Question: We will be introducing Taize Evening Prayer during Lent. Although I have seen Taize promoted at national Preaching and Worship conferences of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as well as a number of their larger churches offering Taize, I still get a lot of resistance when talking to Lutherans about Taize. What has the relationship between Taize and the Lutheran church been like over the years? Why are some Lutheran churches all for it and others seriously against it? As these divided opinions regarding Taize do not seem to be deeply connected to the liberal vs confessional debate or the low-church vs high-church debate, what is the source of the disagreement over Taize? As the leadership of Taize does encourage creative use of their liturgy, can Taize be better graphed into Lutheran liturgical and theological norms?
Answer: The Taizé Community in France began after World War II to promote reconciliation between faith communities and nations. Initially it was founded as a Protestant (Lutheran/Reformed/Anglican) monastery with brothers coming from France, Germany, and England. Roman Catholics and other nationalities have been added to the mix and there has also been Orthodox presence and influence in terms of some chant responses and use of icons. Groups of brothers from Taizé have taken their community life and prayer around the world.
Since Lutherans were involved in the community from the beginning, one would think that Taizé prayer presents no theological obstacle to Lutheran use. Some Lutherans would be uncomfortable with, and actually opposed to, the ecumenical “unionism” it represents. However, Taizé services can be offered in denominational congregations without ecumenical participation—although I think to intentionally exclude an ecumenical invitation would be contrary to the spirit of Taizé.
Taizé Evening Prayer has been introduced in many Lutheran congregations and has proven very popular. In other Lutheran congregations it has gone over like a lead balloon. I think the issues have to do with the style of prayer and its music. Often the prayers are psalm verses in Latin or a vernacular language which are sung over and over like mantras. Melodies for these mantras have been composed by Brother Jacques Berthier. Whole psalms and canticles have been versified and given a meter by Fr. Joseph Gelineau, which is certainly in keeping with the Reformed tradition of psalters. Gelineau also provided musical settings not unlike Anglican chant. The mantras could be sung repeatedly for ten minutes with instrumentalists improvising on the melodies and harmonies.
In typical Taizé prayer services people fill the pews but may also sit on the chancel steps or on the floor at the front of the nave. Whoever shows up with an instrument can join the band, which might include piano or keyboard, strings, and woodwinds (given the quiet character of the chants probably not brass or percussion). A music leader gets the psalms and mantras started. Someone leads the intercessions at the end. During the intercessions people can come forward and place lighted candles on the altar steps or in front of icons. The entire service can be lay-led and without vestments, although at Taizé itself the brothers wear their monastic habits.
The Taizé services have appealed to youth around the world. But not necessarily to all youth. In the Chicago area there has been a monthly Taizé Evening Prayer Service at Ascension Catholic Church in Oak Park that attracts hundreds of people every first Friday. I have taken Lutheran church youth to these services and their reactions have been interesting. I think all were impressed that so many people could sit in silence for so long without hearing a pin drop. They were impressed with the casual way in which musicians arrived and just took a seat with other instrumentalists and joined in playing. Those who played in high school jazz bands recognized the improvisational character of the playing. But some did not like the musical style (very French). Others didn’t like the repetitive mantra-like verses in comparison with the kind of sturdy, multi-stanza hymns they were used to singing (German chorales—yes, Lutheran kids can learn to sing these hymns). A few were used to orders of worship with a clear structure (determined by the pages of the worship book or complete worship folder) and the structure of Taizé prayer (lacking a book or complete worship folder) was not evident to them.
In Lutheran congregations I have experienced attempts to include Taizé mantras during the administration of Holy Communion (“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom”) or the foot washing on Maundy Thursday (“Ubi caritas et amor”). A capable organist could make the mantras interesting by using different registrations on each repetition, but this doesn’t always happen because the organists don’t have a “feel” for the mantras, having never experienced them performed by a large group of people who also drift in and out of singing them. Some organists cut out after three repetitions and move on to the next hymn. Taizé mantras are intended to be chanted over and over to let the words sink into one’s heart and mind and prompt meditation. If organists cut out to let people sing in harmony they should come back in to exert musical leadership.
Given that Taizé represents a style of prayer and singing totally unlike the Germanic “meat and potatoes” (heavy) forms and substance of historic Lutheran worship, I don’t think the two styles can be easily blended. I don’t think the attempt should even be made. Lutherans as a whole don’t know how to let their bodies be casual in church while maintaining a devotional spirit. We’re used to doing worship lock step. Taizé may not work in every congregation. It’s not for everyone, just as, say, Benedictine monasticism with its Gregorian chants is not for everyone. But it should be respected enough to allow its integrity of style and substance to stand.
I strongly recommend letting people experience Taizé prayer in a community used to doing it before trying to implement it. Otherwise, people won’t have any clear expectation of what they are supposed to be performing before God and one another and everyone will experience frustration. But once it is established in a congregation it can be adapted to the resources and needs of the local community.
Pastor Frank Senn
The Taizé Community at prayer in France