[This article was written for Gottesdienst, A Quarterly Journal of the Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgy. It will not be published there, so it is published here.]
Undoubtedly, most readers of this journal would regard me as a liturgical liberal. I do not believe that The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH), published in 1941, is above criticism. I do not hold that Lutheran Worship (LW) is unusable by confessional Lutherans. There is a fine Methodist hymnal in TLH, and LW has made liturgical chant possible even in the humblest of congregations.
My contrarian leanings go even further. I do not believe that simply because the three-year lectionary has its origin in reforms in the Roman Catholic Church it is therefore inferior to the so-called historic one-year lectionary. Such criticism employs the fallacy of guilt by association. There are many reasons to criticize the three-year lectionary. The most obvious one is that the readings from the Gospel According to St. Mark cannot sustain the second year. Nevertheless, the three-year lectionary in itself is not an impediment to evangelical preaching, as some would imply.
The edifying use of either TLH or LW depends on the confessional stance of the pastor. Give TLH to a pastor who uncritically leans towards American Protestantism and you can be sure that hymns by Wesley and Cowper are going to be used. In the hands of a confessional pastor it will be obvious that there are at least as many hymns by Luther in LW as in its predecessor. The Lutheran Hymnal has been praised beyond its virtues and Lutheran Worship denigrated despite its strengths.
A confessional pastor who is concerned with the edifying use of what has been given him can positively use either hymnal. He knows that the heart of Sunday worship is the liturgy of the Mass and acts accordingly.
The liturgy of the Mass is divided into two parts, the ordinary and the propers. The ordinary is there every Lord’s Day. It is the framework, let us say, into which the propers are placed. Since they are repeated every Sunday, even children can learn by heart the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. When to stand, sit, say “amen” or even make the sign of the cross are not secrets in a congregation where the ordinary is properly used.
The propers change from week to week, and include the Introit, Collect, Readings, and hymns. Regardless of the lectionary, one hopes to discern a common theme for each Sunday in these propers. No lectionary has descended from heaven and even Luther had complaints regarding the Epistle lesson of the historic lectionary (AE 53:23). Nevertheless, the Gospel reading governs the day and the hymns should be chosen accordingly.
The ordinary provides continuity, while the propers change from Sunday to Sunday. There is little need for a pastor to be liturgically creative and therefore little chance of confusing the congregation. Like a good shepherd, he leads the people to the still waters of the ordinary and the green grass of the propers.
The design of LW offers one advantage with respect to the Mass’s rhythm of continuity and change. Many congregations for the first time found the propers as they chanted the Introit from LW. The forepart of the hymnal was no longer relinquished to the pastor. In many instances where TLH was used, the pastor would simply speak the Introit before the congregation chanted the Gloria Patri. With LW, the congregation that chanted the Introit could now see where the pastor was getting the Collect and Readings for the day.
Lutheran Worship unfortunately produced one innovation in the liturgy that was not beneficial. It was the two-letter word “or.” For example, in the ordinary one could sing the “Gloria in Excelsis” “or” the tedious “This Is the Feast.” This innovation, more than any thing else, is what is liturgically detrimental about LW. By providing a number of alternatives within the Mass LW effectively banished the ordinary.
Soon pastors and congregations hankered for the fleshpots of innovation. Lutheran Worship fed the craving. Divine Service I could be used one Sunday and Divine Service II the next. For those congregations that desired to get closer to their Lutheran roots, there was Divine Service III, which allegedly “follows the tradition of Luther’s German Mass (1526)” (LW p. 197).
The banishment of the ordinary created a dependence on the worship bulletins. Even salutations could no longer be said or chanted from memory, but had to be printed. I visited one old congregation that no longer knew when to say “amen” at the end of the Collect. There the ordinary changed every Sunday, which is to say, there was no ordinary.
These innovations were practiced many times not by Church Growth enthusiast but by conservative pastors. Many pastors who are undoubtedly confessional in their preaching and teaching are far beyond liberal in their liturgics. One could even argue that among confessionals, liturgics has become a big tent that includes just about anything Church Growth enthusiasts desire.
After nearly eight years of committee meetings, polls, field testing, and retesting, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a new hymnal. Lutheran Service Book (LSB) is a handsomely bound hymnal with easy-to-read cream color pages. Decisions have been made, reconsidered, and revised. Old hymns have been restored, new hymns have been published. It is doubtful that the LCMS has ever had a hymnal that received as much pre-publication scrutiny as LSB.
The error of LW, however, has not only been repeated in LSB, but augmented. The use of “or” remains. In addition, there are not just four Divine Services, as in LW, but five. Congregations need not use any of these services. Another LSB resource called Lutheran Service Builder gives the busy pastor even more reason to spend time at his computer, mixing and matching parts of the service and generally being liturgically creative.
Again a service “based upon” Luther’s German Mass is included. Again, it bears only a slight resemblance to what Luther wrote. The German Mass, for example, did not begin with Confession and Absolution, as Divine Service Setting Five does in LSB. It did include instructions for chanting the Epistle Reading and the Gospel, something the producers of neither LW nor LSB were bold enough to suggest. It must be admitted that Luther was not given to any kind of repristination of the liturgy. His liturgical writings are not popular among many of our contemporary high churchmen. However, his German Mass is not as informal as either LW or LSB suggests.
Not only does LSB encourage the continued banishment of the ordinary, but unlike either TLH or LW, it does not contain the propers.
It was stated at one workshop for LSB that the decision was made to produce propers for each Sunday in each year of the three-year lectionary, as well as provide the propers for the one-year lectionary. There is much to commend about this decision, particularly if the one-year lectionary is used. It is impossible to select one Introit, for example, that fits with the Readings of both the three-year and one-year lectionaries, as LW demonstrated.
The one serious drawback is that the propers alone now take up nearly 400 pages, space no hymnal can afford. Rather than have something for everyone, it would have been preferable to make the difficult and courageous decision to return to the one-year lectionary, and thereby keep the propers before the people.
As this article has indicated, the first concern of a pastor with a new hymnal is the liturgy of the Mass. The first concern of the laity is the hymns. Of course any new hymnal will receive criticism concerning the selection of hymns. A selection must be made and it is impossible not to displease someone. Nevertheless, LSB tries to please everyone and is the poorer for it.
The first thing one notices about the new hymns of LSB is that thirty-two of them, 5 percent of the whole hymn section, are penned by the chairman of the hymn committee. Only time will tell if the Reverend Stephen P. Starke is the greatest hymn writer of our age. However, his “Lift Up Your Heads, You Everlasting Doors” (LSB 339) does not sit very well opposite the venerable “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” (LSB 340). One fears that this is just one more example that in the gated community of the LCMS, the phrase “conflict of interest” is meaningless.
Pastor Starke’s work is popular in some circles and one can almost hear the howls of indignation at the above paragraph. The cacophony will be matched by any objection rightly raised regarding Jaroslav Vajda’s “Now the Silence.”
“Now the Silence” was published in the Lutheran Book of Worship, excluded from its successor, Lutheran Worship and strangely reintroduced in LSB’s predecessor, Hymnal Supplement 98. Objections to this hymn were raised in these pages by our honorable editor-in-chief (Gottesdienst, Michaelmas 1999, “A Winsome Hymnal”).
Mr. Vadja has been an unflinching critic of some venerable Lutheran hymns. There is no poetry in them, he has claimed. They are merely “sung doctrine.”
Judging from “Now the Silence,” Mr. Vadja learned his poetics from the American modernist poet William Carlos Williams. Williams’ dictum was “No ideas but in things.” “Things” abound in Williams’s poetry. It is, however, difficult to say anything definite about nouns without verbs. For that reason, what makes an interesting, suggestive, and perhaps even arresting poem does not necessarily make a good hymn.
There is a paucity of verbs in “Now the Silence.” It says nothing definite. It proclaims nothing. It teaches nothing. The editors of LSB themselves inadvertently supply the evidence that “Now the Silence” fails as a hymn. It is the only song in LSB with a footnote to explain what it means. The classic “sung doctrine” hymns of Lutheran orthodoxy need no footnotes.
The depth of shameless pandering is achieved by LSB’s inclusion of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Mr. Johnson, who declared himself an agnostic in 1891, wrote this song in 1900 for a ceremony celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It soon became very popular throughout the South as the Negro National Anthem, an appellation Johnson himself approved and by which it is known to this day.
Mr Johnson was a diplomat, civil rights champion, novelist, poet, and lyricist for Broadway. It in no way denigrates Mr. Johnson or his work to state that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” does not belong in a Christian hymnal. It is not a hymn. It was not written for worship. It does not proclaim Christ.
Let us pass over in stubborn silence the shallow, and boring contemporary “praise songs” that have been included in LSB by simply noting that there is something for everyone in this hymnal. It is meant to be a hymnal for the whole, liturgically diverse Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. After all the years of reviewing, testing, and polling, the LCMS now has a hymnal that allows everything and denies nothing. Every congregation is free to do what is right in its own eyes – and then change it next week.
Of course, confessional pastors can use LSB even as they used LW. They can use Divine Service, Setting Three, which is based on TLH page 15, and ignore the rest. They can pick the sound hymns and ignore the “praise songs.” There is a Lutheran hymnal in LSB. Unfortunately, there is also a hymnal in it that is a whole lot less than Lutheran. Lutheran Service Book is a picture of what the LCMS is, not what it should be
The shepherd of Psalm 23 goes in front of his sheep and leads them. That shepherd knows what his sheep need. The LCMS follows the sheep. The sheep are allowed to go in all different directions. It does not take much prescience to see that this bodes ill for both the sheep and the shepherds.
With the publication of Lutheran Service Book it is evident that the worship wars are over in the LCMS. Confessional Lutheranism lost.