Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Luther's Via Media

Years ago, thumbing through the Lutheran Quarterly, we noticed a circa-1915 photograph of some Norwegian-American church built on a piece of prairie that later became downtown Minneapolis (or St. Paul, or maybe Fargo. We just can't remember). The article was a brief congregational history, focusing on the location and relocation of the buildings. Tepid stuff. But the picture jumped out at us. There was a nice little rail encircling the altar, and draped over that rail was a chasuble. A fiddleback, if we recall.

We think of this photo every time grumpy old Mrs. Sachsenhausen greets us at the door with a whine about our Sunday apparel, sniffing that "we didn't do it this way when I was young." Or "back in the old country," which is even more annoying. Because while she may be right, it is just as possible that she may be wrong. Over the past century or two, selective amnesia has hit Lutheranism hard, and convinced many people that as soon as the Reformation hit a city, the only vestments left were black robes. This is just nonsense.

What actually seems to have happened is that, from the very beginning, the Evangelical movement treated vestments as one of those things in which consciences were free. So long as nobody told you that you were obliged to wear one, or alternatively that you must not wear one, you could do whatever seemed best. Accordingly, some churches went with the black robe -- meaning, in essence, street clothing -- and many stuck with what they knew best, meaning albs and chasubles and whatnot.

We however take the middle course and say: There is to be neither commanding nor forbidding .... We are neither papistic nor Karlstadtian, but free and Christian, in that we elevate or do not elevate the sacrament, how, where, when, as long as it pleases us, as God has given us the liberty to do. Just as we are free to remain outside of marriage or to enter into marriage, to eat meat or not, to wear the chasuble or not, to have the cowl or tonsure or not. ...

We have also done both here in Wittenberg. For in the cloister we observed mass without chasuble, without elevation, in the most plain and simple way which Karlstadt extols [as following] Christ’s example. On the other hand, in the par ish church we still have the chasuble, alb, altar, and elevate [the host] as long as it pleases us.*

This "middle course" -- which is really the ability to encompass wide differences within a single theological movement -- is typically Lutheran, the gentler counterpart to our ferocity about central dogmatic questions. The 1561 Torslunde Altarpiece, from Denmark and pasted above, is an especially well-known example of Evangelical freedom in action. The preacher wears an academic robe, the ministers of baptism and the chalice are in cassock and surplice, the celebrant in alb and chasuble.

Just a few years ago, Arthur Carl Piepkorn's essay on the use of historic vestments was floating around the internet. As you could probably guess, he discovered that Lutherans wear them, and that we (generally) retained the medieval vesture straight through the Reformation proper and the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy, only to (generally) abandon it during the icky days of Rationalism.

The piece seems to have been removed, no doubt because of a copyright problem. This is a shame, since Piepkorn has been dead for decades, and loses nothing if his copyrights are violated. Even absent Piepkorn, though, there is plenty of evidence hanging idly around these interwebs.

In our too-darn-long ramble on maniples, we linked to a page maintained by Pr David Jay Webber, which collects a variety of testimonies -- both in writing and in pictures -- regarding the the use of vestments in historic Lutheranism. If you missed it, take a gander here.

Our favorite is probably the 1924 booklet "Proper Communion Vestments," by one P. Severinsen and translated from Danish by J. Madsen. Its general argument is familiar -- the German churches, especially down south, and even those that tried to retain their old customs, eventually capitulated to pressure from the Reformed; the Scandinavian churches, and especially Sweden, did not. But some of the details are especially nice -- such as this one, from the Reformation:
When the South Germans in 1536 came to Wittenberg to close the Wittenberg-Concordat they were therefore greatly shocked by the Communion Service on Ascension day. Wolfgang Musculus from Constanz has confided it to his journal: There were pictures in the church, candles on the altar, and a priest in "papistic" clothes! The Introitus was played on the organ while the choir sang in Latin as was the custom of earlier days) while the priest having the celebration proceeded from the sacristy wearing Vestments.
Or this:
The evangelical churches in Nuremberg received orders in 1797 to deliver their collection of chasubles to the city treasury as a contribution to the taxes. In the churches of St. Sebald and St. Lawrence, the collection contains 18 chasubles of very elaborate design and many of them ornamented with pearls. There were also some dalmatics. Three Jews bought the pearls and are said to have gotten 2300 Gylden for them. The surplice was abolished in 1810 as it had already been in 1798 in Ansbach -- to save laundry expenses. (This certainly is the way of Rationalism in all its modifications.)
Indeed, Severinsen has a good deal of fun with the "war on vestments," which in Germany seems to have begun in earnest around 1700, and which -- adroitly avoiding the matter of Pietism -- he portrays as being driven by the twin engines of Rationalism and Reformed influence, the latter especially in the shape of regional monarchs:

The royal house of Brandenburg, Prussia, was Reformed while the population was largely Lutheran. ... The war against the Communion Vestments was declared by the peculiar soldier-king, Fred. Wilhelm I who. ruled in a very autocratic fashion. Through a Decision of 1733 he "prohibited the remnants of Popery in the Lutheran Church: Copes, Communion Vestments, Candles, Latin song, Chants, and the sign of the Cross". Many priests sanctioned this step, but conservatism was also very strong. Many complained and counted the whole event a "betrayal of genuine and pure Lutheranism". Many reports were also given of the disappointments of the congregations.

The brutal king repeated the decision in 1737 with the addition: "Should there be those who hesitate or who desire to make it a matter of conscience, we wish to make it known that we are ready to give them their demission". At least one priest was discharged for refusal to submit.

See what he did there? For Lutherans, this sly foreshadowing of the Prussian Union is inflammatory: black robes = unionism! Hey, ever'body, let's declare a statu confessionis. We hasten to remind readers, as we so often need to remind the LC-MS, that things are not now as they were then. There is no authority prepared to "accept our demission" should we insist upon vesting our deacons in dalmatics, or what have you. Things are back to what they were in Luther's day -- at least in vesture, the diversity of American practice has reclaimed the middle way.

Would somebody please remind Mrs. Sachsenhausen for us?
* "Against the Heavenly Prophets," LW 40: 130 (WA 18: 112.33-113.5), quoted in Helmar Junghans, "Luther on the Reform of Worship," Lutheran Quarterly (Autumn, 1993), p. 329. Timothy Wengert translated it. The same passage is quoted by Severinsen.

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