Historical Pictures of the Ev.-Luth. Divine Service: Introduction

Historical Pictures of the Ev.-Luth. Divine Service


A Documentation
by Helmut Schatz

English translation by Matthew Carver

Original PDF


By way of introduction to the subject, a quotation by Walter Lotz (Das hochzeitliche Kleid, Kassel 1949):

On March 20, 1811, by order of the royal Prussian cabinet, the black talar [ankle-length gown, robe] was introduced for evangelical pastors and rabbis (and judges)—the same one which still serves as the office attire [Amtstracht] for the divine service in almost all of Germany. Anyone who has not seen an evangelical pastor in different office attire might easily come to the conclusion that this talar has been the legitimate liturgical garment of the evangelical church since the Reformation era. This opinion is no less wrong than the opinion of the king of Prussia himself, who very probably believed that by the order of his cabinet he was restoring the original state. It may perhaps be only one peripheral question in the train of our churchly reconsideration, yet it will be good to pause even at this marginal question with complete sobriety and consider how the decision to introduce the talar was reached in the years of the formation of the old Prussian Union and what was intended by doing so. If the outcome of this examination is set in relation to the biblical and church-historical realizations of our time, it will result in both legal and practical implications which are not without importance in the context of ecclesial reorganization. It would be worth considering, in any case, even if we wished to accept the evangelical office attire currently in use in Germany as an unchangeable given which is not to be doubted. Whether a white gewand {outer garment} or black talar is suitable for the evangelical divine service is not a question that concerns eternal salvation— as in the parable from which the image of the “wedding garment” is taken. But for that very reason this question, and the endeavor toward formal change, cannot simply be silenced by referring to the general validity of the office attire introduced in the previous century. In the Reformation era, freedom was explicitly permitted in matters of external form, including the vestments of the divine service. It would be a dangerous perversion of this evangelical position if in our own day we wished to pursue an actual ordinance and obligation, even in doctrine and proclamation, and at the same time to withhold any responsible, critical examination from the now-dominant tradition in outward ceremonies, forms, and styles of the church’s life.

In the context of the evangelical church, everything that has been handed down must be repeatedly subjected to the examination of Holy Scripture, and will also need to supply itself with “clear foundations of reason.” And should, for the sake of charity, or the weak, or discipline and order, some deference be exercised and a tradition be handled sparingly, still no heavy, legal burden should be made of doing so, and the question will be permitted whether this tradition “conveys Christ” or whether by it Christ and His Word and ways are instead obscured and distorted.

It will be possible to understand the measures of the Prussian king from the context of his time, and doubtlessly to see his motivations in a positive light as well. Frederick William III often, out of the best intentions and in pious zeal, involved himself directly in ecclesial concerns. His own minister of culture learned of many of his cabinet orders relating to the church only after reading them in the newspaper. At the same time, if the king often seized the initiative with some impetuosity, he had the good of the Church in view insofar as he understood it. He strove for the unification of the Lutheran and Reformed confessions. As the basis of the Union he strove for a common order in all matters of worship. His proverb was: “Of all worldly ills, the worst is caprice.”

Almost entirely on his own he created a new agenda from the formularies of the 16th century. Accepted only after lengthy dispute and many amendments, nevertheless, for the state of affairs in that period, it represented an emphatic step forward in the field of liturgy. What could be more natural than to advance the uniformization of the Prussian church as well by uniformizing the office attire of the clergy? Here objections could scarcely be raised from the Confession. Such unbearable deficiencies dominated liturgical practice that the majority welcomed each subsequent ordinance. When the innovation was embellished by the halo of Reformation-era examples, hardly any serious opposition could be raised. Thus Frederick William III proposed a new office attire based on the images of the Reformers. He did not examine these images for historical authenticity, nor did he ask whether the Reformers used the same garments at the altar which they wore on the street and in the pulpit. To the contrary, he was sure of the testimony that something similar to the black, pleated talar which he proposed in a stylized form, was worn by Luther not only in civic life and during the sermon but at every observance of the divine service generally, and that such vestments were originally common throughout the evangelical church until the Enlightenment ushered in general degeneration and chaos. It was the king’s intention to remedy this chaos. Thus in his ordinance he explicitly stressed that everywhere worthy liturgical vestments were in use, such as alben [albs] and chorhemden [surplices], they should by no means be eliminated. However, wherever the small predigermäntelchen [preaching hood] (a black cloth which, being fastened on the collar of a coat, hangs down in folds from the back) worn on the back is enforced as the only office attire, or where there is no longer any order whatsoever, but ministerial actions are conducted in house-clothes in the manner attested, the previous disorder, or disregarded order, should be replaced from now on by the new talar . . . Should the clothing of the liturgist himself, out of all the paraments, be excluded from every appropriate formal possibility, and destined for preservation as a historical landmark?

It is time to begin this conversation, at very least, even if a final solution to this question does not yet appear in sight.

How extremely isolated German Protestantism is in this question, not only globally but also ecumenically, Friedrich Heiler writes in Erscheinungensformen und Wesen der Religion, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart , 1979):

Black is the color of magic and death. It is used especially in the magic activities which avoid the light of day. Black is the color of death, the underworld, and mourning. Black is used to depict spirits of the deceased as well as the devil. Black is the color of sacrifices to the gods of the underworld… in Protestantism, the black gown of scholars has for the most part been used as the vestment of preachers— a break with humanity’s religious inheritance. The black robe of professors is a symbol of joyless doctrinairism. The movement for liturgical renewal restored bright and colorful vestments to the divine service. (p. 125)

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