At his blog, Cyberbrethren, Paul T. McCain recently posted an interesting entry, in which he complains about a serious problem in today's Lutheran Church. I encourage you to read it. Have you read it? Okay, now to summarize his argument, the problem or error that is posing a danger to the Lutheran Church, in his own words, is this:
To say that there is a certain “level” of liturgical activity that marks what is really Lutheran or really liturgical.
and to make you think that there is some certain “best” way to do the liturgy and that the wearing of certain vestments is the “most” or “more” Lutheran way of doing things.
and to give you the impression that unless you reach their “level” of liturgical correctness and hold your hands just so, and gesticulate in just the right way.
and to make others of us feel guilty if we do not follow their lead in adding additional ceremony and rubrics and rituals and who have, and continue, to hold themselves up before the Synod as models of the “best practice” of the liturgy.
Unfortunately, the third passage above is not a complete thought. That is, unless one reaches a certain level of correctness, etc, then...what? Curious.
Be that as it may, I must give McCain the benefit of the doubt and conclude that in, with, and under his sometimes amusing manner of discoursre he has a genuine argument, namely, that there is a real liturgical legalism at work in the Missouri Synod. By the way, on that point I would agree, though the liturgical legalism that is evident from my perspective is certainly different than the specific matters that clearly bother him. There are several types of liturgical legalism. One type is where there is an absolute insistence on doing things in a manner more in keeping with an Evangelical community church than with the Lutheran Church. Another type is where liturgical practices that are merely perceived to be too Roman Catholic are condemned. Another type would be where there is a true legalism on the part of traditionalists. It is this third type which McCain condemns in this article. And as a servant of the Gospel and a man of the Church of the Lutheran Confession, my reaction is that I too would complain about this at my own blog.
But first we must clarify something. Namely, is this problem real? Are there legalists of this sort in the Missouri Synod today? It is not, in fact, sufficient merely to make such a claim and expect the Christian public to believe it merely because the one making the claim is a well known part of the church bureaucracy. How close does McCain come to identifying these culprits? We get a lot of references to "some people" and "some among us" and again "some among us" along with good doses of "they" and "their." More is expected of churchmen.
He should name names, name places, and spell out in precise terms the offenses.
Aside from what he doesn't say, like the actual who, where, and what, he says some truly curious things, like his prediction that his complaint will "make some people angry." Again, I wonder who such people could be. It is abundantly possible that there are such people. I honestly don't get around many of the circles that are active in today's Lutheran world. I am not on LutherQuest, for example, or the Lutheran Publicity Bureau list, or who knows what else. I can say this: in my own limited experience, I have not seen a lot of people who tend to get angry, or really emotional in any way, in their theological discourse. Is it possible that McCain is projecting unfounded fears?
I would comment on just a couple more of his claims. At one point he says of his unnamed offenders:
They have no right to put themselves in the place of judging the content of the Synod’s hymnals or liturgies, or indicating that such content is not “good enough” or that there is some “better” way.
This is just plain silly. Since when are the Synod's published material beyond the criticism of the Christian? Some of these hymnals, etc., actually disagree with each other on certain points, which obviously implies that they must not be beyond criticism. In fact, the newest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, contains things which are at odds even within itself. That is not to say that there isn't much good in that book. Indeed there is. The point is that these resources are by no means infallible. Nor is it disloyal to criticize them. I might make the opposite argument, namely, he who is loyal to Christ and the Church is precisely the one who will raise his voice from time to time, in all respectfulness and love, in criticism of things which are in the church's published books.
Finally, McCain makes this claim of those who criticize the Synod's books:
Such things are every bit as damaging to our fellowship as Pastor Bob with his polo shirt and jeans parading around like a non-denominational preacher. And we must be willing to say it is or we have no credibility to criticize the other side of the coin.
Really. Oh dear. Well I for one, like most reasonably reasonable men of the Church, am able to distinguish one problem from a worse problem. Since personal testimonies are so welcome in the modern Lutheran Church, let me give one. Take for example my recent criticism of what I called the Woody Woodpecker Mass. Actually, that particular blog entry only criticized one tiny aspect of it, the aspect which led me to use the nickname Woody Woodpecker Mass. I have much more to say about that Mass order, which I hope to do sometime soon. Anyway, despite the many oddities in that order (Divine Service 8 and 9, or whatever they are), I will tell you, quite honestly, that it can be used with reverence and liturgical competence, and can accompany the powerful and bold preaching of the Gospel. This is done in many places. One example in my memory is that of my late pastor, Fr. Stephen Wiest, at University Lutheran Chapel (when there was such a thing as ULC here, before the District saw fit to hand the building over to the goofy WELS campus ministry, Point of Grace). Fr. Wiest used that order, along with the other services in the hymnal that was in vogue at the time, Lutheran Worship. And this, that is, insisting on using the hymnal, is precisely one of the things for which he was condemned by the bureaucracy; it was proof that he was hopelessly high church, overly liturgical, and unrelatable to students.
The Hillert Mass is flawed, yet saying so in no way diminishes the fact that there is far worse liturgical practice happening at many Lutheran altars today. McCain is either unable or unwilling to admit this. By the way, his statement also implies that he has criticized that "other side of the coin." Indeed, while he has done that to some degree, let me ask, when was the last time he did so in specific terms. What is happening in Mequon is not a secret in a tiny hidden parish somewhere. It is the premier Concordia university campus.
Is McCain able to criticize this particular Pastor Bob (in this case, Smith) with his polo shirt and jeans as being damaging to our fellowship? Will he name names and institutions involved? I can hear crickets chirping, along with that oh so relevant guitar sound in the background.