Friday, October 31, 2008

Evangelizing Wittenberg

Can it be done?

That's the question facing Lutherans in Germany.  Wittenberg, birthplace of the Reformation, was in the old East Germany -- meaning that two generations, more or less, were raised there in a culture of state-sponsored atheism. Today, per Auntie Beeb (above), only about 10% of the population is Lutheran (or, as they insist on saying, Protestant).

To its credit, the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland has a deep desire to change that state of affairs.  To its shame, however, we must consider the possibility that there is no religious community on earth less suited to the task than the EKD.

As the BBC story says, "500 years after Luther, Protestants seem to be longing for the things he himself called into question -- ceremony, ritual and all the religious trappings."  As most Egg readers will see immediately, "called into question" here reflects a profoundly German reading of Luther.  Specifically, it reflects an historically dubious picture of Luther shaped first by Calvinism and then by Rationalism, both of which were deeply suspicious of churchly tradition. 

But those suspicions are not necessarily part of Lutheranism.  In his own work, he called the theological rationales into question, but preserved most of the liturgical actions; this was the custom of most Lutheran churches during the first centuries of their existence.  Where the Reformed tendency was to toss out traditions unless they served some readily-apparent purpose, the Evangelical tendency was (at first, especially) to retain traditions unless they manifestly misstated the Gospel.  From its beginning, Lutheranism was (in Charles Porterfield Krauth's famous phrase) "the conservative Reformation."

If you want to see what this looks like in practice, consider the state churches of Sweden and Finland, with their bishops and archbishops in historic succession, their vestments and revived religious orders.  While by no means immune to the intellectual ferment of five centuries, they have done a great deal to preserve both the theological heritage of Luther and the liturgical inheritance of antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Germans, sadly, didn't do such a good job on this.  Nor do they yet.  Here's an example:  About this time last year, Fr. A. invited a German colleague to preside at the parish's annual German Christmas Service, which reaches out to many local expats.  The fellow (of whom we are very fond) helpfully retooled the bulletin so that it conformed to contemporary standards of liturgical language.  In the course of all this, he also suggested that perhaps it would be better if we did not celebrate Holy Communion.  At Christmas.

"But -- but -- but," Father A. spluttered.  "For many of these people, Germans far from home, this may be the only time they go to church all year.  And it's Christmas."

Our friend nodded vigorously.  "Exactly my point," he said.  "It may be the only time they go to church all year.  And it's Christmas!"

We were at a conceptual impasse, which illustrates the principal shortcoming of the German church.  Where to Fr. A., along with most of traditional Christianity, the sacrament is an essential part of church life, without which the experience is incomplete, to a certain kind of German, it is a bit of frippery added after the sermon, if one absolutely must, and then only for a carefully selected group. 

So if the EKD is serious about re-evangelizing a society starved for "ceremony, ritual and religious trappings" we warmly encourage them to import missionaries from up north.

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