embodiment, liturgy

Frank Answers About His Life As a Liturgist

I met a young African-American musician from Detroit who was a guest at St. Augustine’s House, the Lutheran monastery in Oxford, Michigan. He has been writing songs based on the psalms and the prior, Fr. John Cochran, who has developed a relationship with an artistic community in Detroit, brought him to the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, Indiana in April 2017. The young musician told me that my words at the closing banquet about the body in worship, were the most meaningful to him of all the words he heard at the Institute. A Missouri Synod pastor, who is an artist, was also moved by my words about the need to recover the sensuous aspects of worship.  Another older pastor attending the banquet, reflecting on my words about the struggles of Lutheran liturgists to be accepted by their Lutheran theological colleagues, related how it was equally difficult for liturgical pastors to be accepted by their pastoral colleagues.  I am humbled by these comments. Perhaps these brief remarks in response to receiving the Christus Rex Award will be encouraging to others. In that spirit I post them here.

Response to the Presentation of the Christus Rex Award

I am both honored and humbled by this recognition of my contributions to liturgical study and worship renewal. I gratefully accept the Christus Rex Award from the Valparaiso University Institute of Liturgical Studies. I thank Professor Kent Burreson for his affirmative words about my career. And I acknowledge with love and affection the support and counsel of my wife of forty years, Mary. I want to offer as a brief response to this award, reflections on three periods in my life as a liturgist.

First, among liturgical pioneers there were pioneering students. I was the first Protestant to receive a PhD in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame. But I wasn’t the first Lutheran student in the program. That honor goes to the late Hans Boehringer, the former director of the Institute of Liturgical Studies. He finished all the course work but decided not to write a dissertation. Perhaps being older and wiser than me he was on to something about having a degree from a Roman Catholic university when you work in a Lutheran institution. When I was elected to the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago some LCA bishops regarded me as a Romanizer and some colleagues actually asked if I couldn’t have studied liturgy at some Protestant school like Yale or Union or Princeton. Well, you couldn’t back then. I think I was the first professor of liturgy in a Lutheran seminary who had studied liturgy itself—its history, theology, ritual structures, and praxis—rather than coming at liturgy from biblical studies or church history or dogmatics or homiletics or even music.

Second, after my contract at LSTC was not renewed and I wasn’t getting another professorship, I decided I would no longer pursue an academic career. I accepted the honorable vocation of being a parish pastor. I devoted myself to pastoral work. But I also discovered that one could make time to study and to write. Writing eventually led to invitations to teach courses in local schools like Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Concordia University Chicago. Being a parish pastor also gave me some credibility with fellow pastors and lay people when I was invited to give a talk, both in the US and in other countries. So there is life after seminary. It’s the life of the rest of the church.  The assembly for word and sacrament is the proper laboratory for the study of liturgy.

Third, in 2006 when I was diagnosed with colon cancer and received nearly a year of chemotherapy, I began to pay more attention to my body than I had before but also to the body in worship. Back in the 1960s there had been much interest in renewing the actions of worship. In fact, my first book, The Pastor As Worship Leader  (1977) focused on things like orders and rubrics and choreography. If you think about liturgy in terms of drama, this concerns the sequence of scenes, the stage directions, and the movement of actors. I think that interest was sidelined by an emphasis on texts as the churches embarked on producing new worship books and dealing with the emerging cultural ideologies of the 1970s and in the decades following. But as we became more focused on words we lost the true incarnational quality of sacramental worship and even became somewhat gnostic. When we spoke about the body we were talking about the body as a metaphor.  Metaphor is a use of language and language is an abstraction. But I have become interested in the living, breathing body that inhabits this earthly creation, the body that experiences what impacts it, the body that receives information from the surrounding world through the senses, the body that moves physically to get a better view of what’s happening.

I suppose I have gained some notoriety for bringing yoga into the study of liturgy and including it in my book on Embodied Liturgy. But I have found that it is a way to get into the body and to explore experientially the relationship between the body and its mind. I believe that real embodiment—getting into our actual bodies—is where we need to go in liturgical renewal. We need liturgy that is fully sensuous, that sets the body in motion on its journey into the kingdom, that provides an encounter with real presence. We need to embrace the real presence of Christ within our bodies when we receive the Eucharistic bread and wine. As Jesus well knew when he healed the sick, the way to the soul is through the body. This true embodiment is the project of my old age and I thank the Institute for encouraging me to carry on.

Pastor Frank Senn, STS

Photo above post: last confirmation group at Immanuel, Evanston before retiring in June 2013.

Receiving the Christus Rex Award on April 26, 2017

1 Comment

  1. Al

    Belated congratulations to you, Frank. A high honor indeed from the faculty that has championed Lutheran/ Protestant liturgical practice in North America.

    I happen to have attended Valparaiso as an undergrad (1966-70), for reasons totally unrelated to religion, at least initially. But something happened to me there… For personal, social, academic, and extra-curricular reasons I was drawn into the chapel community. I sang in their choirs, which put me in the thick of things. My life has been transformed ever since.

    What did it…? Your post above is helping me reflect on that this morning.

    It was in large part the discovery that liturgical worship is not dry, dead words from an antique book… It’s a drama that is not only unfolding just in one compressed hour on the first day of the week… That one hour is both a re-enactment and a fore-telling of the flow of my whole life. It also connects me personally with the story of faith and spirituality and seeking for divine wisdom that has unfolded across all the centuries of human existence. (Both micro- and macro-spirituality, you might want to say. Like physics…)

    And ironically, I was drawn into this realization, NOT intellectually, but through just being there bodily. Having discovered a talent and a love for singing, I joined the University Choir. There, the director recruited my “basso” voice for the little Liturgical Choir, which pulled me into this drama as a “player” every Sunday. And then week-by-week it was experiencing the flow of the liturgical seasons, the splendid and relevant preaching, the music, the color, the community… Being there bodily re-fashioned this particular skeptic and doubter into a man who began living the liturgical life.

    You weren’t a part of my story until just this past week when I discovered your blog by “accident”. But obviously, you were right on the fringes of my story. You were a pioneer in the broad movement that re-crafted me into a person of faith by simply curating deep and thoughtful liturgical worship, which “sucked me in”, despite my resistance!

    I am grateful to all of you for the spiritual centeredness my subsequent life has had, and for the sense of trinitarian purpose and mission that has driven and focused my 50 years of life experience since Valpo. Gracias!

    Congratulations! And thank you.

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