Christ’s defective church

Breaking my self-imposed blogging hiatus, I just had to write something in response to The Vatican’s most recent statement on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church (below).  But in other news, the girls are doing well, I’m enjoying the challenge (and butt-kicking) of full-time child care, the move is coming along, and the Phillies stink.  OK, now for the post:

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What bothered me most about the Pope’s recent reassertion of Roman Catholic primacy and his labeling as defective other ecclesial communities (including my Lutheran ecclesial community, which according to the Pope cannot properly be called a Church) is the myopic claim that the Church of Christ subsists only in the Catholic Church (for an explanation of the linguistic acrobatics of subsists, check out the Second Question in the new document, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Church).  Where is the humility?  All other churches – ahem, ecclesial communities – are legitimate, it seems, only in the ways in which they mimic Rome.

Mimic Rome.  I am no liturgical theologian or historian, but it takes no PhD to figure out that much of Main Line Protestantism’s liturgical renewal over the past century represents, in some sense, an attempt to mimic Rome (an assertion made, in part, by Ryan Smith as quoted in Jason Byassee’s recent blogpost Gothic, finery, and ecumenism over at Theolog).  But I increasingly wonder why we Protestants set Rome on a pedestal, honoring its liturgics and tradition as some sort of archetype.  It’s as if we Protestants have drunk the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s Kool-Aid and are lamenting that our defectiveness prevents us from being fully in communion with Rome.

Personal aside: Once upon a time I drank the Kool-Aid and was a greatly jealous of my Catholic friends.  High mass with great pageantry, deep spirituality, powerful teachings, strong authority in the bishops and Pope.  The Roman Catholic Church seemed to me to be a church that knows what it believes, what it teaches, what it is.  This confidence, this strength was deeply appealing to me.  And their Mass – rich with symbols of power and authority – reflects this confidence in being Christ’s One, Holy, and Apostolic Church, God’s authoritative messenger in the world.  It seemed unambiguous to me – Christ dwells there.  By comparison, my church seemed to have, well, less.  Rome just seemed to have it all.

And so we Protestants have increasingly adopted the Catholic Mass and
theology.  But this move to a higher liturgical theology and practice
seems misplaced to me, in part because many of the Protestant
churches swept up in liturgical renewal have decentralized authority and a lower understandings of ordained ministry than do our Roman Catholic brethren.  The awe and majesty of the Roman Catholic Mass reflects, in part, the authority and power that the Catholic Church claims to possess via a historical apostolic succession from Saint Peter and Jesus himself.  By this rationale the clergy possess a special power, too, a power and authority demonstrated and displayed in the gestures, garments, music and mysticism of the Mass.

But that’s not us.  As high as we Protestants might try to climb on the liturgical ladder, we still do not believe that our bishops or pastors or hierarchy is any holier than your average lay person – the sinner/saint, fallenness-of-creation thing is still terribly at work.  We do not attribute to our bishops or church leaders any significant authority and power in the way that the Roman Catholic Church gives to its leaders (for us Lutherans, even us ELCA Lutherans who have adopted the practice of Episcopal ordination, the bishop’s role is still strictly symbolic and administrative – emphatically not a guarantor of holiness, truth, or apostolicity). 

For better or worse, we Protestants live in an ambiguous realm in which The Word – living and active, but not always clear and precise – is authoritative.  We gather, we organize, we create structures so that The Word can be proclaimed, but we do not attribute to these gatherings or structures universal power or authority.  Power and authority are attractive things, but we Protestants simply don’t possess them in the same way that the Roman Catholic Church claims to. 

The question for us is this: given our theology and several hundred years of post-Reformation tradition, given our affinities with Rome and yet also our distinctiveness from her, what does liturgy, spirituality, or church administration look like in our traditions?  For us Lutherans, how do the writings of the Book of Concord, the spirituality of Lutheran pietists, and the lived vocation of Lutherans today, for example, impact the way we "do" church?  Perhaps we need to mimic Rome less and look anew to our own God-blessed spiritual inheritances, and also to the inheritances received by other members of the Christian Church in the Eastern, Reformed, Wesleyan, African-American and Anabaptist traditions, just to name a few.

On this side of the Kingdom of God no Church is perfect, no Church has exclusive claim to universal truths.  Rome, just like a certain ecclesial community with roots in Wittenburg, is defective.  All of Christ’s Churches – or ecclesial communities, or whatever you want to call them – are defective.  And yet each of these expressions of the Church contain something of God, too.  By looking only or primarily to Rome for inspiration and guidance, we are missing out on the things that God is doing in other corners of Christ’s (defective) Church.

PS. Our Presiding Bishop’s statement in response to the Vatican’s statement can be found here.

Published by Lutheran Zephyr

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

8 thoughts on “Christ’s defective church

  1. So you knew I would come out to play on this one…
    I spent last weekend reading Carl Piepkorn’s 1958 survey Survival of the Historic Vestments in the Lutheran Church. What I came away with from that survey, as well as other readings in liturgical history and praxis, is not that we mimic Rome. We share a common inheritance that has been implemented and lived out in various ways. We can’t forget that for some Lutherans, reverently celebrated Mass has been a way of life since the time of the Reformation. Even by delving into our own confessions we see that. The more time I spend with the Book of Concord as a pastoral document the more I see the Catholicity of it all.
    Holding to the notion that God should be worshiped in the beauty of holiness, and that that beauty is best expressed in high liturgical terms is hardly drinking Roman kool-aid. Having a high view of the Office of Ministry – an office that some Lutheran texts throughout the years called a “a second sanctification” – also does not qualify as drinking the kool-aid. In some ways, it is merely recovery of Reformation practice.
    However, none of this detracts from our Word centered existence. If nothing else, high liturgy accompanied by solid preaching (seems to me) is exactly what the Reformers were after. Many of our changes came from the trap that we have so often fallen into throughout the centuries: the temptation to define ourselves as NOT Roman Catholic, rather than to state our existence and convictions in positive terms. We are a church that has lived with the historic liturgy not just for 500 years, but indeed for 2000. We stand in continuity. That is a gift! We have then offered that gift to the whole church, especially our reliance on the Word of God. I for one am not prepared to sell our Word-and-Sacrament-centered life for a bowl of stew.
    I am with you one hundred percent on our need to review and recover who we are as Lutherans, looking not just at our similarities with Rome, but also our God-given distinctiveness. And God knows we don’t have to mimic everything they do. The Confessions, the church visitation documents, church orders and liturgies, the writings of theologians from both Lutheran Orthodoxy and Pietism: these are rich with wisdom to be gleaned. But they need not cause us to have tunnel vision, or to mimic the sins of our ancestors who denigrated practices because they appeared “too Catholic”.
    Here is were the paradox you love to speak of comes to play: We are Catholic, but not Roman. We are Protestant, but not in the way that most people (especially Americans) think of Protestants. We really are our own beast. And though there are times I think that swimming the Tiber might bring some stability, I know that right here, in this defective and often leaky corner, I am assured that I and all Lutherans are firmly within the Ark of Christ. That is what we should care about, not whether or not the Pope is giving us the warm fuzzies.

  2. Thanks, Punk, for reading. As usual, I overstated a position for the sake of argument. I admit that I have to go back and review my American Lutheran history, but the robe that Muhlenburg is said to have taken off (revealing his military uniform) is a black preaching robe, not a chausable or an alb. Again, I’d have to go back and take a look, but my Lutheran worship books from the early and mid-1800s look pretty different than the ordo-driven, liturgically-renewed worship we celebrate today. That is, I wonder if Lutherans truly have been “high” or liturgical throughout all of their history, or if theology and circumstance haven’t taken Lutheranism – American Lutheranism, in particular – in some very “lower,” protestant directions. And so I wonder if the claim that we’ve truly been tied to the historic liturgy for 500 years is accurate, or is it possible that our current liturgical practice isn’t more a function of early 20th century academia-led renewal than of any strong continuity over five-plus centuries (or, most likely, that Lutheranism in general and American Lutheranism, in particular, has many legitmate strains and traditions).
    I don’t know my history well enough and I owe it to myself and my readers to brush up on it, but . . . I see lots of God in many other traditions, and the move toward a higher liturgical practice at the expense of learning from other traditions seems short-sighted. Rome is just one player among many, and the Spirit is moving in many corners of the church. We owe it to ourselves to go where the Spirit is blowing, to see what God is doing, in all corners of this defective church. And rather than look askanse at Lutherans who look to Willow Creek or Purpose Driven, I am grateful that our church is willing to look in many directions for inspiration – from Rome to Saddleback – for models, for ways to be church in this new century.
    Thanks for reading. I’m off for a day with the girls . . .

  3. You are right about Muhlenberg, incidentally. I made some pretty sweeping generalizations (as per usual). I think the American Lutheran story, at least as I understand, has been greatly influenced by Pietism. I have a 19th century woodcut in my office that shows all the Lutheran “rites” being carried out in said robe with preaching brands.
    However, the alb and its predecessors survived in some places, primarily dependent upon religio-political influences. Even daily mass survived among Lutheran Benedictines and Cistercians on the Continent. Of course, we know that the other side of that coin is the snake-belly low type of Lutheranism of the Norwegian Pietists. I obviously live out a preference for one side of that coin, both personally and in ministry, but I do see the value in both. And thus we have the big tent approach to Lutheranism in the US (at least in the ELCA). We get to see that diversity playing itself out, and we have to live with that tension.
    I guess my comment was just a really rambling way of saying, “let’s not poo-poo something just because it might be too catholic.” We’ve done that enough in our history.
    FWIW, I would offer up that some churches are influenced by all ends of the spectrum. A couple of years ago we re-organized our council and leadership on the Purpose-Driven model, yet we also use icons and full vestments at each of our three or four Eucharistic services weekly.
    Have fun with the girls! I’ve had the kids alone the past couple of days while the Mrs is at her doctoral classes. Fortunately, the in-laws just rolled in to help out so I can do a wedding.

  4. Ah, pietism. The movement that is a four-letter word to some in East Coast Lutheranism . . . and yet something that I am increasingly interested in, curious about, and eager to learn from.

  5. Chris – I took a course in seminary on the history and influence of Pietism, and then read a lot of Pietist stuff while studying the theology of salvation with David Yeago. If you are interested, I could see if I can pull my reading lists for those classes. It is an interesting movement that I would probably otherwise be drawn too if it weren’t so iconoclastic.
    At the very least, if you haven’t yet read Arndt’s True Christianity, you ought to pick it up. It is referred to by a lot of the Pietists. Oh, and Spener’s Pia Desideria. Both are great examples.

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