The Catholicity of the Reformation: On Historic Christian Worship and its Practice

I came across a great little book a few weeks ago by two of my favorite Lutheran theologians called The Catholicity of the Reformation. It’s based on a series of lectures given over 15 years ago at a couple of conferences sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. The section that follows comes at the end of a chapter titled “The Reform of the Mass.” Frank Senn, the author of this chapter, traces the reforms in the Mass brought about by the stalwarts of the original European Reformations, but reiterates the continuity of form and content that the Reformers retained in their liturgies of worship. He argues that the Reformers were not concerned with changing the form and content of the Mass, as much as they were with restoring the congregation as participants who understood what was going on and lead to respond with explicit faith. The Reformation was a communal and social revolution in which the vernacular of the people and group singing played a huge role…as much a social and communal revolution as it was a doctrinal one. The Reformation did not reject the basic historic form and content of Christian worship. Instead, the form of the Mass was understood as a safeguard that ensured that Christian worship would be Trinitarian and focused on the grace of Christ.

In the section below, Frank Senn does a nice job of summing up what we have been chasing in our own church context over the last three years. We have had these concerns on the forefront of our minds every week as we plan the flow of our liturgy and seek to be faithful to the work of the Spirit in those who have come before us. I have a hunch that even the most basic submission to historic worship forms could lead to a contemporary ecumenical renewal within the broader church if a wide range of churches agreed to even a “bare-bones” practice of broad historical forms and language. What would it look like for Protestant evangelical churches to at least start thinking about the degree to which their services express trinitarian worship (naming the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in form and content? A little formal continuity and common language could go a long way in the context of denominations that find less and less cohesion between local congregational expressions.

Tribalism within the modern Western evangelical church is astounding. In my opinion, failure to submit to common form and language is failure to submit to one another (dead and living). This often leads to more tribalism and suspicion. Christians hold the deepest language and forms of faith in common. These spring from the wells of our story…found in Holy Scripture. As it is wise to draw from the whole canon of Scripture, so it is wise to draw from the whole canon of liturgical response to God and his mercy. I find it odd when I meet brothers and sisters who adamantly defend their submission to Scripture, but reject forms of worship that mirror the story of Scripture and carry the wisdom of the ages.

A Modest Proposal

Using a broad based approach to common vernacular within local congregations, I call upon Protestant churches everywhere to broadly submit to the historic form of Christian worship found in a basic historical four-fold pattern of worship. In addition, I call upon these same churches to consider their own faithfulness to the practice of Scriptural symbols/sacraments commanded by our Lord and implied to be central to Christian practice and identity among the authors of the New Testament.

Let’s slow down everyone. There is so much freedom in these ancient forms. They are deep and simple. Invitation and gift; call and response:

Much historical experience stands between us at the end of the twentieth century and the sixteenth-century Reformation. We are influenced as much, if not more, by evangelical pietism, Enlightenment rationalism, and frontier revivalism as by the Reformation…

This historical order can no longer be presumed to be intact in the churches of the Reformation (except in the Episcopal/Anglican Churches in which the use of the prayer book is required by canon law). The pressure is great for these churches to devise “alternative” or “creative” liturgies that will be “seeker friendly.” What these well-intentioned efforts run the risk of doing, however, is undermining orthodoxia — the “right praise” of trinitarian worship that is expressed in the texts of the historic order of service. The “glory and praise” choruses and Jesus-songs in neo-evangelical worship (usually called “celebrations”) do not offer the same sturdy articulations of the trinitarian faith expressed in the texts of either the Latin chants or the chorales of the German Lutheran song mass (Lied Messe). No matter how conducive to engendering liturgical enthusiasm the “glory and praise” choruses might be, they are theologically unequal to the Gloria in excelsis Deo or Allein Gott in der Hoh sei ehr. The experience of the Reformation teaches us that the forms of public worship are not matters of indifference (adiaphora) because prayer (especially sung prayer and praise) forms belief; or, as the church fathers would have said, the lex orandi establishes the lex credendi. It is not adequate to claim the evangelical freedom to change forms of worship if those changes diminish expressions of the ecumenical dogmas of God the Holy Trinity and the two natures of Christ on which Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and the Council of Trent were not in disagreement. The catholic faith requires catholic worship.

The experience of the Reformation also teaches us that when liturgy goes awry the problem may be less with its form and content that with the way in which it is celebrated and interpreted. Today historic forms of worship and being jettisoned in favor of “alternative liturgies” that employ popular-type songs and dramas with the argument that traditional liturgy is boring or meaningless to occasional (and sometimes even to regular) worshipers. Almost invariably this argument is put forward by pastors who have little competence in presiding at the liturgy in a knowledgeable or compelling way and who may even be insecure in the role of presiding minister. The ritual incompetence includes not only poor public performances by ministers, musicians, and congregations but also poor judgment on the part of worship planners in deciding what to add to or subtract from the orders provided in the authorized worship books. Many liturgies get bogged down in extraneous details not specified by the order, or go in uncertain directions ritually and therefore theologically. It is little wonder that they fail to engage contemporary worshipers. As to the argument that the liturgy is boring, the historic Western liturgy does not suffer from a monotonous sameness; it has a built-in principle of variation in the rites, customs, and textual and musical options of the church year. A far as meaning is concerned, Josheph Jungmann taught that “Mass properly celebrated is itself the best catechesis.” The liturgy has served for centuries as the “school of the church” in which one learns the faith by gathering with the community of faith to praise the Creator, by attending to the proclamation and exposition of the word of God in Scripture, by professing one’s faith in public and praying for the needs of the world, by offering the world to God in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and by receiving the gifts of creation — bread and wine — and the means of communion with Christ. Only if these ritual acts are intact can there be adequate catechesis or teaching based on them.

One of the great concerns today is liturgical inculturation — liturgy reaching into the culture of the people who celebrate it. The catholic form of worship known as the mass links contemporary Christians with the people of God in all the preceding generations and provides examples of inculturation in the past. The mass is not a static form but one that is able to absorb the cultural contributions to all the societies in which is has been celebrated. This catholic form of worship as capable of being adapted to the vernacular cultures of Western Europe in the sixteenth century without being captured by those cultures, as Luther proved in his German Mass and as Cramner proved in his prayer books. Both liturgies are examples of inculturation that have transcended their own time and place. This catholic form of worship has provided a link with the arts and the natural world, especially in the employment of music, iconography, and architecture. Yet, unlike free liturgies, it has resisted being taken captive by the vitalities at work in secular culture.

-Frank C. Senn (in The Catholicity of the Reformation pgs. 50-52)