This blog is primarily about answering questions sent to me—if I am able and willing to do so. I receive questions anonymously via the blog platform or from people I know by email. Not all questions need an essay-type answer. So I decided to have a post here in which I respond to questions with just a brief answer. The most recent one is on top. I have also set up posts exclusively dedicated to answering briefly questions about communion practices and Advent and Christmas, some of which previously appeared here.
Table of Topics
Sign of the Cross at the Invocation – August 10, 2020
Lutheran Pastors as Religious Oblates – August 1, 2020
The Response “The Word of the Lord” – April 24, 2020
Livestreaming Worship – March 13, 2020
Preventing Contagion – February 28, 2020
Offertory Ritual – February 27, 2020
Reformation or Reconciliation Sunday? – October 28, 2019
Praying to the Saints – November 1, 2018
Why Lutherans are Identified as Evangelical Catholics – October 31, 2018
Calling Pastors “Father” – October 23, 2018
Re-baptizing Transgender Persons
August 10, 2020
The Use of the Sign of the Cross at the Invocation
It may just be my growing curmudgeon -ess, but increasingly I am watching the sign of the cross at the invocation being made as if it is a blessing for the congregation. A “blessing” of the pandemic is the opportunity to see multiple pastors at work, including my own bishop, and he and many others are doing this. Outside of page 117, “The Sunday Assembly,” and it’s instruction, my own understanding is that it is a remembrance of my baptism. I am not certain that I could, or should, give a satisfactory explanation as why this use of the Invocation as a blessing is not appropriate (or so it feels to me). Or perhaps there is some use of this I am unfamiliar with. I am wondering if you might provide that background and explanation for the sign of the cross and the invocation?
Your understanding is correct. The sign of the cross is used in connection with the Trinitarian Name as a remembrance of baptism. In the ancient catechumenate the sign of the cross was the first sacramental sign given to those who were beginning their journey to the font, where they would be joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. St. Augustine of Hippo, for example, received the sign of the cross as an infant even though he wasn’t baptized until age thirty. Even not yet baptized he considered himself a Christian because he bore on his brow the sign of the cross.
An invocation is a prayer for God’s blessing on us. Hence it is made on our own body, including by the presiding minister. A benediction is a word of promise spoken by the presiding minister to the congregation. Hence the sign of the cross is made over the congregation by the presiding minister; the worshipers apply that blessing to themselves by making the sign of the cross on themselves. Lutheran pastors seem confused about this. Perhaps it would help to differentiate the invocation as a prayer (we all pray together — in the older books facing the altar) and the benediction as a word of proclamation (in the older books the PM faces the congregation) . Perhaps PMs got confused with the free standing altar. But there’s still a difference between prayer and proclamation.
I would add that if the presiding minister invokes some other name or designation of God or places the blessing of some other name or designation of God than “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” as a worshiper I do not make the sign of the cross on myself because that is not the name in which I was baptized. That includes “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” (a job description for a deity) or “holy Trinity, one God” (a theological affirmation). These are not names.
There are other practices. For example, in the Byzantine Liturgy the entrance rite begins with the priest or bishop blessing “the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” At that those words the priest makes the sign of the cross with the Gospel Book over the altar space. Originally it marked the beginning of the entrance procession and taking possession of the worship space for the kingdom of God. Those attending bow their heads deep and low, making the sign of the cross on themselves in the Eastern way, seeking the blessing “of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Perhaps the same gesture would apply in The Book of Common Prayer (1979), Rite 2, when the presiding minister says, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and the people respond: “And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen” — making the sign of the cross with the Gospel Book over the altar before placing it on the altar.
August 1, 2020
Lutheran Pastors as Religious Oblates
What are your thoughts around a Lutheran pastor becoming an oblate (or associate or other terms) of a Benedictine, Franciscan, or Trappist order (whether Roman Catholic or Episcopal)?
I know several who are, and they mention how having a rule of life (including commitment to the Daily Office) helps them pastor.
There’s nothing wrong with Lutheran pastors becoming oblates of a religious order. Third order Benedictines or Franciscans are usually lay people who support the order and follow the Rule as they are able as married men or women with family responsibilities and secular jobs. There are, in fact, Lutheran Benedictines and Franciscans. The Congregation of the Servants of Christ is a Lutheran monastic community at St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, MI. Oblates are actually men who are interested in the monastic life and live with the community in an intentional way that might lead to becoming professed monks. However, the Fellowship of St. Augustine is a group of pastors and lay people who support the congregation, follow its prayer cycle, and attend one or more retreats at the monastery. For more information visit: https://www.staugustineshouse.org/.
Lutheran pastors are also welcome to join the Society of the Holy Trinity, which is an inter-Lutheran ministerium and pastoral oratory. It’s Rule is helpful to Lutheran pastors in praying the Daily Offices, practicing individual confession and forgiveness, experiencing collegiality in local chapters, and attending chapter retreats and the annual General Retreat. For more information visit: https://www.societyholytrinity.org/.
April 24, 2020
The Response “Thanks be to God”
When did Lutherans start ending their readings during the Liturgy of the Word by saying, “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God?” Why?
The custom of announcing the lessons goes back to the twelfth century. When the custom began of announcing the end of the readings is uncertain. The first and subsequent editions of the Book of Common Prayer concluded readings in the daily prayer offices with “Here endeth [such a] chapter of [such a] Book.” The custom was carried over to the Epistle in the Service of Holy Communion. Lutheran worship books in English picked up this custom of announcing the end as well as the beginning of the reading. The Common Service Book (1918) and the Service Book and Hymnal (1958) had: “Here endeth the Epistle of the Day.” The SBH had added an Old Testament Lesson and it was concluded with the words, “Here endeth the Lesson.” The idea was catching on among the Western Churches that the people should respond to the readings. To say “Here endeth the Lesson” with “Thanks be to God” didn’t seem appropriate. When the Roman Missal of Paul VI was promulgated in 1969 (in English in 1970), the response to Scripture readings except the Gospel was: “The Word of the Lord. R/ Thanks be to God.” With the adoption of versions of the Roman Lectionary during the 1970s this response was incorporated into the worship books of other denominations, including Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). It has become an ecumenical response that is familiar in now in a number of Protestant traditions. With Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) other words have been added as options, such as “Word of God, word of life.” Why? I don’t know.
March 13, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic makes its way across the globe, churches are closing for group activities, including worship. Sunday worship is important for Christians. Many churches have livestreaming capabilities. What kind of worship should we present? Should livestreamed Sunday worship without a congregation present include Holy Communion?
I think what is livestreamed should be as close as possible to the worship services congregations are used to, and to the way they are usually conducted. Congregations using online communications could send the worship bulletin electronically to its members with their weekly e-newsletter so that congregants can follow the service from home.
The pastor and organist/musician would be present. Candles are lighted on the altar. The pastor wears customary vestments. A couple of lay people might be present (spaced out) to serve as a reader (Scripture, intercessions) and a singer (to assist in singing the hymns and liturgical chants). Most of the service would be spoken but at least the hymns should be played and the stanzas sung by those present. Some of the people watching at home might join in singing. Copies of the order of worship can be made available online.
In the absence of a congregation Holy Communion should not be celebrated. It would be valid but not a good sign since only the few people present could receive while the rest of the congregation watching at home is excluded. Protestants would not be into “ocular Communion,” that is, receiving a spiritual benefit just from seeing the sacrament. We have taught that the sacrament is meant to be consumed as food and drink. This means that a form of Ante-Communion (liturgy of the Word) would be used or Morning Prayer (Matins).
The spiritual preparation of the people to join in an actual virtual worship service from home should receive attention. As much as possible the congregation at home should switch gears from other activities to prepare themselves for worship. If the live streamed Sunday service is to be an act of worship, viewers must intentionally make an effort to enter into God’s presence.
Preparing for worship is a ritual process in which we must step out of the ordinary routines of life and enter into a time of preparing hearts and minds to hear God’s word and be receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit, just as we would ideally do when we cross the threshold on Sunday morning into the worship space to do the assembly’s liturgy. Since this is Sunday worship at home, the fellowship time after worship could be kept by preparing coffee and refreshments. As far as possible retain the Sunday morning routines. The members of the congregation will long to be able to return to experiencing social closeness instead of social distance.
February 28, 2020
Question: Any suggestions around adapting worship practices in light of Coronavirus? I suspect we probably should be already during flu season.
Contact points include handshaking before worship, passing of the peace, passing the offering place, communion, and handshaking in the receiving line.
The pastor touches everyone, so everyone “downstream” gets everyone else’s whatever!
I remember reading in “Lutheran Partners” magazine in the early ’90s that the common cup was more sanitary than intinction or individual cups? Has to do with the silver in the cup (not so with ceramic) and the wine (not so with grape juice), and also the wipe and rotate method.
I’m reluctant to give an authoritative answer to this issue because at this time there’s a lot we don’t know about this virus. Hence it’s called “novel” (new). As information about and experience with this coronavirus increases I’m sure denominations will come out with recommended guidelines about the interaction of people in worship if, as expected, the virus begins to spread more widely through society and around the world. Gathering in church buildings might also be prohibited.
However, you are right that many churches haven’t adopted anti-contagion practices during the flu season and this year it has been a more aggressive strain than usual. Statistics indicate that millions of Americans have had flu or flu-like symptoms. As of this writing, during the 2019-2020 flu season in the U.S. some 16,000 people have died and 280,000 people have been hospitalized, according to preliminary estimates from the CDC. The new coronavirus seems destined to pass these figures by far.
Worship in church buildings will limit interpersonal contact. It is not necessary for the pastor to shake hands with people or for people to greet each other with a handshake. People can exchange the sign of peace by making a peace sign or bowing slightly to each other. It is not necessary to pass the offering plates through the pews. People can deposit their offerings in a receptacle before or after the service. Whether wafers or loaves of bread are used for Holy Communion, those who handle the elements can wear protective latex gloves. Those who distribute the elements should rub disinfectant into their hands and fingers. You are correct that the CDC has concluded that drinking wine with alcoholic content from a silver or gold-inlay chalice, that is wiped with a purificator after each imbibing, has a low risk of transmitting germs (although this seems counterintuitive to a lot of people). Intinction would entail a higher risk of transmitting germs because people’s finger tips dip into the wine along with the bread. Individual glasses would have to be washed in a commercial grade dish washer because fingers and lips touch the rims of the little glasses. Chalices fitted with a pouring lip could be used to pour the wine into individual classes. (Congregations that use disposable plastic containers should be encouraged to cease and desist from contributing to environmental pollution!) The chalice should also be washed with hot water and detergent and altar guild members who place the individual glasses in a tray should wear latex gloves. Since the whole Christ is received under either species (the doctrine of concomitance) communicants concerned about the cup could receive the bread only. The bread or wafer should be slightly dropped into cupped hands rather than placed directly in the hand.
People might have to allow for the recommended six feet of distance between bodies in the pews (except for families) and wear masks. When joining a procession for communion worshipers would have to be spaced 6 feet apart. People wearing masks can still speak. Whether they should sing, however, needs to be reconsidered in the light of the fact that the virus can be spread by aerosol particles (which is the reason for wearing masks).
We should pray urgently that this scourge passes away as quickly as it came. But considering the speed with which this novel coronavirus is spreading, we may reach a critical point at which public worship services will have to be suspended, as is already happening in Italy. We will need to be prepared for that situation.
February 27, 2020
An ongoing question in our parish is about the necessity, or lack thereof, for two actions; “Is an offertory canticle necessary after either a hymn or another musical offering,” and “Is it necessary for the assembly to rise as the gifts are presented?” For more clarity, occasionally when a hymn or hymn anthem is sung, the offertory canticle has been omitted, and the assembly stands and sings the final stanza of the hymn as the gifts are presented. This causes some confusion for our ushers, as well as the assembly. Our pastor would like to get rid of a separate canticle altogether and simply have the ushers collect the offering and then come forward and present the gifts, simultaneous to any musical offering or hymn, and then have the assembly stand at the Great Thanksgiving, when no Offertory Prayer is used. When we have tried this, occasionally there are a few folks who stand as the gifts are brought forward, due to habit. Maybe a couple of better questions are, “Is it better liturgical practice for the assembly to stand and sing a separate offertory canticle as the gifts are presented,” and “Is the assembly standing during the presentation a liturgical function, and if so, does ending this action constitute poor liturgical practice?”
Considering how fussy Lutherans can be about offertory ritual, it is ironic that Martin Luther and early Lutheran church orders omitted the offertory completely. Luther called it “tota illa abominatio.” That’s because it was the point at which the faithful paid stipends for votive masses (masses of special intention). In early Lutheran mass orders the altar and sacramental elements were prepared during the singing of the Creed and the faithful deposited monetary offerings for the common chest (poor box) when they came forward to receive communion. Today in Lutheran services the offertory is a very big ritual.
If we look back to the practice of the ancient Roman Church, the offertory constituted a big procession of the faithful who brought forward to the clergy gifts of bread and wine, oil and candles, and other items used in the Divine Liturgy. To cover this movement throughout the basilica the choir (Schola Cantorum) sang psalms appointed as propers for the day. The liturgical action didn’t cease while people just listened to the choir.
What would make liturgical sense is that whatever is sung at the offertory covers the action of gathering the gifts and setting the table. That may be a choir anthem (chosen for its appropriateness to that day in the church year calendar and lectionary) and/or a hymn sung by the congregation and/or a psalm or canticle. The amount of singing depends on how much music is needed to cover the action. It may fluctuate depending on the day in the liturgical year and the expected attendance as well as whether there is a choir anthem and how long or short it is. These variables can be known in advance of preparing an order of service. The people may remain seated during all of this and the gifts (including the bread and wine) are brought forward to the ministers as soon as the ushers/gift bearers are ready to do so. The people stand for the offertory prayer or Great Thanksgiving.
For what it’s worth, in the Episcopal Church I attend we usually have (and need) both a choir anthem and a congregational hymn. The congregation stands for prayer, not for the presentation of the gifts and setting of the table.
October 28, 2019
Reformation or Reconciliation Sunday?
Question: Why didn’t the proposal to make Reformation Sunday Reconciliation Sunday take off?
Answer: I suspect that the proposal to turn Reformation Day/Sunday into Reconciliation Day/Sunday didn’t take off because there’s nothing to celebrate. Reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics is a hope, not a fact. It is based on the successes of contemporary ecumenical dialogue and cooperation, such as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Reformation, on the other hand, is something that historically happened and Lutherans have several centuries of tradition in observing it liturgically. It has become a way of dusting off and looking again each year at our Lutheran heritage. If the idea of a Reconciliation Festival is to have any currency, it will have to be at the local level (between dioceses/synods, parishes/congregations) where relationships between Lutherans and Catholics are being cultivated and sustained by continual dialogue and cooperation.
Another possibility is for the Roman Catholic Church to also celebrate a Reformation Festival. After all, what the Roman Catholic Church has been for the last five centuries has also been shaped by the Reformation—the Catholic Reformation. In modern times the festival has prompted us to ask about the continuing relevance of reformation. Both Lutherans and Catholic have seen the need for continuing reform. Ecclesia semper reformanda. “The church must always be reformed.” I dare say that in the wake of the pervasive sexual abuse scandals throughout the world the Catholic Church today is in need of institutional and spiritual reform today as thorough as what occurred after the Council of Trent—reform that touched the whole ecclesial body from the papacy to the parish.
November 1, 2018
About Praying to the Saints
Question: Did the Lutheran Reformation throw the baby out with the bathwater when we rejected the cult of saints? The biggest critique I hear from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is that asking the saints to pray for you is just like asking one of your living friends to pray for you. Which got me thinking, with our doctrine of the communion of saints that we confess in the creeds, I wonder if we could make an argument of asking the saints to pray for us.
Answer: I refer you to my article, “Frank Answers About Saints in the Lutheran Church.” Lutherans do not pray to the saints, claiming the sole mediatorship of Christ as the main reason. But the Lutheran Confessions (Apology, Article 21) grant that “the saints pray for us.” So I suppose there isn’t a need to ask them to do so. However, I wonder: how do we address the dead? What consciousness (mind) do the dead have? What is the substance of the soul apart from the body? What is the relationship between the body, the mind, and the soul? I refer you to my articles, “Frank Answers About What Happens After Death” and “Frank Answers About the Soul.” In what sense can “saints in heaven” hear earthly prayers? Wouldn’t they need to be like God? I think we need to hear Catholic and Orthodox theologians deal with these kinds of questions. I think that we can certainly pray with the saints, just as we join our voices “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” in singing the thrice-holy hymn (Sanctus).
October 31, 2018
About Why Lutherans Are Identified as Evangelical Catholics
Question: Aren’t Lutherans Protestant? Why would some theologians like Martin Marty suggest we call ourselves evangelical catholic and reject the terms Protestant or even Lutheran?
Answer: The issue is one of historical and theological identity. The name “Protestant” was first used of those who “protested” the Edict of Speyer (1529), which revoked the Recess of Speyer (1526) that left the determination of religion in each territory and city of the Holy Roman Empire up to the governing authorities until a general council could settle the religious differences in the Empire. So, yes, Lutherans are among the first Protestants.
The problem is that now every denominational group that is not Catholic or Orthodox is regarded as Protestant, not just the Lutheran and Reformed protesters. What do Lutherans have in common, say, with Pentecostals, who might also be identified as Protestants? As for the name “Lutheran,” it was originally a name of derision used by Catholic critics and Luther himself did not approve of it. He said his followers should simply call themselves “Christians.” The term “Evangelical” (gospel-centered) was also applied to Lutherans in Europe, often to distinguish them from the Reformed. But “Die evangelische Kirche in Deutschland” is quite different in character from American Evangelicalism, as are American Lutheran denominations and congregations that have “Evangelical” in their name.
Many Lutheran theologians since the 19th century have embraced the term “evangelical catholic” to indicate that Luther’s intention and actual Lutheran practice was to reform the Catholic Church, not to create something new. The Catholic creeds, the canon of Scripture, dogmas of the ancient church (Trinity, Christology, original sin, etc.), historic liturgical forms, and many church practices were retained by Lutherans. Theologians such as Archbishop Nathan Soderbloom, Gustav Aulen, Paul Tillich, Jaroslav Pelikan, Carl Braaten and many others have used moniker “evangelical catholic” as a description of Lutheranism as well as Martin Marty (and yours truly).
October 23, 2018
About Calling Pastors “Father”
Question: When and why did Lutherans stop referring to pastors as “father”? I’m particularly confused by this since Luther seems to defend the practice in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism and was addressed by many of his colleagues as “reverend father.”
Answer: You are correct that in the explanation to the fourth commandment, “Honor you father and your mother,” Luther commends “spiritual fathers” along with, and even more than, biological fathers, heads of households, and rulers who are “fathers of their nations” (The Large Catechism I, 158). Contrary to “those in the papacy who have had themselves called ‘father,’…the name of spiritual father belongs only to those who govern and guide us by the Word of God. St. Paul boasts that he is such a father in 1 Corinthians 4[:15}, where he says ‘In Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.'”
Luther and many Lutheran clergy were addressed as “reverend father.” I do not know when Lutherans generally stopped using this title of address. As to why, my suspicion is that it sounded “too Catholic,” which is the Lutheran default response to anything they don’t like. However, the title “Father” is still used by some Lutherans today, especially those who regard themselves as evangelical catholics.
While I’m at it, Lutherans never call their ministers “Reverend.” “Reverend” is a written form of address preceded by “The.” Most Lutherans call their ministers “Pastor,” although properly speaking “Pastor” is the spiritual leader of a congregation or parish: e.g. The Reverend Doctor Johannes Bugenhagen, Pastor of the Wittenberg Stadtkirche. In the English tradition it is quite appropriate to address ministers as “Mister,” “Master,” or “Doctor,” according to their academic degree. I would add that if our ordained male ministers can be called “Father,” ordained female ministers can be called “Mother,” since the fourth commandment refers to honoring fathers and mothers, and “Reverend Mother” has also been a title of honor given to women heads of religious communities.
October 1, 2018
Re-Baptizing Trans-Gender Persons
Question: Some transgendered persons are seeking and receiving re-baptism as a way of establishing their new gender identity. How do you respond to that?
I know several trans (the preferred designation) people, including a former confirmand who has changed her gender from male to female. I don’t believe the science on transgender/transsexual (biology, psychology, anthropology, etc.) is completely settled because science is never completely settled. We continue to explore the mysteries of the universe and of the human body and mind. And even what we find requires interpretation. For example, a study using brain-imaging technology indicates that the brain structure of trans people appears to be shifted in the direction of the sex they identify with as opposed to the sex they were born with. But does the brain activity produce produce the gender behavior or does the gender behavior produce the brain activity? Embodied brain theory might suggest the latter. But I’m not competent to deal with the science of gender dysphoria.
However, the theology of the body and the practice of baptism is settled, and I think I’m competent to deal with that. And I must deal with these issues because the doctrine of creation and the theology of baptism is important to the faith of the church. But I believe the church must also have a way of pastorally accompanying transgender members. As Debra Soh writes in her new book, The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in our Society (New York: Threshold, 2020), “it isn’t necessary to redefine ‘sex’ or eliminate the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ in order to facilitate acceptance of people who are different.”
So…to deal with the practice of baptism first (the question that has been asked): what gender or sex the person was when he/she/they were baptized doesn’t matter because baptism is not about biology or sexuality, gender or cultural identity. It is about forgiveness of sins, eternal salvation, and membership in the body of Christ. A human being with a body and soul is baptized into Christ and “in Christ there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Baptism is rebirth by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Baptism is being incorporated into the life of the Holy Trinity. It makes one an adopted child of God the Father, a member of Christ’s body in the world, and a bodily temple of the Holy Spirit. It is performed once because God’s word of promise (“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved”, Mark 16:16) is reliable. Hence the ecumenical Nicene Creed states, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiven of sins.”
Given all this, we should have no reason to despise our bodies. It is an expression of the “fall” of humanity into sin that people (probably all people to some extent) are ashamed of or dissatisfied with their bodies (which means they are ashamed of or dissatisfied with themselves, since we are our bodies). They may be ashamed of or dissatisfied with their size or shape or particular body parts. What transgender people feel about their body differs from one person to another, so general statements cannot be made. They may, however, believe that they have been forced into the wrong gender by cisgender socialization.