Monday, June 18, 2007

Still More ELW

I continue to tear the new ELCA hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), to shreds. So far, I have gotten up to p. 94, and the beginning of 10 settings of Holy Communion.

I'm going to take Setting One as typical of the text of the service, so I'm only going to rip that apart once. Then I will tackle the musical settings as a separate target. But I can state my overall thesis up front: a church willing to swallow such multitude and magnitude of changes in its Divine Service - that area in which its identity as a church is most clearly expressed - is like no Lutheran church I personally know. If the average ELCA church is such a church, then assuredly, either its members slumber in apathy, or they have been conditioned to accept any kind of change that their magisterium hands down to them. The only other alternatives are too horrible to be entertained.

Gathering begins with a telling "either/or." In fact, one finds there are two levels of "OR" rubrics. There's the big "OR" printed in white letters on a red block, and there's the second-level "OR" printed in red capitals. The first "Big OR" is the choice of opening the service with "confession and forgiveness" OR "thanksgiving for baptism," either of which may be led from the font. Then the Confession and Forgiveness ritual is presented with a "second-level OR," inviting you to choose between two sets of words printed in side-by-side columns. I guess this is supposed to leave room for creativity within uniformity, or perhaps to keep people on their toes. I also guess all this complexity will ensure that many people remain confused and wrong-footed while they are led through a service that, from the very beginning, offers several choices and also invites the minister to use other forms. The whole point of having a hymnal (uniformity and stability) is obviated by this implied freedom to improvise within, and even beyond, the variety of options presented in this service.

Confession and Forgiveness begins with a rubric to stand, the option of making the sign of the cross, and one of two invocations: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen" OR "Blessed be the holy Trinity, one God, who forgives all our sin, whose mercy endures forever. Amen." Now here is a stupid option! Does the plain, old, vanilla, Trinitarian invocation bore these folks so? Can they not endure 1.5 seconds of tedious sameness at the beginning of every Divine Service? Must there - quite apart from the question "should there...?" - be a second option? And who came up with the words for the second option? Are the same people who seem hell-bent on repristinating a 4th-century moment in church history now crafting new texts that we are to accept as replacements for a formula that has been in use, by common consent, throughout the church as far back as anyone remembers? Is some committee's precious formula a worthy alternative to the words of our Lord (Matthew 28:19), the words that properly name the Trinity, the words in which Jesus instituted both baptism and the teaching of His Word? Is there perhaps some other reason - say, political correctness - that some might prefer this "holy Trinity, one God" language over the specifically male designations "Father" and "Son"? And finally, doesn't the "who forgives all our sin" bit rather give the game away? Why even bother with "confession and forgiveness" now that you've shot the forgiveness wad?

Then the "presiding minister" may open with one of the two prayers, OR another prayer of preparation. These are nice little prayers asking for God's help confessing our sin, receiving forgiveness, growing in faith and love, etc. Then (the one bit that doesn't have an OR) the pastor invites the congregation to confess their sins "in the presence of God and of one another." This wording almost suggests that we are as concerned to get our neighbors' forgiveness as to get God's.

Next, after a moment of silent reflection, the congregation makes a general confession of sin, using the words in the left OR the right column. The left column has the familiar language of "thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone," etc. Anyone familiar with Lutheran Worship (LW) or Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) will know these words, as will those who use the first two settings of Divine Service in Lutheran Service Book (LSB). The OR on the right makes this poignant admission: "We have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do. Turn us again to you, and uphold us by your Spirit," etc. This isn't bad. And I won't be accused of being the type of curmudgeon who objects to new expressions of prayer, worship, and hymnody arising within the living church.

The announcement of forgiveness is also given in two optional forms - with the rubric that the minister may use "these or similar words." The OR on the left is the bastard lovechild of the two options given in LW, LBW, and the first two services of LSB. It is a cross between a "declaration of grace" that reports that God has forgiven our sins, and an "absolution" in which the minister breathes God's forgiveness directly on us. Instead of doing one or the other, the pastor does something in between and "declare[s] to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins," which I suppose you can interpret either way, depending on what makes you happy. Also, note well: the pastor no longer calls himself a "servant of the Word" but "of the church of Christ," which may become significant in the future.

Following this announcement of forgiveness, the rubrics say to skip to the "gathering song." This is helpful, because you may have forgotten the "big OR" that preceded all these "second-level OR's" in the ritual of confession and forgiveness: Thanksgiving for Baptism (an alternative to confession & forgiveness). This ritual also begins with a choice of two invocations, the first of which is the standard, Matthew 28:19 one, the second being "Blessed be the holy Trinity, one God, the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation. Amen." Nice. We should get these people to rewrite the Bible.

The presiding minister then invites the people to give thanks for the gift of baptism, in which we are "joined to Christ" and "clothed with God's mercy and forgiveness." Then, while the minister reads four paragraphs of thanksgiving, water may be poured into the font. The thanksgiving references the involvement of water and Word in creation, the flood, Israel crossing the Red Sea, Jesus' baptism, and ours. It praises God both for the life-sustaining gift of water and for "the gift of new life in Jesus Christ." It concludes with the prayer: "Shower us with your Spirit, and renew our lives with your forgiveness, grace, and love," plus a charmingly original Trinitarian doxology. All of which is very nice and correct and edifying; though in my opinion, nothing says "baptismal renewal" quite like confessing sins and receiving absolution. And, since you're interested in my opinion, I also think that if you're not going to start the service with confession & absolution, you might as well save time and skip directly to the Introit or Kyrie or whatever. Which, by the way, ELW now designates as Gathering Song.

The ELW rubrics for this are so precious that I just have to quote them: "The time of gathering song may be brief or extended, and may include one or more of the following: hymns, psalms; a Kyrie; a canticle of praise." You can just picture the congregation "warming up" for the main service with a whole PowerPoint folder full of songs. ELW doesn't have the spinal fortitude to chivvy things along with a "sing a hymn and get on with it" rubric. It also doesn't retain the custom of using a proper Introit of the day. It doesn't even insist on the use of the Kyrie and Gloria, even though they have been "ordinary" parts of the Holy Communion liturgy since Hector was a pup; though it does include a musical arrangement of these pieces in each setting of the service.

Before the Kyrie, the rubric also suggests having everyone greet each other with the apostolic benediction ("The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," etc.). On the one hand, this is a nice Scriptural alternative to the "Peace atcha!" jive practiced by some churches. On the other hand, it's a goodly chunk of text for the average pewsitter to memorize at a glance so he can say it to all the people around him while giving them two-fisted handshakes. He either has to hold the book in his hand and keep at least one eye on the words while liturgically slipping skin to his neighbor, or he's going to become impatient with the whole thing and say, "Peace bro, God be with you," etc. All of which is beside the fact that I think this is tacky. The service has barely started and we're stopping to say hi to each other, as if (or - hideous thought - because) we haven't already greeted each other beforehand. It's like pulling the "stop, this is where I get off" cord on a bus when it has only gone half a block. I also think it's tacky because it steals the focus off Christ, His Word and gifts, and diffuses it around the room.

The Kyrie in this service is the dialogue type ("In peace, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy," etc.) introduced in LBW and LW. For how many centuries was the Kyrie "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy"? How quickly that august tradition, preserved even through the Reformation, has fallen out of fashion!

After the Kyrie, the rubric says that "one of the following or another canticle of praise may be sung by all." The first option for this "canticle of praise" is the Gloria in excelsis, the second of the five historic parts of the "ordinary" Holy Communion. Alas, it is only the first of any number of potential choices, of which a second ("This is the feast of victory for our God") is also included in the service itself. Again, I am amazed at how many churches, beginning with LW and LBW, have all but totally abandoned the Gloria - which should almost be numbered among our creeds - in favor of "This is the feast," a triumphant text written especially for the LBW of 1978. I'm not saying I would never substitute "This is the feast" for the Gloria; I think it is particularly suitable in the Easter Season. But I do squirm with embarrassment when I have to sing it on a non-Communion Sunday (a problem this hymnal perhaps obviates by designating this service as "Holy Communion"); and though it is substantially based on the words of the Book of Revelation, as a liturgical canticle it simply does not have the weight that the Gloria has.

And what have they done to the Gloria? The translation is essentially that used in LBW and LW, with one interesting alteration: they removed the masculine pronoun. Instead of "peace to his people on earth," ELW says "peace to God's people on earth." Depending on the musical setting, this could be very awkward to pronounce, and since this phrase immediately follows the one that says "Glory to God in the highest," I can think of no reason the pronoun "his" would be misunderstood...unless it was offensive to someone's feminist agenda.

The main damage to the Gloria was done in 1978 (in LBW) when it was "retranslated" in a manner that I regard as disrespectful of the original text. "Peace to his people on earth" does not convey even the greater part of the meaning of "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men." "We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory" doesn't even attempt to do justice to "We praise you, we bless you, we worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory." The new text is continually instructing Jesus about what He does ("you take away the sin of the world," etc.) because it inhabits a strange world in which people cannot cope with relative clauses ("who takes away the sin of the world"). It compresses "who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; who takes away the sin of the world, receive our prayer; who sits at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us" into two phrases, again disregarding the historic text of which this is supposedly a "translation." When such liberties can be taken with a text that Western Christians have held in common since the umpth century, what other liberties can we expect?

The "Gathering" portion of the service concludes with the Prayer of the Day. The rubrics say that "a brief silence is kept" between "Let us pray" and the prayer. I guess that is so anyone can contribute whatever prayer he likes, in his heart, in case the proper prayer for the day doesn't cut the mustard.

The second of the four main sections of the service, titled Word, now commences. Here we find more options. Instead of concluding each reading with "The word of the Lord," the minister can say, "Word of God, word of life." That's adorable, in a "badda bing, badda boom" kind of way. I think this would be most effective if the minister could do a little dance move while saying this, like Christopher Walken. We be hip now: thanks be to God.

The rubrics declare that "the Psalm for the Day is sung" after the first reading. This is exemplary. As I noted in my previous attack on ELW, the lectionary includes a Psalm as well as OT, Epistle, and Gospel lessons for each service. Instructions and tones for singing the psalms are given on pp. 335-338, just before the Psalms themselves. I applaud this commitment to singing the Psalms; to me, nothing is more absurd and depressing than the late custom, resulting largely from The Lutheran Hymnal's (TLH) unmusical layout, of speaking the Psalms - or rather, mumbling them as if they are the last thing the congregation has the strength to do before dying of boredom. The Psalms were and have always been songs. A consequence of their never being sung is that, over time, they are read and used less and less; these days, many churches hardly use the Psalms at all. So I'll add this rubric on singing a Psalm during every Divine Service to my list of unreservedly positive observations on ELW. I believe that makes it No. 2, after "Nice table of contents!"

The second reading follows the same pattern as the first. Then the Gospel acclamations start with the Alleluia, after which "the proper verse," OR the verse "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life," may be sung, and the Alleuia repeated. These are small OR's. The Big OR is the alternate acclamation for Lent: "Let your steadfast love come to us, O Lord. Save us as you promised; we will trust your word." Where these "proper verses" are located, I don't know; probably some auxiliary book, such as the Agenda or the Altar Book. Hymnals are designed to ensure that they can't be effectively used unless you own 5 or 6 different, but related, books, each more expensive than the last. It has always been so, and is more so now than ever. But these days, the difficulty of how to enable the congregation to sing a proper verse that isn't in the pew hymnal can probably be solved by investing in a computer program that can be used to build a service folder containing such things. Cha-ching!

The Gospel reading comes next, with its familiar "Glory to you, O Lord" and "Praise to you, O Christ" responses. Then comes the Sermon, "silence for reflection," and the Hymn of the Day. Personally, both as a pastor and as an organist, I find it awkward to sing the hymn after the sermon, rather than before it. One of these days I will probably have to tear apart LW and LSB for similar reasons (e.g., moving the creed from before to after the sermon; moving the offertory from before the collection to before the preface, etc.). Some patterns become part of one through years of repetition, and when one is forced to deviate from them, one finds oneself...all right, I find myself stumbling around awkwardly, forgetting where I am. Call me resistant to change if you will; though I don't think my objection to this rearrangement of the old creed-hymn-sermon-offertory-collection-prayer-preface pattern is entirely without theological merit. More on that when we get to the offertory.

At this point, I only have two things to note: first, for that parishioner who checks his watch throughout the service to see whether he'll make it home in time for the ball game, all these gratuitous moments of "reflective silence" must make the service a kind of hell. And second, the rubric for the hymn of the day indicates that "the assembly stands to proclaim the word of God in song." I'm happy with this description, and it is something that should be emphasized more often, to help people understand the importance of the hymns we sing. On the other hand, it is typical of this hymnal that a rubric or explanation is given where none is essentially needed. It could just say "Hymn of the Day" and leave it at that. The rubrics in this book are so flowery and prolix, so unnecessary and possibly even condescending, that they lose their effect. By this point I think most worshipers will have developed a kind of selective blindness to words in red italics. It's too bad; this would have been a good rubric for them to notice.

The next Big OR comes in the Creed, where the Nicene or Apostles' Creed may be spoken. The rubric then goes on to make the novel observation that the Nicene Creed is most appropriate during Advent, Christmas, Easter, and on festival days; the Apostles' during Lent and other times. I suppose this novelty is ELW's way of seeing to it that congregations who regularly use the Holy Communion service don't forget the Apostles' Creed. In times past, the Nicene Creed was customarily used at all Communion services. When the typical American Lutheran congregation celebrated Communion twice a month, or once a month, or even quarterly, the Apostles' Creed was the more frequently used confession of faith (cf. the "Morning Service without Communion," TLH p. 5). The fact that new arrangements must now be made to keep the Apostles' Creed from falling into disuse is a sign that, even since 1978 (the vintage of LBW), the number of Lutheran congregations practicing weekly Communion has vastly increased.

So although I was surprised to see this interesting new rubric, I have no problem with it. My problem, and I think the most serious problem with this service so far, lies in the text of the Creed. Which is where I will pick up next time!

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