Those in the Church who think the liturgy is theirs to manipulate or tweak, who think the liturgy is their personal (or parish or bureaucratic) possession with which to tinker, have come to surround their position with notions now treated as axiomatic. We can pass over the irony that a movement which sees its ideas as axiomatic also tends to be seen as courageous and brave. More important is the fact that the very foundations of an idea are in question when its advocates treat them as beyond question. I am here to challenge just such axioms.
For example, liturgical traditionalists are often thought (even by some liturgical traditionalists) to be advocating a complicated liturgical practice, while, conversely, the liturgical innovators are often thought to be advocates of simplifying the liturgy. This becomes the template, the assumption, upon which all participants in the conversation agree, forcing the one side to come up with arguments for their complications and enabling the other side to assert that theirs is the side that is truly caring, pastoral, and user friendly. Yet at its core there is something misleading about this line of thought. Sure, a liturgical style freed from detailed rubrics may in one sense be described as simplified, but this dichotomy is well worth a deeper look.
Consider something as small as the salutation, "The Lord be with you." The traditional response to this in Latin is always and everywhere "Et cum spiritu tuo," the traditional rendition of which in classic English is always "And with thy spirit." Such language is at once precise and poetic, familiar and dignified, rich and simple. And in that classic simplicity it is deeply memorable. It becomes part of the comforting ritual of our common life together, a life which unites the family of baptized brethren in the worship of Christ our Immanuel, a family in all its intellectual, physical, emotional, cultural, linguistic, and generational diversity, a family which includes those who lack sight to see the printed page, those too young to know how to read, those who never learned, those without the mental capacity to follow along with frequent changes in liturgical settings, those with short attention spans, those whose hearing is waning, and whose liturgical response might be set on a sort of auto pilot set decades earlier, and those from sister parishes in other states, and other continents.
By contrast, the situation which often prevails today is one in which there is no certainty about what one's response should be until he has had the chance to study which of the five masses in LSB will be used that day. If it happens that Divine Service 1, 2, or 4 is being used, then he must know to say "And also with you." If he is supposed to be turned to Divine Service 3, then he should say, "And with thy spirit." If his church is using Divine Service 5, he is directed by the book to say, "And also with you" (despite the fact that this mass is often described as being based on Luther's German Mass, wherein the phrase "and also with you" will not be found in any language). At Vespers, before the collect the response is not "and with thy spirit," as it is in Divine Service 3, but rather "and with your spirit," thus throwing everyone off. In the Funeral Service, a rite which often brings together generations of family and friends, many of whom have fond memories of the liturgy of their youth, they are now called upon to say "and also with you." Finally, with all of this diversity of forms in the book, what is a congregation to say when, outside of a printed service, the pastor opens a bible study or some other such meeting with the words, "The Lord be with you"? Unfortunately, the result in our age will often be a slightly confused combination of responses.
Which way is simpler and which has complicated matters, the traditional consistency of form or the modern service book's diversity of form? It's really the people's fault, for they ought not be going into worship with expectations. They should learn that those who have put such hard work into all of this material have done so out of love and care for them. They should meet these planners halfway. Seriously, though, sometimes the consistency is broken down even further. I attended a Holy Week liturgy recently where two different responses were used within the same liturgy. Consistency from place to place may be long gone, but now so is consistency within a parish, and even within the same hour of worship, necessitating the constant reading of the printed material in our hands, and thus stultifying our sense of worship.
Consider just one more small element of our liturgical life, the Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father, etc.). This is not a mere extra word of doxology we tack onto our psalms and introits, a little something we do for the sake of liturgical flourish. In other words, it is not a mere formality. It is, rather, a beautiful and immensely rich prayer. And once it becomes part of the very heart of a man, once it is woven into the very fiber of his life of prayer, then, as with all of the greatest prayers, it may begin to elevate him to contemplation and true prayer. Saint Francis said, "Study well the Gloria Patri. In it you will find the whole substance of the Scriptures." But the first step toward such prayer and contemplation is knowing the text by heart, just as before we can begin to appreciate how the Small Catechism can serve as a rich form of prayer, Luther would first have us settle on a form of it, and learn it. Learn it to the degree that it soaks into the heart, mind, and soul. Then one is properly fit to begin learning to use such forms as the vehicle for what Luther in his open letter on prayer calls true prayer.
But what is the situation today with our use of the Gloria Patri? In Divine Service 1 and 2, the following form is used at the Nunc Dimitis after Communion, "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen." The same will be used for introits. In Divine Service 4 the Gloria Patri is not to be found at all, unless a church chooses to opt for the introit or psalm instead of a hymn before the Kyrie. The hymnic paraphrase of the Gloria Patri found on page 211 of that service is not the Gloria Patri, but, as I say, a paraphrase. A church could quite conceivably use Divine Service 4 and never have the Gloria Patri. If a church uses Divine Service 5, the Gloria Patri might be heard once if the planners of the liturgy there opt for an introit, possibly twice if they opt for a psalm instead of a gradual (is the Gloria Patri used where a psalm replaces a gradual?), and quite conceivably not at all. For the sake of throwing a bone to the traditional element, the makers of the LSB included a rendition of the Common Service, Divine Service 3. And so one might expect to hear the classic wording, "Glory be the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." Don't be so quick with your expectations, though, dear reader. Yes, the classic form is found at the Nunc Dimitis. But how about the introit? There it gets a bit tricky. The book tells the reader (you see that we are now first and foremost readers in church, rather than worshipers) that the classic form of the Gloria Patri may be used. And what happens if they use the introit as it is printed in the normal LCMS material? They get the modern version. So the traditional service in LSB affords occasion for the most inconsistency of all. That's hardly a bone that satisfies traditional notions of consistency of form.
Many more aspects of the liturgy could be discussed in their relation to the question at hand. But the two we have explored here, the response to the salutation and the Gloria Patri, suffice to show just how deceiving some of our accepted notions can be. The way toward a worship life that is spiritually edifying in its essential simplicity is the way of consistency. That way is blocked by the current accepted worship forms.