On Wednesday, April 26, 2017, at the banquet of the 69th annual Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, I was honored with the Christus Rex Award that is given to someone who has made a contribution to liturgical scholarship and worship renewal. Here are my remarks in accepting this 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 presence, support, and counsel of my wife of forty years, Mary, who has accompanied me on many liturgical adventures.
I want to offer as a brief response to this award, reflections on three periods in my professional life. You might expect that a historian would divide his life into three periods—early, middle, and late—, divided by two crises.
First, among liturgical pioneers were pioneering students. I think 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 (at least back in those days). 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 also a pioneering teacher of liturgics. 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 liturgics from biblical studies or church history or dogmatics or homiletics or even music.
Second, after my contract at LSTC was not renewed (that was the first major crisis in my life) and I wasn’t succeeding in getting a professorship at other Lutheran seminaries, I decided I would no longer pursue an academic career. I accepted the honorable vocation of being a parish pastor. But I discovered that one could make time to study and to write. One of my publications was the 800-plus page Christian Liturgy—Catholic and Evangelical (Fortress Press 1997). This book came to be used as a textbook in seminaries. Writing eventually led to invitations to teach courses in local schools like Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Concordia University Chicago, and then in other schools in this and other countries. 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.
Third, ten years ago when I was diagnosed with colon cancer and had nearly a year of chemotherapy (that was the second crisis), 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: A Manual for Corporate Worship (Augsburg 1977) focused on things like orders and rubrics and choreography. I think that interest was supplanted by an emphasis on revising texts. This was probably inevitable as work proceeded on new worship books in the 1970s and 80s. But I think as we became more focused on words we lost the true incarnational quality of sacramental worship and even became more gnostic. When we spoke about the body we were talking mostly about the body as a metaphor for things other than the actual body. 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, that experiences what impacts it, that receives information from the surrounding world through the senses, that moves physically to get a better perception of what’s happening.
I believe that real embodiment 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—a presence that is ingested and digested as earthly elements of bread and wine. This true embodiment is the project of my old age and I thank the Institute for encouraging me to carry on, even to persist.
Again, I thank you for this honor. I look forward to attending the 70th annual Institute of Liturgical Studies next year.
Pastor Frank Senn