Friday, June 8, 2007

ELW, with a silent "L"

It is way past time for me to write a conscientiously detailed, and yet totally bitchy, review of the new hymnal from Ausgburg Fortress: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (hereafter ELW). This hymnal is "approved for use" in the Ev. Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCC) and "commended for use" in the Ev. Lutheran Church in America (ELCA); the latter also holds the copyright for it.

First, the CONTENTS page. It is an attractive table of contents, but it also clues you in that there is a lot of stuff in this hymnal, besides just plain hymns. What with an Introduction, a Church Year Calendar, the Propers, Prayers for Worship, and Additional Prayers, the liturgy doesn't start until page 94. Then there are, count them, ten settings of Holy Communion, plus a "Service of the Word" specifically designed for non-communion Sunday services. The services continue with Baptism, Welcome to Batpism, Affirmation of Baptism (which used to be called Confirmation), Corporate Confession and Forgiveness (which used to be called Absolution), and Individual ditto. Then there are services for Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Then there are services for healing, funeral, and marriage. Then there are Morning Prayer (used to be Matins), Evening Prayer (used to be Vespers), Night Prayer (Compline, anyone?) and Responsive Prayer. All of this material, plus the foreparts of the Psalter, adds up to 338 numbered pages.

The contents continue with Psalms (all 150 of them, an exceptional occurrence). The numbering of individual pieces continues through the "Service Music" section (151-238), in which one finds alternate settings of liturgical texts, as if ten complete settings wasn't enough! Then you get the hymns (239-886) and national songs (887-893). Then the page numbering resumes with a table of daily Scripture readings (p. 1121), several pages of worship-related Bible texts (p. 1154), the Small Catechism (p. 1160), and indexes galore (pp. 1169-1211).

Nevertheless, it is no bigger or clunkier than any other hymnal of recent decades. There are even colored marks on the page edges to help navigate through the book's various sections. All in all, it is a very interesting, well-planned, and exciting Table of Contents.

And now I will wrap up this First Part of my critique of ELW by tearing its INTRODUCTION (pp. 6-9) into itty-bitty shreds. Perhaps it is hard for me to be objective, having been nurtured for a goodly part of my life by Lutheran Worship, with its exquisite, devotional preface (pp. 6-7). But I doubt that is really a significant factor here. ELW's Introduction reads like a press release written by a committee of mid-level bureaucrats.

Paragraph 1 (not counting the paragraph-length quote from "The Use of the Means of Grace" that heads the essay) is a word study on the terms "church" and, to a lesser degree, "worship." It quotes the Augsburg Confession, perhaps in hopes of cowing potentially bitchy reviewers into a piously submissive silence. Sorry, that doesn't work with me. Neither does a word-study interpretation of the word "ekklesia" pointing out that the Greek word "has at its root the meaning 'called out.'" If ever there was a textbook example of the fallacy of equating a word's origin with its root meaning, this is it. Nevertheless this does occasion ELW's admission that "The Holy Spirit gathers the people of God around Jesus Christ present in the word of God and the sacraments," etc. So you can't say God's work in Word and Sacrament didn't get at least a token mention in this 4-page essay on "worship." Darn.

Paragraph 2 trumps the Augsburg Confession with a quote from the Apology. Cowed yet? Not quite. This is the paragraph that asserts the catholicity of "worship" (though "worship" still seems to be a very broad term). It connects the local assembly to the whole church "in every time and place." It uses things "handed down through the ages to express this unity and continuity." This is all very comforting to people who want to be able to recognize the liturgical tradition of their own church. However, the paragraph opens with a telltale remark: "Worship takes place in particular assemblies within particular contexts." Read under this heading, which is meaningless enough to include anything, the rest of the paragraph need not alarm anyone who is itching to switch the choo-choo-train of Lutheran worship onto another set of rails.

Paragraph 3 carries forward the thought at which the lead sentence of Para 2 only hints: The assembly worships amidst an ever-changing world. Since this worship is connected with mission, it must be regularly renewed "in order to be both responsible and responsive to the world that the church is called to serve." I'll grant that there may be a grain of truth stuck in the teeth of this orthodontically-correct mouthful. But what it suggests - nay, what it says - goes far beyond the truth. The truth is that the church is called to make disciples throughout the world, so that by its unchanging witness the people of this ever-changing world may be renewed (which is to say, reborn unto everlasting life). The suggestion - nay, assertion - that worship must be renewed to serve a changing world seems tantamount to saying either that we worship the world, or at least that we aim to become disciples of the world. Which is, to put it delicately, butterscotch (hereafter abbreviated "BS").

Paragraph 4 sets ELW in the context of the "renewal of worship that has taken place over the three centuries Lutherans have been on the North American continent and in the Caribbean region." By this "renewal" the paragraph means the increasing uniformity of liturgy and hymnody among different groups of Lutherans, marking Muhlenberg, the Common Service, SBH, TLH, and LBW as milestones in that movement. This is also BS. SBH and TLH were used by separate groups within what is now the ELCA, and the differences between them meant that those groups were less uniform than at the time of the Common Service. From then, through LBW, to ELW, history shows an increasingly fragmented (or, in ELW's terminology, "diverse") worship culture in the ELCA. If by "renewal" ELW means increasing uniformity, nothing of the sort has been going on; and as we will see in later installments of this review, nothing of the sort is at work in ELW itself.

Paragraph 5 alludes to "changes within the church and the world," including "the use of electronic and digital resources" in worship, and increasing sensitivity to cultural diversity. This results in changes in language "in response to context and societal change," which is Middle Management Speak for "politically correct jargon and gender inclusivity." Other results include the use of multiple languages, and churches embracing other "forms of musical expression." In other words, expect hymns to include an extra handful of stanzas in some language other than English (a variety of languages, as it turns out); and expect pop songs in the guise of hymns, and vice versa. In still other words, expect to see things in ELW that are really quite pointless, except as tokens of acknowledgment that people who speak other languages, and sing other types of songs, have a right to exist - even though they aren't going to get much use out of this book. This is motivated by what I call the "Seinfeld Impulse" - that which compels the characters on Seinfeld to chant "not that there's anything wrong with that" after every reference to a certain "alternative lifestyle." What an interesting piety is at work here!

In paragraph 6 of its Introduction, ELW claims to "bear the rich tradition" of Lutheran worship, while also "seek[ing] to renew that tradition" in view of changes in church and world. This sounds like when the Coca-Cola Co. tried to sell "Classic" Coke and "New" Coke at the same time. This brief paragraph ends by introducing the following paragraphs with an allusion to "several goals."

Paragraph 7: ELW is a "core" resource, containing "a body of prayer and song that our churches consider worthy to hold in common"; but it cannot contain everything that all churches will want to use in every situation. So one can think of its contents as a sampler of a variety of "larger repertoires outside this volume." In other words, let everyone do what is right in his own eyes; ELW, meanwhile, will offer a taste of everything likely to be tried.

Paragraph 8: ELW affirms that Word and Sacrament are central. That's why it contains orders of worship in which one can find the Word, Baptism, Confirmation, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper. Sadly, this is the most Lutheran paragraph so far. I say "sadly," because it simply asserts that the Means of Grace are central; it does not happen to mention that they are life-giving good news from God, in which He is powerfully at work. It leaves that until para 13, for those readers who still remain after 12 paragraphs of relentlessly institutional syntax.

Paragraph 9: I should quote from this paragraph, but I think I would puke on my keyboard if I attempted it. In transcendentally bureaucratese language it essentially says that everyone is a minister, though some people's "ministry" is tied to a vocation outside the church. Bottom line: no regular call, no problem! Provided you have a bit of talent, you can preach and administer the Sacraments too! (Oh, where is the Augsburg Confession now?)

Paragraph 10: ELW quotes the Introduction to LBW in articulating "the principle of fostering unity without imposing uniformity." Which means: hold up a big enough umbrella, and you can gather the whole world in its shade!

Paragraph 11: ELW treasures the hymns and liturgy we have in common with other Christians, as well as the "particular accents of our Lutheran inheritance." The trick will be determining which are which. Maybe they don't really know, after all, and they're just saying this because they are still guilty about the prevalence of German names in the indexes, in spite of all their efforts to narrow this majority. "We are all-inclusive, plus we include some Lutheran materials as well." If you're waiting for a Lutheran hymnal that is open to all traditions except Lutheranism, that will be the next hymnal after ELW.

Paragraph 12: ELW is more than just a pew edition. To really make it part of your church's worship, you need to buy lots of other bulky, expensive books. Or, you can get the same material through an "evolving variety of media," i.e. electronic resources, probably including PowerPoint. (This last bit is my own interpretation on the words "intended to respond to the developing needs of the church in mission." After all, God knows you can't save souls these days without PowerPoint.)

Paragraph 13: ELW's ultimate goal is to support the church's mission. At last, the Introduction says that worship is where "God comes with good news to save." It also says worship (which I interpret as Word and Sacrament) "nourishes us for that mission and goes with us to bear" His Word to the world. Alack (also pronounced with a silent L)! Just when the essay does lip service to a truly Lutheran theology of worship, it digresses into this bizarre new theology of mission in which worship goes on "in here" and mission goes on "out there." Once again, that's BS! As slippy, stumbly sinner-saints we are always being evangelized. All missionary outreach happens essentially where God's Word is proclaimed. It's not so much that we make disciples by carrying God's message away from the worship service to people on the outside, as that God uses us to bring people into the worship service. He makes disciples through teaching and baptism.

Paragraph 14: ELW is the culmination of over a decade of study and field testing, via supplements, new ELCC and ELCA statements on the theology of worship, and finally, ratification of the new hymnal by both church bodies in 2005. None of this, or even the fact that the ELCA holds the copyright to ELW, prevents the "Reclaim" rump-group from claiming that ELW is mainly the work of a small circle of like-minded people in the Eastern U.S., and that it is not the work of any official, representative body within the ELCA (equivalent to, say, the Missouri Synod's Commission on Worship). It would interest me to learn more about this. If my "Reclaim" informant is correct, then this paragraph in the Introduction to ELW is as canny as they get. One would hardly think to ask whether ELW's impressive pedigree actually includes the active and concerned participation of a cross-section of the church bodies that, nevertheless, endorsed it.

Paragraph 15: A closing prayer which totally makes my day: first, by personifying "this book...and the materials that support and extend it" (it calls them "servants"); second, by reviving Paragraph 1's ridiculous philological fallacy about the Greek word ekklesia; and third, by attributing the following acts to the Holy Spirit's working through Christ's word and sacrament: calling us out, gathering us, and sending us "enlivened" to share the good news. "Enlivened" is good, but "reborn," "forgiven," "made wise unto salvation," etc. are effects of the good news actually worth sharing. "Enlivened" can be a good thing, even the good thing; but it can also be the thing that Amway salesmen get when they go to a sales workshop that re-energizes them to go out and hawk that L.O.C.!

Page 9 continues with six paragraphs of "GENERAL NOTES." The first para explains the page numbering in the forepart of the hymnal. The second introduces the terminology "assembly song" to describe psalms, service music, hymns, and national songs. Harmony is only given for "hymns intended for four-part singing." This has the double advantage of saving space (=money) and ensuring that anyone who wants to be able to play the whole hymnal on a piano or organ must buy two further books (=money). Para 3 explains the afterparts.

Para 4 describes ELW's rationale for distinguishing the terms "presiding minister" and "leader," the former being "normally an ordained pastor." It also identifies "assisting ministers" and "assembly" (worshipers). So in some situations, the "assisting ministers" may be laypeople and the entire "assembly" may be ordained pastors. Don't laugh. I've been in such a situation - made even more awful by the way the Lord's Supper was celebrated - and I can only explain how I felt by asking: if you were an oral surgeon, how would you feel if you awoke in an exam chair and found a dental hygienist attempting to extract your wisdom teeth? If this kind of perversity can happen even in the LCMS, and even without a supporting rubric in the hymnal, I wonder what will become of the pastoral office in the ELCA? It would be too bad if it disappeared entirely. Why? Because sinners afflicted by terrors of conscience (if such people can survive in a church body like the ELCA) can have no certainty of God's grace when it is offered by "ministers" whose authority is uncertain!

Paragraph 5 of the "General Notes" explains the rubrics in red italics. It admits that not every individual may follow these rubrics, but the whole assembly does them on behalf of all. This is nice to hear, if you have a disability that prevents you, for example, from standing and sitting on short notice. But is it necessary to say this? Do we have to apologize to people who can't stand up, as if the rubric to stand is somehow discriminating against their disability? Why don't we apologize to unbelievers whose spiritual deadness prevents them from taking God's Word to heart? No, delete that sentence; I didn't say that. What I really mean is, do we have to be so crawlingly, beseechingly P.C. that no "people group," however constituted, can be allowed to exist in our midst without being expressly acknowledged?

Finally, Para 6 informs you how to tell what words are to be spoken or sung by whom (leader or assembly). I am grateful for this helpful explanation. Otherwise I would have wondered whether the assembly was supposed to lead out with the Invocation (in regular type), answered by the pastor (speaking the bold-faced "Amen"). This is ELW taking its obligatory bow to that last and largest of all special-interest groups in its parent church bodies, without which none of this would have been possible: the incorrigibly stupid.

For more devotional bitchiness, please tune into my next installment of this ELW review, in which I will tear through 11 orders of service with one slash of the claw!

1 comment:

The None Zone said...

The ELCA, one of the church bodies for which and by which the ELW was written is a living document just as the Holy Scriptures themselves. If we are no longer speaking to the world, darn bet you we should, could, and can change the language of the liturgy to speak meaningfully to that world. We are part of that world as well as being called to speak counter-cuturally to that world. Now if the ELW denied basic doctrines such as the trinity and the resurrection, I can see where you may have a valid bitch. As for the variety of service settings, the ELCA has been encouraged to use what may be more culturally meaningful to that worship body's particular setting. Even the Roman Catholic Church has recognized the importance of making liturgy relevant to particular parts of the world. Otherwise, they would still demand that all liturgies be sung in Latin still--not to mention that they began in Greek and other indigenous languages...The point is, if the people do not understand it, it is meaningless and THEY WILL GO ELSEWHERE!!! What's wrong with choice? And what is wrong with providing a variety in worship so that SOME of what is presented for worship settings has meaning. I applaud the 10 settings and I know that my home parish will use at least three and I am hoping that they will use more than that to reach people of something other than a caucasian culture! The gospel is not exclusive and so should the liturgy also have the same non-exclusive character.