“The Conduct of the Service: Revisited” – Fr. Charles McClean on liturgical piety and “holding to the traditions”



Nota Bene: the following is the text of the keynote address which Fr. Charles delivered at the 2011 St. Michael’s Liturgical Conference at Zion Lutheran Church in Detroit, MI. A (sadly very poor-quality) audio version is available at the end of the post.


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As I prepared these past weeks for this talk there repeatedly came to mind some words of T.S. Eliot in his poem “Little Gidding,” words which have become very important to me as one who has returned to the Church of his baptism after far too long a sojourn in another part of Christendom:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. (2)

Now people of a certain age are much given to nostalgia. Being of a certain age I begin these reflections with the memory of the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar as I experienced it from childhood at the Church in which I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained — old Martini Church in Baltimore. Martini was formed when the mother parish of the Missouri Synod in Baltimore, “old” Saint Paul’s which had been founded in 1839, divided into three separate congregations. Friedrich Wyneken and then Ernst Gerhard Wilhelm Keyl, Dr. Walther’s brother-in-law, had been the pastors of the mother parish. Dedicated in May 1868 Martini Church had only three pastors in the first eighty-nine years of its life, and this made for a great deal of continuity. And so the custom of the so-called Altargesang — the pastor’s chanting of the liturgy – continued without interruption through the spring of 1957 when Pastor Engelbert, who had served the congregation since 1918, retired. One of my earliest memories of Good Friday is of the pastor and congregation chanting the Litany on bended knee. The Sacrament of the Altar was not as frequently celebrated as it is nowadays, but when it was celebrated there was an unmistakable atmosphere of the deepest reverence. I remember how as a child I was deeply moved by the familiar chant of the Preface, the Lord’s Prayer, and of the Consecration which was sung to the once very familiar Bugenhagen melody which was in our Synod’s German Agenda and in our English liturgy through the publication in 1944 of The Music for the Liturgy but which now seems to have disappeared from our service books for no apparent reason. At the Communion the communicants knelt at the altar rail to receive the Lord’s Body in their mouths and Christ’s Blood from the chalice — which no communicant ever thought of touching. No layman ever assisted in the distribution of the Sacrament. If no assisting pastor was available, even on Easter Day the pastor himself administered both the Body and Blood of the Lord. Upon returning to his pew after receiving the Sacrament, each communicant knelt for silent prayer. Stanzas of a Communion hymn, with a quiet organ interlude between each stanza, occupied the time of Communion. The “ushers” at every Communion were two very long-time members of the Church Council who would quietly ask any stranger: “Have you announced for Communion?” And if they had not, they would be told that they must not approach the altar. The pastor wore a black gown with a rather ornate silver pectoral cross. The church itself was very beautiful due to a renovation carried out in 1905 under the aegis of the then Pastor Dietrich Henry Steffens, a pastor from our Synod’s past who needs to be better known. He was the author of a biography of Dr. Walther published by the Lutheran Publishing Society of Philadelphia in 1917 and was an authority on church architecture and liturgics (3). His splendid essay for the 1925 Eastern District Convention, Safeguarding the Lord’s Table, displays his considerable erudition and unshakeable confessional faithfulness (4). He also played a leading role in preparing the first musical setting for the English Liturgy of our Synod, the largely forgotten Common Service with Music published in Pittsburgh in 1906 (5).

The old Martini Church (as it was until it fell victim to an expressway in 1977) was a living expression of Pastor Steffens’ faith and learning. He saw to it that the altar triptych was filled with a copy of Raphael’s wonderful painting of the Transfiguration. In the ceiling of the chancel were paintings of the four evangelists, each with his symbol. The tall windows in the nave were filled with stained glass portraying the life of our Lord, and in the spandrils at the top of each column in the nave were copies of the coats-of-arms of the princes and cities which presented the Augsburg Confession. Pastor Steffens obtained the plates for these coats-of-arms from the Ecclesiastical Arts Society in Berlin; they were approved by the Imperial College of Heralds of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Fr. Charles on the day of his confirmation.

Fr. Charles on the day of his confirmation.

But why recount this memory of the Sacrament as celebrated in just one parish church so many years ago?

I mention all this because it presents such a contrast with present-day conditions in so many places. It is truly cause for melancholy reflection that, although the frequency of the celebration of the Sacrament has increased remarkably in the past forty or so years, abuses in connection with the celebration have also increased. It would of course be absurd to claim that the celebration of the Sacrament was everywhere marked with great reverence fifty or so years ago, but the abuses which now have become so distressingly common were then simply unthinkable: more or less open communion, the failure to use only the dominically-mandated elements of the Sacrament, together with casualness and irreverence in the administration of the Sacrament. All of this displays a distressing decline in that sense of mystery and awe which should certainly accompany the celebration of the Holy Mysteries of the Lord’s Body and Blood. It is cold comfort to reflect that much the same could be said of the sacramental practice in Roman Catholicism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a deplorable state of affairs now recognized as such and being addressed under the leadership of the present Bishop of Rome.

The announced theme of this conference is “The Conduct of the Service: Revisited.” My own work in that manual begins with the words: “Readers familiar with The Conduct of the Service by the Rev. Arthur Carl Piepkorn will immediately recognize how largely indebted this manual is to that work” (6). Although Dr. Piepkorn was not a member of the committee involved in the production of this manual he did in fact read the entire manuscript and suggested improvements. Needless to say, he is in no way responsible for the inadequacies of my own work.

In his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism Dr. Luther says that “God, parents, and teachers can never be sufficiently thanked and repaid” (LC IV 130). And so here I must express an immense debt of gratitude to Father Piepkorn, an especially dear and wonderful person, who taught not only by what he said but perhaps even more by what he was: a cheerful and unfailingly charitable child of God. When he stood at the altar you sensed that here was a man who knew that he was standing in the presence of his Maker and Redeemer. He would be among the last to claim infallibility for himself! Typical of his modesty are the comments he made in introducing a series of articles on the Ecclesiastical Arts in the old American Lutheran magazine — the predecessor of Lutheran Forum — way back in 1947 where he says that he regards his role in presenting these articles “as being editorial and not oracular,” and says that since “the Sacred Scriptures hand down few binding declarations relating to the ecclesiastical arts there is accordingly ample room for honest difference of opinion, for cheerful disagreement, for constructive dissent” (7). It goes without saying that I hope my own remarks will be seen in the same way.


Entertaining in Alexandria, VA; January 2011.

So revisiting The Conduct of the Service involves reflection on the work of Dr. Piepkorn. It also necessarily involves revisiting the question of the celebration of the Sacrament facing the people. And here a bit of history: although the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council which closed in December 1965 said absolutely nothing about the versus populum celebration, that innovation was swiftly adopted throughout the Roman Church and many Lutherans and Anglicans quickly followed suit. And so early in 1969 the members of the Saint Louis Seminary faculty who had responsibility for teaching liturgics — Robert Bergt, George Hoyer, John Damm, and Mark Bangert — concluded that there should be some kind of guide for pastors of our Synod who wished to introduce this practice. And so I was asked to return to Saint Louis from my Long Island congregation to work on this project with them. The way it worked was that I would prepare some material and then about once a month we would all gather to review my work. I was not then nor am I persuaded now of the desirability let alone the necessity of the celebration facing the people. I remember with pleasure how at one of the meetings of the committee Professor Hoyer said, “You know Charles keeps his distance from all this!” Some evidence for that can still be found in the first paragraph of chapter six of the manual.

The year 1969 saw not only the appearance of the Missal of Paul VI which came into use on Advent Sunday of that year but also the appearance of the Worship Supplement in the Missouri Synod consisting of materials which had been gathered together for a projected revision of Synod’s liturgy and hymnal, a project abandoned with considerable misgivings in the interest of taking part in the preparation of a common liturgy and hymnal for Lutherans in North America, a project which resulted in the appearance in 1978 of the regrettable Lutheran Book of Worship. I say regrettable because the Lutheran Book of Worship represented a decisive break with the Common Service tradition and was clearly influenced by some of the more dubious theories, then accepted as indisputable facts, of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Liturgical Movement, notably the “four-fold action” shape of the Liturgy: offertory, thanksgiving, breaking of the bread, communion — a theory proposed by the learned Anglican Benedictine monk Dom Gregory Dix in his great work, The Shape of the Liturgy. (It is interesting to note that Dr. Piepkorn was never impressed with Dom Gregory’s thesis and, while admiring Dom Gregory’s historical erudition, would refer to his book as “that tract”!) Although Dom Gregory’s theory has now been largely discredited, his theory still influences the rites of Western Christendom. But it is now widely agreed throughout Christendom that the essential parts of the Holy Eucharist are the consecration and the reception of Holy Communion. The placing of the gifts of bread and wine on the altar and the breaking of the bread are simply practical measures although they have of course over the centuries acquired varied symbolic meanings.


An Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic celebration.

If you ask how it was that Lutherans could so easily succumb to prevalent opinion it has to be remembered that the late 60s were a heady time, not least because in the years of and following the Second Vatican Council it actually looked for a while as if the reunion of divided Christendom was a real possibility. And in that atmosphere there was an understandable desire to conform our own liturgical practice to what was perceived to be an emerging ecumenical consensus. And part of that consensus at least in the Western Church was the acceptance of the celebration versus populum. I say Western Church because the Eastern Orthodox have universally continued to celebrate the Sacrament in the eastward position, ad orientem, toward the east, toward the rising sun, symbol of the risen Son who will on the Last Day appear in glory and welcome His Church to the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom. It has always seemed to me that this consistent practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church should have been sufficient evidence against the notion that the versus populum celebration was common in Christian antiquity. For surely no part of Christendom has been as resistant to innovation as the Orthodox! To be sure every Orthodox altar is free-standing, but the priest always faces the east as he celebrates the Sacrament — not “turning his back” on the people, but facing in the same direction as the people — to the east, ad orientem.

versus populum petersen

Fr. David Petersen of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Wayne, IN, celebrating versus populum.

Now let me say before I go on with these remarks that I would not wish to be understood as condemning the versus populum celebration or as failing to realize that the Sacrament has been and continues to be celebrated with great reverence, beauty and devotion in that way. But I do remain persuaded that it has been a mistake.

In a letter to Dr. Peter Brunner dated December 4th 1974 Dr. Hermann Sasse addresses Dr. Brunner’s advocacy of the versus populum celebration. Sasse admits that Dr. Luther had indeed contemplated the possibility of the versus populum celebration in his Deutsche Messe of 1526 in the familiar words: “In the true Mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ undoubtedly did at the Last Supper.” But in saying that, Dr. Luther was — as it turns out, understandably — mistaken. Dr. Uwe Michael Lang in his excellent study of orientation in liturgical prayer, Turning Towards The Lord, tells us why Dr. Luther was mistaken. He writes:

From about the thirteenth century, depictions of the Last Supper adopted the contemporary seating arrangement, with Jesus occupying the place of honor in the middle of a large table and the apostles to his right and left, as, for example, in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco in Milan. An image of this type may have been in the mind of Martin Luther when, in 1526, he suggested that the altar should not remain in its old position and that the priest should always face the people, as no doubt Christ did at the Last Supper. (8)

Father Lang notes in passing that Luther’s proposal was never implemented in Wittenberg nor we might add has it been in the churches of the Augsburg Confession until relatively recent years.

Father Louis Bouyer has this to say:

The idea that a celebration facing the people must have been the primitive one, and that especially of the last supper, has no other foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. In no meal of the early Christian era did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting or reclining on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity could have arisen the idea of having to “face the people” to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the facts that all the participants were on the same side of the table. (9)

“Le repas chez le pharisien” (The Meal in the House of the Pharisee); James Tissot; opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper; 1886-1894

There are in fact examples of Christian art prior to the thirteenth century, for example in a mosaic in S. Appollinare Nuovo in Ravenna of about the year 520, which reflect this type of arrangement (10).

It seems that the idea of the universality of the versus populum celebration in the ancient church rests on the evidence of basilicas such as Saint Peter’s in Rome where the apse was in the west rather than the east end of the Church. In order that the celebrant might face east the celebrant did stand behind the altar. But the point was not “facing the people.“ Bouyer quotes Professor Cyrille Vogel as saying that “even when the orientation of the church enabled the celebrant to pray turned toward the people when at the altar, we must not forget that it was not the priest alone who then turned east; it was the whole congregation together with him” (11). So important was prayer ad orientem in Christian antiquity. I remember the late Dr. Thomas Talley, a distinguished liturgical scholar (and also a warm and very funny Texan), saying to his class in liturgics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City that, although he himself favored the versus populum celebration, the idea that that form of celebration is somehow primitive is a myth.

But I digress. In his letter to Peter Brunner Dr. Sasse had this to say — and Dr. Sasse was that perhaps unusual phenomenon, a German theologian with a sense of humor! Do catch the irony and humor in his comments! He writes to Brunner:

What concerns me and to speak frankly has saddened me is your proposal for a new form of the altar and a way of celebrating the Sacrament which would conform to this proposal. What has earlier been proposed in this connection I have taken with as little seriousness as the comical ideas and proposals which were made forty years ago in the Liturgical Movement, when the Benedictines demanded the restoration of the ancient Christian mensa while at the same time the “Scoto-Catholics” of the land of John Knox fashioned their communion table into a kind of high altar. In both instances the praying clergyman was turned around 180 degrees (12)!

Sasse then goes on to say:

The significance of prayer to the east — the altar always stands liturgically in the east — is that the pastor and people pray to the Lord who will come again, who as the Sun of Righteousness will appear in the east where Paradise lay. The Jews pray toward Jerusalem, the Mohammedans toward Mecca. We have our “kiblah” [the Kaaba at Mecca]; why should we give it up? The anticipated Parousia already takes place so to speak on the altar. (13)

Here I must mention in passing that many years ago, when a friend of mine discussed the versus populum celebration with Dr. Martin Franzmann, Dr. Franzmann admitted that in the versus populum celebration something of the eschatological reality of the Sacrament is somehow obscured.

Well here is a point on which both Hermann Sasse and the present Bishop of Rome are in agreement! For many years Cardinal Ratzinger had registered his deep misgivings about the versus populum celebration and, not least through his motu proprio making possible the celebration of the old pre-Vatican II Mass, has encouraged the restoration of the eastward position in the church, also setting an example by celebrating ad orientem when he celebrates the Novus Ordo Mass in the Sistine Chapel. But he has also said that it would be a mistake to demand that all the altars must now immediately be turned around again! Here we see the wisdom of thinking in terms of generations, a virtue of the Roman Church which Dr Sasse often pointed out. So for now Pope Benedict has suggested as a possible solution that a crucifix be placed on the altar facing the celebrant so that when Mass is celebrated versus populum both the celebrant and the people can face the Lord together instead of gazing at one another! With reference to the versus populum celebration he has this to say:

Now the priest — the “presider” as they now prefer to call him — becomes the point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the “creative” planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, “make their own contribution.” Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a “pre-determined pattern.” The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above but is closed in on itself. The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people’; the priest himself was not so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” As one of the fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J[osef] Jungmann put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us. [emphasis added] (14)


Fragment from The Miraculous Communion of Saint Catherine of Siena by Domenico Beccafumi, c. 1513-15

I think the Bishop of Rome is right when he says that the versus populum celebration tends to make the celebrant a focus of attention in a way he never was in the ad orientem celebration, and that with that overexposure of the celebrant has also come the “assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals…More and more important is what is done by human beings.” Now this is not to say that in an ideal celebration of the Sacrament the celebrant alone must have a role, but I believe that it is a caution worth hearing. One of the limitations of chapter six in The Conduct of the Services are these words which describe the Eucharist as “an action…. For this reason these ceremonial directions encourage the participation of as many people as possible: reading the lessons, bringing the gifts of bread and wine to the altar, and so on” (15). Now while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with laymen reading the lessons — although there is something terribly wrong about poorly read and therefore scarcely intelligible lessons! — nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with the so-called “offertory procession” of the bread and wine to be consecrated, we still need to think very carefully about anything that suggests that the Holy Eucharist is primarily an action on the part of human beings when it is in fact a great and wondrous Sacrament in which God Himself acts. Now in fairness to our Roman Catholic brethren I think we have to admit that the emphasis on the people’s active participation in the Mass was a completely understandable reaction to the pre-Vatican II arrangements in which the people tended to be nothing more than silent spectators (except in those very few parishes such as Holy Cross Church in Saint Louis, where Monsignor Hellriegel was pastor, where the ideals of the old pre-Vatican II liturgical movement had been beautifully implemented). But failure to participate in the liturgy has certainly not been a problem in our churches since our people have more or less always participated in the liturgy and hymns.

To return to Pope Benedict’s remarks: I believe that they address not only the problems of post-Vatican II liturgy in the Roman Church but also the disintegration of worship in so many churches of our Synod. In the worst cases even the altar has been removed or is removable, and in not a few cases the constant center of attention is an often jeans-clad clergyman holding a microphone in his hands like some kind of entertainer or rock star assisted by similarly clad “musicians” forming what is called a “praise band.” I submit that Pope Benedict’s words speak to that pitiful state of affairs and also to all the misguided and unfortunate attempts at what is called “creative worship.” But the liturgy of the Church is an organic product of the ages, and what an irony it is that the people involved in these activities seemingly have no idea that their “worship” has become no less man-centered than the worst medieval misunderstandings of the Mass. And here I cannot resist saying how very telling and how very sad is the frequently heard claim in these same circles that “we worshipped 500 people last weekend.” “We worshipped 500 people”? But I had always assumed that we as Christians worship the Holy Trinity? “We worshipped 500 people last weekend.” One can only say with sadness: “Your speech betrays you!”

And now let us leave behind the question of the versus populum celebration together with the effects of the Roman and Anglican liturgical movement and think about what it is that we were attempting to achieve some forty years ago. As I thought these past weeks about both Fr. Piepkorn’s work and my own, it became very clear to me that we were primarily concerned about continuity and reverence.

First let me say something about continuity.

Now much has been made of the differences between Dr. Piepkorn and Dr. Sasse, and Dr. Sasse’s misgivings concerning Dr. Piepkorn are documented in Dr. Feuerhahn’s essay, Hermann Sasse’s Critique of Arthur Carl Piepkorn in the festschrift for Bishop Roger Pittelko’s 70th birthday. Among other things Dr. Feuerhahn says that Dr. Piepkorn “intimated a greater demand for liturgical correctness than for a sense of the liturgy as a handmaiden for the means of grace and a guide for the pastor” (16). I can only say that this is not Dr. Piepkorn as I knew him: for example, as he taught his splendid course “The Theology of the Lutheran Rite” and as he advised soon-to-be-ordained seminarians not to make any changes in the liturgy for at least a year after you arrive in a parish so that your people may first learn to know that you truly love them.

But whatever differences there were — and they were real differences — both of them were deeply convinced of the continuity of the Church of the Augsburg Confession with the Church which has been in the world since the first Pentecost. They were also both deeply convinced that this continuity should and in fact has characterized the worship of the Church of the Augsburg Confession. In his splendid study, What the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church Have to Say About Worship and the Sacraments, Dr. Piepkorn writes: “In its concrete form the Lutheran rites of the Reformation century — like the Lutheran doctrinal formulations of the Reformation century — reflect the fact that the Church of the Augsburg Confession is consciously and determinedly a part of the Catholic Church of the West” (17). And Dr. Sasse writes:

Lutheran theology differs from Reformed theology in that it lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church, not the Church of Trent and the Vatican Council which renounced evangelical truth when it renounced the Reformation. For the orthodox evangelical Church is really identical with the orthodox Catholic Church of all times. And just as the very nature of the Reformed Church emphasizes its strong opposition to the medieval church, so the very nature of the Lutheran Church requires it to go to the farthest possible limit in its insistence on its identity with the Catholic Church. (18)

Sasse then goes on to say:

It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages, and no more was it romanticism or false conservatism which made our church…cling tenaciously to the old forms of worship. (19)

Both The Conduct of the Service and The Conduct of the Services seek continuity and reverence. Both works begin with the claim that “there is really only one basic rule for those who lead the church in worship: ‘Be reverent!’ Every other rule is simply a practical application of that basic charge.”

I love the words of Dr. John Stephenson in his splendid study of the Lord’s Supper where he says:

Lutheranism’s inexorable accommodation to the Puritan-Arminian milieu of North American Christianity is much exacerbated by the current catastrophic collapse of our public culture. The melding of these two factors underscores the imperative quality of an aspect of Eucharistic celebration which the confessors of 1577 took for granted. Solid Declaration VII.44 notes that “this most holy sacrament…is to be used until the end of the world with great reverence (mit grosser Reverenz/magna cum reverentia) and in all obedience.” Since separation from the common and consecration to God pertains to the biblical reality of holiness, the behavior of celebrant and communicants at the Holy Supper should reflect their gracious admission to the realm depicted in Revelation 4 and 5. Recovery of this core awareness is far more important than such secondary matters as the reintroduction of such ceremonial details as full Eucharistic vestments. For colorful paraphernalia can coexist with a lackadaisical carnival atmosphere which never quits the confines of this world. [emphasis added] (20)

Along with Dr. Piepkorn‘s insistence that “There is really only one basic rule of altar decorum: ‘Be reverent!’” there is also his insistence that “spiritual preparation is more essential to reverence than the proper ordering of the physical adjuncts. A meditation, brief if need be, but as long as time permits, ought never to be overlooked” (21).

I believe that Dr. Piepkorn’s insistence on spiritual preparation is even more necessary today than it was some forty years ago. It is of course a truism to say that we live in a world which perhaps more than ever before is indescribably noisy, a world where the silence necessary to spiritual preparation is harder than ever to come by. All the marvelous inventions of the modern world — radio, television, computers, cell-phones, and who knows what else — conspire to rob us of silence. But isn’t it true that without silence we can hear neither ourselves nor God nor other people for that matter? And here we are not thinking of the delusion of those who, as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, “sit in a dark corner doing and saying nothing, but only waiting for illumination” (Apology XIII 13), but of the obvious truth that we cannot hear another if we ourselves are not sufficiently quiet — not only externally but inwardly quiet — so as to give attention to what another says. It is surely delusional to imagine that we can suddenly enter that heavenly “realm depicted in Revelation 4 and 5” without the slightest preparation. And that surely applies both to the clergy and to the worshipping congregation.

And here we must note the widespread collapse of the fine custom of keeping silence in Church before the Divine Service and the other services of the Church. What do we have instead? In not a few places we have incessant chatter, a cacophony of voices even during the organ prelude. Until relatively recent times people instinctively knew that there was need for quiet reflection if one is to be ready to hear the Word of the Lord. And if the worshippers need a time of quiet to prepare for their participation in worship, how much more do the officiating clergy! I am convinced that so much of the difficulty and weariness with the Church’s customary worship, the incessant clamor for endless “variety,” grows out of a failure to understand that the entire liturgy must not simply be read but prayed and prayer involves deliberate departure from the world of noise and distraction, also inward noise and distraction.

“There is really only one basic rule of altar decorum: ‘Be reverent!’ Every other rule is simply a practical amplification of this basic charge.” I am inclined to say that the “Notes on Reverence” at the beginning of The Conduct of the Service are probably more important than all that follows because the reverence and spiritual preparation which Dr. Piepkorn insists on are the indispensable foundation of truly recollected worship. All of the ceremonial directions are intended to help make possible that recollected worship. And if the ceremonial becomes somehow distracting, then it, no less than the deplorable liturgical devastation and levity now seen in many places, can be a hindrance to worship in spirit and in truth. Our real goal is surely not some kind of ceremonial maximalism everywhere but the quiet dignity which grows out of genuine awareness that in the celebration of the Sacrament we are indeed “admitted to the realm depicted in Revelation 4 and 5”: for here the exalted Lamb of God, worshipped by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, imparts the Body and Blood of His atoning, life-giving sacrifice under the consecrated bread and wine which rest upon our altars. When that conviction takes root in hearts and minds a worthy celebration will surely follow.

I believe that for people like ourselves The Conduct of the Service remains a useful guide — certainly not to be followed slavishly but as a fairly accurate guide to the ceremonial usages of the Church of the Augsburg Confession grounded in the historic liturgy of the Western Church. But I cannot help but wonder whether Dr. Piepkorn’s work and my own were and are perhaps a bit much for the average seminarian and pastor who for better or worse have neither the interest nor the patience to plough through all this material. And I suspect that there are relatively few parishes in our Synod where the most complete ceremonial known to the Church of the Augsburg Confession can be implemented. Interesting in this connection is the fact that the old Liturgical Society of Saint James had as one of its goals the establishment of “one congregation in each of our great cities” where the most complete usages known to our Church could be implemented.

Having so recently returned to Synod, I am not aware of how liturgics is taught at our two seminaries nor of what written guidelines there may be available for worship according to the Lutheran Service Book. Perhaps we need something like the simple directions Luther Dotterer Reed provided in his fine work The Lutheran Liturgy, first published in 1947 and in a second edition in 1959. In the earlier edition Dr. Reed followed the rite of the Common Service Book and Hymnal of 1917, in the latter edition the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal. I have to admit that in my judgment the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal and The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 in our own Synod represent the last time when Lutherans in America were provided with a fully coherent, finished rite. I think that ever since then our service books and hymnals have more of the character of works in progress – not that there is anything wrong with that. But this is yet another large question which we do not now have time to explore.

In conclusion I have just a few practical observations. Although it is unrealistic to expect that most of our churches will follow the full ceremonial known to the Church of the Augsburg Confession, there are I believe a few things that perhaps could be done better to embody in our celebration of the Sacrament the sense of what John Stephenson has called our “gracious admission to the realm depicted in Revelation 4 and 5,” of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven before the throne of God and the Lamb.

The church building, especially the chancel, should clearly say, “This is none other than the House of God and this is the Gate of Heaven.“ But so many of our churches built since about 1960 are of an almost Puritanical plainness redolent of Reformed Protestantism’s principled (and, I submit, finally heretical) rejection of images. I am convinced that the contemporary profusion of home-made banners of very uneven quality in our churches, usually with symbols unintelligible to the laity or even worse with words, words and more words, are an effort to bring some color and interest into rather colorless, severely plain buildings. Our old traditional churches with their — if you will forgive the expression — “gingerbread” altars and stained glass windows have a completely different atmosphere similar to the old Lutheran churches of Germany and Scandinavia. If we could everywhere restore the crucifix, the chalice, and the so-called Altargesang of the pastor — customs virtually universal when we were a German-speaking Synod — the worship in many places would take on a very different atmosphere. In recent years I have become more and more convinced of how much was lost in our Synod’s necessary but difficult transition to being an English-speaking church. The fear of the Father Founders of our Synod, that the adoption of the English language would make us even more vulnerable to the prevalent Reformed Protestantism of this land, was not unfounded. I believe that the present “baptistification” of our churches is only the reductio ad absurdum of that sad and lengthy process.

You may have noticed that in The Conduct of the Service nothing is said about the use of individual cups; the use of such cups was not nearly as widespread in our churches as it has become in recent years. I was about twenty years old before I ever saw such things, and I must admit that I am hard pressed to think of anything which has had such a deplorable effect on the celebration of the Sacrament in our churches as the introduction from Reformed Protestantism of this custom. It frankly amazes me that the clergy who first capitulated to pressures to introduce them didn’t immediately realize that the word “individual” and the word “communion” are somehow mutually exclusive! And is it not the use of individual cups which has made possible departures from the dominically instituted elements in the Sacrament? Both Walther in his Pastoral Theology and Pieper in his Christian Dogmatics insist that it is the pastor’s responsibility to see to it that nothing but genuine wine is used in the Sacrament. But our Synod has changed in the past fifty years. Then it was a generally unquestioned assumption that we should exercise the greatest, most scrupulous care to celebrate the Holy Sacraments in exact conformity with our Lord’s institution. But now many in our Synod seem to be oblivious to that confessional commitment and are seemingly concerned not so much with the conformity of the celebration of the Sacrament to the Lord’s institution but with the accommodation of every possible and impossible cultural expectation.

I frankly do not know what the solution is to the problem of individual cups. In the parishes where the cups are firmly ensconced we must in charity bear with them in the hope that patient catechesis will perhaps lead to better things. I have of late begun to wonder if the only practical way to rid our churches of this problem would be to introduce for those who will not receive from the chalice the practice of intinction whereby the communicant receives the host on the palm of his right hand held flat over the left hand with the person administering the chalice then dipping the edge of the host in the precious Blood and placing it on the tongue of the communicant. I know that some have said that intinction does not fulfill the divine command to “drink” the precious Blood. There may be something to that. But is it in keeping with the divine command when, instead of partaking of the Lord’s precious Blood from the Cup, each communicant drinks each from his own little cup? I wonder which is less defensible. Perhaps it would be useful to begin a thorough discussion of this problem, for among the many undesirable effects of using individual cups is the difficulty in seeing to it that the precious Blood is consumed at the end of the distribution as Dr. Luther directed. This practice is in fact reflected in the directions for the reverent treatment of what remains after the Communion in Walther’s Pastoral Theology. In this connection let me call your attention to two splendid articles, one by Bishop Emeritus Jobst Schoene of our German sister church, “Pastoral Letter regarding the Divine Service and the Sacrament of the Altar,” and the other by Dr. John Stephenson, “Reflections on the Appropriate Vessels for Consecrating and Distributing the Precious Blood of Christ.” Both articles are readily available in A Reader in Pastoral Theology published by the Fort Wayne Seminary. I only wish that every pastor in our Synod would “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” these articles which show how our confession of the true Body and Blood in the Sacrament should shape our practice. (22)

Let me finally make a plea for the restoration of the full frontal to our altars.

Even the plainest imaginable altar gains in significance and beauty where this ancient practice is followed. Pictures of Lutheran churches in the 16th century and thereafter show that frontal was very common indeed. It needs to be remembered that the purpose of altar paraments is not to have bits of cloth showing the liturgical colors but to clothe the altar which is itself a symbol of Christ, Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest. And so from earliest times the church both east and west has clothed its altars with splendid coverings. As the psalmist says, “The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty”(Psalm 93:1).

Since this is the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Dr. Walther, the Father Founder of our Synod, he shall have the last word. Speaking to the 16th Convention of the Central District of our Synod meeting in Saint Paul’s Church in Indianapolis on August 9, 1871, Dr. Walther had this to say:

We are not insisting that there be uniformity of perception or of taste among all believing Christians – neither dare anyone demand that all should be minded in this as he is. Nevertheless it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like mere lecture halls, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. (23)

The pseudepigrapher and Fr. Charles luncheoning in Old Town Alexandria, VA, in June of 2013.

The pseudepigrapher and Fr. Charles luncheoning in Old Town Alexandria, VA, in June of 2013.

Audio of Fr. Charles’s keynote address:




Fr. Charles