Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Broken Symbols

Recently, Fr. A. has been leading a parish study group through The Use of the Means of Grace, the ELCA's 1994 statement on sacramental practices.  It is, so far as we know, the only statement of its kind to have been adopted by the churchwide assembly, and therefore it enjoys a unique level of authority in matters of Lutheran worship. (Fact checkers?  Are we mistaken in this?)

We spent quite a bit of time on "Application 7a," which says:
The use of ELCA-approved lectionaries serves the unity of the Church, the hearing of the breadth of the Scriptures, and the evangelical meaning of the church year.  The Revised Common Lectionary and the lectionaries in the Lutheran Book of Worship make three readings and a psalm available for every Sunday and festival.
Discussing these words with our class, we observed, somewhat wistfully, that the proposition that lectionaries serve Christian unity was true only insofar as the same lectionaries were used.  The ELCA's authorized and widely-sued worship books actually offer quite a number of lectionary choices.  The Sunday lectionaries of LBW and ELW are only a little different, but the use of the semi-continuous Old Testament series can increase that difference.  The daily lectionaries presented in the two books are entirely different.  This divides, on one hand, all those who pray the Daily Office using the 2-year lectionary in LBW, ALPB's For All the Saints, or the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, from those who pray it using the ELW's 3-year daily lectionary.  The present lectionary arrangement is a very fragile sign of unity, if it is a sign at all.

Of course, the old one-year lectionary still has its enthusiasts, although they seem to be principally Missourian.  As always, they demand "unity" on their own backward-looking terms.

And, as we observed to our class, the geniuses at "Luther" Seminary have also spent quite a bit of time promoting their Narrative Lectionary.  This is a four-year cycle of readings for the "green" season, which attempts to sketch out the arc of the Biblical narrative, beginning to end, in nine months.  It is aimed at a culture which no longer grasps that arc naturally from childhood.

The Narrative Lectionary is not an intrinsically bad idea.  As pedagogy, it is just fine, even admirable.  As liturgical theology, it is, obviously, a disaster.  If the use of a common lectionary serves as a sign and symbol of unity, then the introduction of a radically different one seeks to shatter that symbol, and supplant it with one which means something else entirely.

Frankly, it just like Luther Sem --the faculty of which led the fight against full communion with the Episcopal Church -- to find a new way to weaken the fragile unity of the English-speaking Church.  At a time when preachers in Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist and Roman congregations are likely to preach on the same texts from week to week -- thus achieving a remarkable degree of formal unity -- our friends in St Paul have struck a blow for division and disunity.  That they have done it in the name of "cultural relevance," or even that they have done it with innocent intentions, is beside the point.  They have attacked a symbol of the 20th-century Church's greatest achievement, the move toward reconciliation.

And symbols matter.  They do not merely indicate, they also participate in the reality toward which they point.  Just this morning, we learned that one of our old Bible study groups has ceased to meet.  One group of pastors uses the RCL, while another has adopted the Narrative Lectionary.  They are still friends and neighbors, but their week-to-week unity has been broken.

Thanks, "Luther."

6 comments:

Geoff said...

I seem to recall that for us (north of the 49th parallel and of the Thames) the semi-continuous OT track is the only authorised option.

George Waite said...

So if you burn a flag, you're also burning the country the flag represents? Or if you flush a 'consecrated' wafer down the toilet, Jesus goes for a swim?
Seriously "Father"?

Daniel Rinehart said...

A few comments, since I love this blog and this post made me mad. (I'm a Luther Seminary student, and I just started internship at a congregation that's using the narrative lectionary.)

1. Luther's faculty, and Luther Seminary itself, is not monolithic. The faculty is big (though sadly getting smaller in recent months) and diverse. Luther's faculty as a body, as far as I'm aware, never went on record opposing CCM, and are not on record as endorsing the Narrative Lectionary. If they did, I'm sure there were many strongly dissenting voices. I wish you wouldn't say "Luther" when you really mean "Jim Nestingen and Gracia Grindal" or "Craig Koester and Rolf Jacobson."

2. Liturgical unity is valuable, but it's not the only valuable thing. The RCL is a tremendous achievement in many ways, but if you don't know Scripture and the only way you encounter Scripture is in Sunday worship, it will not teach you the whole of Scripture in any coherent way. I would love it if our culture was well enough versed in Scripture that this wouldn't matter, or if the average not-so-biblically-literate Christian were more likely to study Scripture beyond what they hear in worship. But that's not the world we live in. Many Christians are biblically illiterate and not willing/able to study scripture outside of Sunday worship. I'd love to be a part of changing that reality, but it's also a reality we have to live in and need to consider.

3. I wonder if the measure of unity achieved by the RCL is apparent or meaningful or valuable to the average layperson in the mainline churches that use it. I can imagine a Lutheran striking up a conversation with their Methodist coworker about the Gospel reading they both heard last Sunday, but I'm guessing that's the exception rather than the rule. The benefits of a common lectionary are much more for the clergy: study groups and resources. This is not unimportant (and I'm afraid you'll say my midwestern anti-clericalism is showing). But I think you might be overstating the practical effects of the "unity" achieved by having most Catholics and mainline Protestants on a pretty similar schedule of readings.

4. The study group in which the pastors at my church take part is split between NL and RCL people. We spend about a half hour talking about the NL reading, and a half hour talking about the RCL Gospel reading. It's not impossible. I don't have anything to compare it to, but I've found the discussions to be very enjoyable and helpful.

I hope I'm not coming across as a Narrative Lectionary partisan; based on my experience so far, I think it's unlikely that I would ever try and switch a congregation from RCL to NL. But I think this post is somewhat unfair to the NL, and very unfair to my alma mater.

Father Anonymous said...

Sigh. You're right, of course, about everything except CCM. That one was a group effort, and I still bear a grudge. Still, I should be more charitable. Arland Hultgren deserves a medal for his years of service to evangelical catholicism

Father Anonymous said...

Fr. James of the Tonsure has had some trouble posting (anybody else?), but he sends this note by carrier pigeon:

The Narrative Lectionary is a terrible idea for Sunday liturgies; it might be useful for devotions at home.

Would that many of our colleagues regarded "The Use of the Means of Grace" as useful information let alone something which "enjoys a unique level of authority in matters of Lutheran Worship."

Pastor Joelle said...

Ill make Luther grads even madder. We have two many seminarys. Lets just give a luther to the New ALC