct professor of Liturgy at Trinity Theological Seminary, talked about Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume as an example of how believers may come to see “the beauty of God.” She suggested that the world is “lived at different speeds, times and places and in different rhythms” by the world’s many believers. Through liturgy and relating to signs in worship, faith is built, she said. “By having such signs live inside of them, people are able to make better sense of life’s contradictions and uncertainties.” And the beauty of the Lord is not something one looks at but rather is something once engages in, she said. Through the sign of the cross, she said, believers can all at once grasp “the unimagined goodness and the self-abrogation” of God in Christ. “We truly are and become the body of Christ through signs.” And thus, life’s many paradoxes may not confound us, she said. Quivik is visitation pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Minneapolis and holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union.

The Rev. Paula Lawrence Wehmiller, an African American, painted a prosaically rich sense of her formative life at the ritualistic meal table she had known growing up. She described that mealtime experience as “inseparable” from the ritualistic table she has known in the church. In both settings, she said she has known “who and whose we are and that we are blessed.” Even in family travels the ritual of the table was observed, she said, but the ritual could not be observed in childhood days in the south and led her to a special sensitivity about “who gets to eat at the table.” The eucharistic table, she said, “is the heart of church life.” The hungry are invited to the table and having been fed “turn to feed the hungry world,” she said. “It is a scandal when people are left out of the heart of the eucharist, and a segregated church refutes the gospel” and reverses God’s good gift. “The glorious human diversity is created to God’s good and delight,” she said. “The face of justice is not one face, but many faces united in one.” She said if anyone draws a line excluding people on the other side, “Jesus Christ will always be on the other side of that line.” She called for mutual affirmation and admonition among ecumenical church partners “to protest the unbearable divisions of the church” as it “feeds a hungry and broken world.” Wehmiller is an Episcopal priest, author and educator.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Director of Worship Michael Burk noted that in many ways the church he knew as a boy has not changed much over the years, but the landscape surrounding the church has changed dramatically. Technology has imposed much change and the demands on the office of ministry have changed in some ways. “While people are more connected by cell phones, they also have more reasons to be afraid,” he said. For some in churches there is great concern to “minimize risk, and avoid fear and displeasure,” he said. For some people, values have remained absolute. For others “values shift according to circumstances. Uncertainty abounds. People crave assurances.” He said individual tendencies are as strong as ever, and there is “high priority given to personal tastes.” Immigration surrounding many churches has had great impact, he said, with some congregations opting out of embracing that change. Burk suggested that “our problem is related to identity (in the Lutheran church). Our identity is fragile at best and non-existent in some places.” Many in the middle of the church feel disconnected, he noted. “We go along in order to get along. We need to acknowledge that dissent matters.” But sometimes, he said, people will feel that “what is right for me and the local church is good for the whole.” People will choose the least resistant paths as the best course, or see each other as either winners or losers rather than fighting to discover the common ground in each other as found through the elements and order of worship. Some congregations are backing away from weekly communion, for example. And in some places it has been known to happen that a congregation will take a vote on who is welcome at the communion table. “Our future depends on how we understand the (church) assembly itself,” he said. “Fostering ecumenical convergence is not enough unless it is matched by a deepening sense of ecumenical identity.” That involves being determined to form and reform an identity in which “everyone has a stake,” Burk said. Key to that identity is God with Jesus Christ in our midst with “all of us together for the sake of the world.” Burk concluded by recalling images he had seen in Iraq of makeshift altars set up on the hoods of jeeps “in the midst of blowing sand and intense heat” and with a boombox and bad audiotape framing the musical backdrop. “I’m hopeful that when we think about the ecumenical shape of liturgy that we remember that water makes it a font, and the table makes it a meal,” he said.

A response to the presenters was made by the Rev. Dr. Don Saliers, professor of Liturgical Theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Saliers, also a keynoter at this year’s LTSP Spring Convocation, highlighted the words identity, mystagogy, beauty and the hermeneutical event, the latter a phrase, for his response.

He said that church life in a time of uncertainty and without identity “produces a very difficult situation no matter how well formed we are in human life. Complicating the uncertainty is the illusion of power many people feel. He advised “trusting the primary symbols of our faith to win out over our fears and fragilities. There is no Christian identity that is not ecumenical,” he said, noting that Jesus Christ prayed that all be one, and that Christ thus “gave us a means to identity never contained in any one identity.”

Regarding Pastor Paula Lawrence Wehmiller’s remarks, Saliers said “the words of poetry are needed to invite all” to be witnesses to memories and counter-memories impacting a people who have not always been invited to the table. “Your words evoke, arouse and sustain us,” he said. He noted Quivik’s focus on God’s “beauty and attractiveness” is essential in a world too often “ugly, vile and dehumanizing.” That attractive image of God is crucial, he said, if people are to be drawn to God. He said he found Quivik’s discussion of the anointed perfume to be “evidence that God is poured forth into the world” where ugliness is also found. And God is already working in the midst of such ugliness, he said. “God lives beyond the ugliness and the world arena is God’s glory.”

He said the day was an example of the importance of taking time to “listen to one another’s stories,” and he urged attendees to constantly recall how God lavishes “the beautiful perfume upon us in Christ.” Finally, he predicted that the “hermeneutic event” of worship through liturgy with its elements of prayer, word and sacrament amidst gathered lives “won’t stop disorienting and reorienting our theologies and our lives.”

Copyright The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Posted with permission.

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