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
Reformation or Reconciliation Sunday?
Praying to the Saints
Why Lutherans are Identified as Evangelical Catholics
Calling Pastors “Father”
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 to the 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 (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 the soloist. Some of the people watching at home might join in singing.
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 it is meant to be consumed as food. 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. As information about and experience with this virus 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.
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 to be lethal for older adults with pre-existent health conditions but mild in children and healthy younger adults.
In addition to washing hands frequently with hot water and soap, people (especialy those experiencing coughing) can wear face masks and latex surgical gloves when out and about (to avoid direct contact with surfaces that everyone touches). In church and in worship interpersonal contact can be limited. 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 speaking the words and bowing slightly to each other. Whether wafers or loaves of bread are used for Holy Communion, those who handle the elements can wear protective latex gloves. 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. (Congregations that use disposable plastic containers should be ecouraged to cease and desist from contributing to environmental pollution!) The chalice should also be washed with hot water and soap 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 main liturgical concern is to allow as much interaction in the assembly as possible if or while such prophylactic measures are in place. People might allow more distance between bodies in the pews. But nothing stops people from moving around and joining in processions. This is a time-honored form of participation. Let people come forward at the offertory to deposit their gifts rather than passing the plate from person to person. This would revive the offertory procession. People wearing masks can still speak and sing, however muffled the sound. And pray urgently that this scourge passes away as quickly as it came, hopefully by Easter so that we can remove face masks and open our throats and mouths with sounds of praise and thanksgiving, exchange the sign of peace and reconciliation body-to-body, and share the body and blood of Christ unafraid of contamination of the sacrament.
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 30, 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).
Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), who popularized the identity of Lutherans as evangelical catholics, but converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in his later years.
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.
The Reverend Father, Doctor Martin Luther, teaching the Catechism
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.
German Lutheran Pfarrer confirming youth