Monday, September 06, 2010

Our Grandfather's Church

"This is your grandfather's church." That's the very clever slogan chosen by the Brothers of John the Steadfast, a traditionalist group within the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Perhaps the cleverest thing about it is that it refers to a 1988 ad campaign for a car which is no longer manufactured, meaning that you pretty much have to be a grandfather to get the joke.

Still, it's a good slogan, and we at the Egg wish we'd gotten to it first. (Here's a nice essay on the subject). But it has also caused us to think a little bit about our own grandfather, and his church.

Grandpapa was a Brooklyn-born graduate of Gettysburg College and the Philadelphia seminary, ordained in 1935. He served one parish, in an area of New York City that during his tenure developed from farmland to suburb to textbook urban decline. He retired in 1973, and served into the 1990s as an interim and supply pastor in the rural areas well north of the city. His "Lutheran church" was , by turns, the ULCA, the LCA and the ELCA. But -- and this matters -- it was the New York version, a Lutheranism different in history and in tone from the Lutheranism of the Midwest.

So what was it like?

In some ways, it could not have been more different from the Lutheranism of today. The ELCA's "representational principle," or quota system, would have been unimaginable until it was actually imagined. Synod assemblies (and for that matter church councils) were all but wholly male.

In others, it was like looking at modern Lutheranism through a funhouse mirror: the same elements appear, but they are strangely distorted. For example:

(1) It was, overwhelmingly, a church built by immigrants -- Lutheran immigrants -- and their children. Only a generation earlier, there had been a major schism between "liberal" pastors, who felt that services in English were still authentically Lutheran, and the "conservatives" who considered this anathema. This schism had only ended as Grandpapa entered seminary, by the merger of three ULCA synods, and English remained a second language for many pastors and more of the faithful. Today, of course, English has long since won the field. And for better or worse -- we aren't sure which -- Lutheranism has spent a solid generation trying to reach the children of non-Lutheran immigrants.

(2) It was a church struggling with ethnic outreach. There was more to it than English versus German (or Swedish, or Norwegian). Then as now, bishops in New York were prone to bragging about how many different languages their churches used for Sunday worship. Then as now, the number hovered around 20, but they weren't the same languages -- more Polish, for example, and less Chinese. But then as now, nobody knew whether it was worth the effort. (Hint: How many Polish-speaking Lutheran churches do you know?)

(3) They drank and they smoked. If there is one thing we know about our grandfather's church, it is that cigarettes and booze were in plentiful supply. Our childhood memories are proof enough of that. It was like Mad Men, but with less adultery. And cheaper suits.

(4) They argued about sex. From about 1930 until the early 1950s, our grandfather's church was deeply divided over matters of birth control and sex education. Liberals favored counseling the use of artificial contraception, and conservatives found it wholly outside the traditions of Christianity. There was a movement to withdraw from the National Council of Christian Churches over just this issue, or at the least to require NCCC statements on the subject to acknowledge the disagreement of the Lutheran participants. The liberals won, and today only a very small minority would have it any other way. Draw from that what conclusion you will.

(5) They ordained women. Not until 1970, some thirty years after the Lutherans in (ahem) Romania, but they did it. Grandpapa wasn't wild about the idea, but on the other hand a woman presided at Grandmama's funeral. This places the Steadfast fellows -- and all of Missouri -- dramatically at odds not only with my grandfather's church, but also with most of the major Lutheran churches in the world.

(6) There were gay pastors, and some people didn't like them. Grandpapa was ordained by Ellis Burgess. Do you know about Ellis Burgess? He was the Bob Rimbo of his day, in the sense that he had previously served as a bishop -- okay, synod president -- in another synod, before moving to New York. New Yorkers elected him after a strong oust-the-incumbent move originating on Long Island. The incumbent was Samuel Trexler, a local legend, who among many other things lived his entire adult life with another man. They didn't just share expenses, either; they vacationed together, they went to the theater and hung out with actors and writers together, were mentioned in each other's obituaries -- the works. Was Trexler "homosexual in his self-understanding," as Visions and Expectations says? There's no way to say at this distant remove. We can't spy on their bedroom habits. The construction of sexuality has changed since then. But you get the idea.

There are many reasons that the Long Islanders might have risen up against Trexler, not least of which was their anger with the privations forced by the Depression. Although nobody talked about this sort of thing, it is certainly possible that they found his private life objectionable. In any case, Burgess served one unimpressive term before Trexler was put back in office just in time for the Second World War.

By the early 1970s, of course, people did talk about this stuff publicly. Even before Stonewall, Lutheran churches in New York were starting to hold public discussions about homosexuality and Christianity. For example, Malcolm Boyd spoke at St. Peter's, Manhattan, just after the King assassination. Grandpapa, by then a crusty old conservative, hated it with a passion. He also hated modern art, and movies made by anybody except Ingmar Bergman. That didn't keep his church from moving forward with the conversation -- or keep him from recommending that his grandson do fieldwork at the offending parish.

(6) They were pretty high-church. For generations, the great majority of New York pastors attended the Philadelphia seminary, which was the home of the most important confessional and especially liturgical thinkers in American Lutheranism. From Charles Porterfield Krauth to Edward Traill Horn to Henry Eyster Jacobs (and his son Charles) and finally Luther D. Reed, LTSP had been home a family of scholars who read the Lutheran Confessions through a Romantic (that is, medievalist) lens. From this reading grew the then-shocking argument that Lutheran worship ought to follow the patterns Mass, adapted according to Evangelical theology.

In practice, of course, this insight was sharply restrained. (We expect they all remembered Philip Schaff's two trials for heresy, and were duly chastened). Reed, for example, called for cassock and surplice, with a stole, as a compromise between the talar to which many Lutherans were still devoted and the alb-and-chasuble that he knew were correct.

But from the 1880s, if not the 1860s, LTSP professors had made a case for the weekly Eucharist, the use of wine rather than grape juice and a chalice rather than individual cups. Krauth's daughter Harriet set the General Council Church-Book service to Anglican chant. It was Reed who composed the first proper Eucharistic Prayer for use in a US Lutheran service book. Celebrants faced east in those days, and Grandpapa, at least, never really cared for the versus populum revolution.

All of this had an early and lasting effect on our grandfather's church. Trexler, for example, was routinely called "bishop," long before the title was official, and was eventually given a pectoral cross to be passed on to his successors. At public events and in official pictures, pastors wore their collars-- our grandfather being a rebellious exception. In regard to worship and symbols, we expect that our grandfather's church matches well with the vision of the Brothers.

(7) They used the Confessions, but didn't obsess over them. Yes, LTSP had been a pioneer in the renewed attention to the Book of Concord. But that did not leave its alumni stuck in an intellectual ghetto, evaluating every theological idea according to the Solid Declaration. In part, this is because the traditions of our grandfather's church accepted and even encouraged Lutheran students to study at non-Lutheran schools, and pastors to study things outside conventional theology.

For example, Krauth had also taught philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Trexler, early in his ministry, had been an itinerant chaplain, visiting Lutheran students at Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges. Gramps did his doctoral study at Columbia, in philosophy, and in our own experience spent far more time talking about Sartre or Alfred North Whitehead than he ever did about Melanchthon or Chemnitz. He died -- literally, he died -- with two books at his bedside: Fr. Raymond Brown's commentary on John, and a beaten old copy of Susanne Langer.

Now, it would be unfair to draw too sharp a line here between our grandfather's church and the Steadfast guys. For all we know, the whole bunch of them studied art history at Harvard. But the Old Missouri that they idolize was notorious for its clannish, inward-looking, and sectarian worldview. It trusted its own colleges and its own scholars to the exclusion of all others. The Bible mattered, but always as interpreted by the Confessions; and the Confessions mattered, but principally as interpreted by Walther, Franz Pieper and eventually Hermann Sasse. On this matter of intellectual orientation, far more than on any theological conclusions, our grandfather's church was the opposite of theirs.

(8) It was a church struggling to survive. But unlike contemporary mainline denominations, the struggle was recent and short-lived. During the first decades of the 20th century, Lutheran churches in New York State sprang up at an astonishing rate -- no fewer than one new congregation each year. During the Depression, church-planting ended abruptly. Many churches closed altogether; others were left with half-completed buildings. Pastors took sharp pay cuts, and congregations still could not pay their salaries.

And then it all changed, as the postwar suburbanization of America began. Church-planting restarted, especially on Long Island. It was a good 15 or 20 years before anybody noticed that the exodus of Lutherans to these new suburbs had left their old city congregations depleted of members, money and expertise. Even then, church leaders declared that urban churches could be revived by "evangelism," by which they meant recruitment of new members, often from ethnic communities with no experience of Lutheranism or even Christianity. The strategy failed, and yet remains a part of the treasured mythology of dying churches.

We wonder whether this mistaken belief, that superannuated congregations can be brought magically back to their youthful efflorescence, has its roots in the experience of Grandpapa's generation. Between 1930 and 1950, they had seen a church's rapid growth grind to a halt and then resume, seemingly as vigorous as before. Did they leap to the hopeful but mistaken conclusion that the period between 1965 and any-given-moment was simply another temporary stutter in an inevitable progress?

Here at the Egg, we do not make an idol of our grandfather's church. It was okay. There are some things we don't miss at all. Women were expected to work, but not usually to lead. It used way too much tobacco. It was blind to the seeds of its own destruction, demographically and (if its critics are correct) theologically. On the other hand, there were some things about it that we would pay good money to get back -- the pseudo-Tudor language of the Service Book and Hymnal; a national headquarters in Manhattan; a deliberately "churchy" feel that the ELCA tries to avoid.

But on balance, we will take our grandfather's church over their grandfather's church. We will take an expansive worldview over a restrictive one, a constructive dialogue with other churches (Lutheran and otherwise) over a tradition of offering nasty public denunciations and serving as a "spoiler" in ecumenical agreements. We will certainly take the slow, painful and awkward discussion of sex and sexuality that reaches from our grandfather's church to our own over the triumphal "No" with which theirs has answered every successive question.


mark said...

"The strategy failed, and yet remains a part of the treasured mythology of dying churches."
There you go with your mythuse again - AND in an essay that references Susan (sic) Langer!

Father Anonymous said...

Actually, in that case I was deliberately using myth in a more technical sense, as the symbol-system with which human beings construct their culture. When false and even destructive mythology takes hold, it undermines society -- pretty much what Cassirer was getting at in "The Myth of the State." (Which is not to compare forty years of church leadership to the Nazis, except in one very narrow way.)

And if we're going to pick nits -- "reference" as a verb?

Father Anonymous said...

More of the same -- here's Langer on Cassirer:

"Myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas. It reaches religious and poetic heights; but the gulf between its conceptions and those of science never narrows the least bit."

Now, such a "myth" can be a very fine thing. But do note the "gulf" between the world created by mythic symbols and that created by scientific ones. My concern, when it comes to the discussion of "mainline decline," is that for decades we have been treated to a kind of mythopoesis which is independent of quantitative analysis -- poetry without prose, if you like (although that's unfair to Cassirer's idea of "language" as a mediating form of symbolic expression).

Anonymous said...

I found this hugely instructive. Thanks. web

Tim Fisher said...


I agree with Anonymous above. (Relative of yours?) Highly intructive.

Just one itsy bitsy nit: the ELCA document called Vision and Expectations no longer uses that odd phrase "homosexual in their self-understanding." The document does not say it, although it did say it previous to that long ago event which historians call "the 2009 ELCA Chuchwide Assembly."

Father Anonymous said...

What do you know? I had no idea they'd already changed it, but there's the amended version on the ELCA website. (I've been out of the country since just after the assembly, and probably missed some mailings).

Well, I'll leave the quaint phrase, which has by now acquired a kind of kitsch appeal.