Thursday, September 20, 2007

Can Lutherans Become Too Catholic?

Many years ago there was a general backlash in the Lutheran Church against anything that smacked of being "Catholic." Thus, pastors wore black Geneva robes in protest against the more Catholic looking vestments, and many traditional aspects of worship were toned down so as to appear more Protestant (such as no chanting). In the years since I was ordained this backlash has relaxed. Nevertheless, one can still hear rumblings of it from time to time with those who remembered that past era as a golden time in Lutheran history.

As any student of Lutheran history will know, the blessed Reformer was largely alone in his conservative approach to retaining practices of the church that were deemed faithful, even if they were not seen as mandated. Thus, Lutheran churches have altars and pulpits where Reformed parishes sport tables and podiums. Lutheran clergy wear the traditional vestments of albs, chasubles, cassocks and surplices, and stoles, where Reformed clergy don black academic robes or business suits, or in this day of the reign of casualness, no more than a polo shirt and pair of chinos. Lutheran churches also have historic liturgies of the Mass and the choir hours (at least some do), whereas the Reformed opted for a simple devotional style of bare necessities, some even letting natural spontaneity trump order.

Beyond these universal practices, Lutheran churches have also maintained the practice of crossing themselves (as even encouraged by Luther himself in his morning and evening prayers), chanting the liturgy, and observing a sense of reverence at the altar and in the service with appropriate bowing. And it is these last practices, in particular, that are often labeled as being over-the-top and blatantly Catholic. Yet they are not. They are simply the practices that were continued from the very first days of the Reformation, as they were carried forward from the earliest history of the ancient church.

How did we get to this point? Well, this is too restrictive an area for all the history behind this issue. Yet suffice it to say that in our reactions against certain teachings of the Catholic church, we have fallen, just like our Reformed cousins, into the old "baby-out-with-the-bathwater" error. For those who are of retirement age now (excluding the Baby Boomers, who are an entirely different breed altogether on these issues), the memory of the distancing from catholic practices is still fresh. TLH, although now well over 60 years old, is still the hymnal of their memory, not LW or LSB. Many believe that the reintroduction of genuine Christian practice from the past is a rejection of what their forefathers believed.

Patience is needed as the church continues to rediscover and reintroduce these long neglected customs and practices. And as it is done, we need to carefully instruct our people so that they understand how these "catholic" (i.e. universal) practices are not inconsistent with Lutheran theology, even of that of their long past pastors. Unfortunately in their zeal to bring the church back, there will always be young pastors who move too fast with too much. This has hindered the cause to bring the church along by needlessly offending people before they could be taught.

Can a Lutheran church become too Catholic, the title of this article reads. I doubt it, even if there are fears out there to the contrary. But we must be aware and sensitive to the fear that it can be. As always, catechesis is of utmost necessity.


Presbytera said...

I was raised by my Pastor to be anti-RC. I was shocked the first time I saw a Lutheran make the sign of the cross. Once I was catechized concerning the history and the meaning, it made perfect sense and I have since taken up the practice.

Anonymous said...

The Lutheran Church gave up too munch in order to be liked by the Reform Churches. In Pennnsylvania it was said that there was very little difference between the Lutherans( ELCA) and the Reformed.

Christine said...

Actually, pastor, the "black Geneva robes" have a history that goes back even further. My Lutheran mother was raised in East Prussia. All Lutheran pastors, I'm sure, have read the history of the Prussian Union under Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III and his enforced amalgamation of Reformed/Lutheran ecclesiology.

My mother even in Europe remembers her Lutheran pastors wearing the black robes which we considered a sign of the high emphasis that Lutherans placed on learning and education.

There's no getting around that the piety of early Lutheranism still retained the Catholic practices that Luther knew as a priest, such as the Sign of the Cross, referencing Mary as Mother of God rather than just as mother of Jesus, his sacramental theology et al. and it is something that Lutherans should be proud to embrace as their heritage.

There was a time when LCMS Lutherans were quick to define themselves as evangelical catholics. The influence of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. has unfortunately made inroads into that view.

Christine said...

"which we considered"

Sorry, should be which WERE considered