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A Liturgical Stategy: Four Lines of Attack

by James F. White

When this article was written, James F.White was professor of liturgy in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 7, 1979, p. 242. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The church militant seems to relish military terms. We are constantly besieged by fund-raising campaigns; we are groggy from serving on so many task forces; we are daily informed of new evangelistic strategies. Maybe the time has come to apply the same language to thinking about the revitalization of, worship and to outline a national liturgical strategy, dealing with local problems and the national resources available to cope with them.

The Centrality of Worship

The importance of worship revitalization lies in the centrality of public .worship for the life of any Christian congregation. Most of our pastoral counseling is done from the pulpit. In Lambert Beauduin’s words, “Liturgy is theology, . . . the theology of the people,” the only religious education most adults receive. It is difficult to envision any long term Christian commitment to social justice that is not sustained by common worship. Evangelism falls flat if the worship life of a community is not exciting. We might accomplish some church administration without a thriving life of worshiping together, but even that is questionable.

Ironically, we have developed superb resources, and strategies for employing those resources, in most of these other areas of ministry. Pastoral care and counseling are so well done these days that many students enter and leave seminary convinced that a congregation’s basic job is to pay the rent and utility bills for the pastor while he or she performs this vital ministry on a one-to-one basis. Religious education is fortified by superb national staffs, enormous publishing resources and skilled researchers. Social action, it must be admitted, has seen better days, though there are encouraging signs from the right wing, of all places. Many denominations provide tremendous budgets and staffs for evangelism. We are, of course, grateful for the national resources available to support these aspects of ministry.

It is time, though, to take stock with regard to resources supporting the ministry of worship. What factors impede revitalization of worship in American churches, and what resources can, be brought to bear on changing the situation. Frank recognition of the problems and examination of the logistics for fighting them can be helpful. The problems of Catholics and Protestants in English-speaking North America seem reasonably similar, and the resources ought to be utilized in unison.

I do not doubt that my evaluation of the situation is affected by my position as a seminary professor. I can only argue that very few other people in American Christianity have had the opportunity to work full-time for 18 years on Christian worship -- a privilege I owe to a dean and seminary community who have steadfastly considered this an important priority.

Obstacles to Revitalization

The chief problems inhibiting revitalization of worship in American churches are ignorance and indifference. Ignorance of the possibilities available leaves the average congregation captive to the familiar. Churchgoers really have few options in worship because they do not know of any. Ignorance produces insecurity; insecurity resists change. A pastor who feels insecure in this area will be the last one to risk any innovations that might not prove popular.

Lest this observation be dismissed as just a superficial matter of techniques, let me immediately say that such ignorance applies most emphatically on the level of sacramental theology and liturgical theology in general. It amazes me that the break-throughs in Roman Catholic sacramental theology of the early 1960s remain almost unknown among American Protestants. The most recent Protestant book on the subject ignores the contributions of Edward Schillebeeckx, Piet Schoonenberg, Joseph M. Powers and others.

I see little hope, for a revitalized use of the sacraments without some basic reflection on how and why they function. Liturgical theology is a newer term, reflecting the sense that the words and actions of worship are a vital locus theologicus, one which ought to mirror the church’s understanding of its faith at various times and places; past and present. This approach enables us to ask how adequately our worship reflects the faith we profess. The results (cf. my article “Our Apostasy in Worship,” The Christian Century, September 28, 1977) are frequently discouraging.

Ignorance, then, is a real obstacle to worship revitalization. But equally foreboding is indifference. Renewal of worship is not given a high priority in most Protestant churches in this country. When one does workshops on worship, one soon discovers that pastors over 40 years of age or serving congregations of more than 1,000 members either have more important things to do than attend such confabs or else do not need any help. Another observation from such workshops: the number of laypeople in attendance slowly but surely is overtaking the number of clergy. One hears all too often such statements as “I wish our pastor were here” or “How can we get our pastor interested in worship?” If we could answer that question adequately, we could change a lot of things. The problem is how to spark interest instead of allowing pastors to remain indifferent,

The Seminaries’ Role

What resources must we marshal for overcoming ignorance and indifference about public worship? Our first, line of attack, it seems to me, ought to come from the seminaries. Unfortunately, most are weak in this area themselves and poorly equipped to lead the charge. How many seminaries still claim to equip for church ministry students who are not forced to wrestle in a systematic way with what and how the church communicates when it assembles for worship?

It is fine to teach students how to baptize a baby, but we are not accomplishing much unless we require them to think through why a baby ought (or ought not) to be baptized. It is not a good idea to pick babies up by the ears or to drop them, but the history and theology of infant baptism are far more important than the technique, though not unrelated to the method used. I find it ironic that most seminaries require a course in homiletics to help the student get through 20 minutes of the service (the sermon), but the same schools assume that he or she can wing it through the other 40 minutes without serious study and reflection.

Liturgical studies, or Christian worship, is a discipline that brings together theological, historical and practical data. As one studies the constitutive elements of a classical eucharistic prayer, for example; Christian doctrine, church history and one’s knowledge of people are fused. One might even say that when a student is capable of writing a good eucharistic prayer, he or she may be ready to graduate. But most people leave seminary these days without the slightest notion as to what is essential and what is fluff in a eucharistic prayer,  even though the church has no older form of proclamation of its faith.

Most seminaries are still sadly derelict in providing rigorous instruction in Christian worship for those preparing for church ministry. One can, however, point with some joy to the fact that almost half of the United Methodist seminaries now engage fulltime staff in the area of Christian worship, not jus. people with time left over from teaching church music, church history, or homiletics. But what about the  rest of the United Methodist seminaries? And what about scores of other ecumenical and denominational seminaries in this country and in Canada?

Obviously one of the problems is finding qualified people to teach liturgical studies. The North American Academy of Liturgy, the professional organization for the field, has about 225 members, of whom ‘80 per cent are Roman Catholic. Most of these Catholic liturgy professors are products of paragraph 15 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which inaugurated a crash program some 15 years ago. Men were trained at Trier, Paris and Rome to fill seminary posts. Now men and women are being trained in liturgical studies at Notre Dame and at the Catholic University of America.

The Notre Dame graduate program has attracted a few Protestant students. A graduate program in liturgical studies has been launched at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, with special strengths in liturgy and the arts and in liturgy and Christian spirituality. Another program has been assembled at Drew University and neighboring institutions which is particularly strong in Reformation and modern church history;

These programs are important resources, and it is to be hoped that they will attract sufficient students, especially women. It will be at least two years before we can produce our first Protestant woman with a Ph.D. in the field; ironically, the Roman Catholics are considerably ahead. But the first Catholic woman graduate will not be able to celebrate mass, even though she will know more about the mass than most priests do.

Denominational Resources and Workshops

Our second line of attack must be mounted by denominational worship agencies. I “call these the “liturgical establishment.” They provide extremely valuable services in marshaling resources, producing new service books, and holding workshops. Yet it is amazing how many denominations operate without such support services. If one stops to think how severely handicapped denominational efforts in, say, Christian education and missions would be without national staff, then one gets an idea of just how vital staff is in the area of worship.

Yet somehow the United. Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Baptists do without national staff in worship, though not in other areas of ministry. Lutherans took the lead in this field (back in  1955), but have since been joined by American Roman Catholics, Presbyterians. United Methodists and Episcopalians. The amount of volunteer work that such staffs can coordinate is extraordinary; the Lutherans are doing 750 workshops around the country to introduce their new service book.

Workshops themselves form our third line of attack on ignorance and indifference. Those of us who conduct them have come to expect that about a hundred people -- clergy and laity -- will show up for a one- or two-day regional workshop on worship. We need more trained personnel to augment the efforts of the few experienced leaders. But it is essential for everyone in the liturgical apostolate to get out in the field and do workshops. One learns much from the questions that are asked, and even more from those not asked. Three years or so ago, people stopped asking me about new ways to do weddings. But three years ago few Protestants had had experience with using a lectionary. Now, everyone has questions about the lectionary, and they are good questions.

More advantage should be taken of the workshops offered through the two centers for pastoral liturgy, one at Notre Dame and the other at the Catholic University of America. For 30 years the Liturgical Conference has been holding liturgical weeks, and these should attract thousands more participants. The annual Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, Indiana, is almost as old and takes place just before Lent each year. Perhaps Protestant funding might be developed to establish an ecumenical center for pastoral liturgy or, preferably, to help strengthen the existing Roman Catholic centers. Continuing education programs of various types could be developed in this area. It would be essential to keep them current.

One of the best-organized constituencies is that of church musicians. In several denominations they have professional societies with membership in the thousands. For years. they have been quietly doing significant work to upgrade church music. Though many of these efforts have had little contact with liturgical scholarship, there is indication that, in the past few years, musicians and liturgists have reached a level of talking to and learning from each

Other that is unprecedented. We are hearing less about “performing” liturgical music and more about the importance of ensuring musical liturgy -- a happy omen indeed.

Several organizations concerned with church architecture have now combined into the new Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture. Discourse between design professionals and liturgists has been lengthy and cordial. National and regional conventions and publications have been excellent. But frequently this cooperation fails to carry over into the local situation. A congregation builds without thinking to hire a liturgical consultant, though it is certain to employ a heating consultant. One wonders which is more important -- the basic function of the building or its temperature. As a result, we produce more unplanned obsolescence in church architecture than in American car manufacturing.

New Service Materials

Our fourth line of attack on the impediments to worship revitalization is through the medium of print. This approach takes many forms, in particular the production of service materials, catechetical materials, articles and books.

We are, in 1979, coming to the end of a Period that has seen the production of new service materials. The post-Vatican II explosion in liturgical revision is drawing to a close. For a few denominations there may be second-generation services yet to come, but that is unlikely in most instances. The United Methodist Church is the one major exception.

For the most part, the revisions of Roman Catholic liturgical books mandated by Vatican II have been completed, save small portions of the Ritual and Pontifical. English translations have been completed and approved on most items. The prospect that second-generation revisions of these will be made seems rather remote at this point, though much of the work of the past decade appears blatantly sexist to present-day eyes. Surveys show that the great majority of Catholics approve the changes. That fact may make major revisions even less likely than strong disapproval would have.

This year will undoubtedly bring final approval by the Episcopal General Convention of the Book of Common Prayer on the basis of the Proposed Book of 1976. A few minor changes in the lectionary may ensue, but liturgical revision among Episcopalians is probably finished for another generation or more. (The prayer book was last revised in 1928). Last year saw the culmination of many years of labor in the publication of the new Lutheran Book of Worship, prepared by all the major Lutheran churches in this country and Canada. The interval since publication of the last major service book for most Lutherans has been 20 years.

The United Church of Christ produced Services of the Church as eight pamphlets in a ring-bound cover in 1969 and included much of the material in the Hymnal of the United Church of Christ in 1974. The major Presbyterian bodies brought forth the new Worshipbook in 1970 and (with hymns) in 1972. My general impression is that the UCC and Presbyterian materials have not had widespread use as pew books. This underutilization seems to have been due largely to the lack of much catechesis -- clergy that is interpretation to clergy and laity of the hymnbook committees’ decisions and of how to use the books. Their low use is a reflection not of their quality but of the tactics with which they were introduced. Careful interpretation of new service books is, it seems, almost as important as the preparation of their contents.

The United Methodist Church is the only major. denomination still in the process of producing new services. Though the new Supplemental Worship Resources (SWR) do not abolish existing materials, they provide quality alternatives, as well as offering new resources where none existed previously. Of the Supplemental Worship Resources, four have been published with great success: The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; A Service of Baptism, Confirmation, and Renewel; Word and Table; and Ritual in a New Day. SWR books on the Christian year, weddings, funerals, and Lent and Easter will follow this fall. With the United Methodist Church currently the only major denomination involved in the field of liturgical revision, there is evidence that some congregations in other denominations are using SWR materials in place of or in addition to their own.

I have already mentioned the importance of workshops and catechetical publications. Instruction for the use of new rites demands massive efforts. The Episcopalians have used the so-odd-volume Prayer Book Studies series as a means of informing clergy and laypeople as to the reasons for changes and of instructing them on how to make the most effective use of the revised liturgies. The Lutheran Contemporary Worship series has functioned in a similar way.

For years, Catholic liturgists have waged impressive campaigns to inform their constituents of impending changes. The 1977 permission for communion in the hand brought forth several well-written leaflets, distributed by the millions. It was only the latest instance of a major assault on ignorance -- one that relied on audiovisual technology, the use of commentators at mass, and constant recourse to the Catholic press to prevent changes from coming as surprises and ambushes. No wonder popular approval has been so widespread; it was no accident. And no wonder the Presbyterian revisions, far less radical in character, but with little catechesis, never got off the ground! Forewarned, Methodists are being careful to publish nothing without full introduction and commentary.

Periodicals and Books

Other forms of publication are vital resources too. Liturgy, issued bimonthly by the Liturgical Conference (810 Rhode Island Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20018), is scarcely known among American Protestants, though both publication and conference are fully ecumenical. Worship magazine, a bit more scholarly, is also a fully ecumenical bimonthly (St. John’s Abbey Collegeville, Minnesota 56321) and could be used with much profit by any pastor. Modern Liturgy is still heavily Roman Catholic (Box 444, Saratoga, California 95070) but contains many sprightly ideas. Beyond these are substantial periodicals for church musicians, such as the bimonthly Pastoral Music (1029 Vermont Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005) or, for architects, the biannual Faith, 6’ Form (1777 Church Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 2006).

None of these magazines has even begun to tap its potential audience. Liturgy, the most broadly practical of them all, ought to have ten times its present circulation of 4,500. When people ask me what they can do to keep up with the field or to sustain the interest generated by a good workshop, my answer is: subscribe, read and use the appropriate periodicals.

Only within recent years have book publishers learned that they can make money with solid books on worship. I remember, a dozen years ago, being told by an editor with the best list on worship in the business that his firm had never made money on any of these books. Now there demonstrably is a market, though it still has a long way to go.  Look at any pastor’s professional library: you will see recent books on pastoral care, possibly a few on preaching, and maybe a couple on church administration. How many pastors keep up with a field as rapidly changing as worship? Many have never established this habit, though they would be embarrassed to be so far behind in other areas of ministry. They do not seem to know how restricted and insecure they remain if they have not recently done any deep probing beneath the surface in worship. We can hope that this situation is changing; my denomination has mailed out (by request) thousands of copies of a basic bibliography on worship.

There is a vital need for quality scholarship as we reallocate more of our intellectual resources to liturgical studies. Now that all the major U.S. churches which follow a lectionary are using basically the same one, we can expect that the contributions from biblical studies will continue to increase. Since such a large part of most services is built around the lectionary, the finest biblical scholarship can have a great impact on the totality of the service through new commentaries and other resources. Studies in cultural anthropology have, become most useful to us in understanding ritual behavior, and theologians in the past decade have been discussing these studies more than ever before. The value of historical studies, of course, remains basic, particularly those of the pre-Nicene church. Surely our campaigns will never be stronger than our intelligent efforts.

We have, then, four lines of attack: seminaries, denominational agencies, workshops and publications. At present none of these is fully mobilized, and none is likely to be until worship receives a higher priority in the allocation of personnel and finances in the denominations and institutions of American Christianity. In a few cases there is a slight duplication of efforts; one might argue for fewer organizations and publications, though both are near minimal now. Not much coalescence is possible without serious damage to existing efforts. There are no significant  ecumenical efforts to fill in for denominational failures to undergird local churches with national staff and resources. Those denominations will have to make political decisions as to whether to give their troops out in the field the logistical support they need to succeed in working for worship revitalization or to let them flounder on their own.

Finally, the source of worship revitalization, as in all aspects of our ministry, is in the hands of God. But God gives us the means to serve God and others. It is up to us to make the fullest use of the polity, the money and the people we have so that the praise of God by assembled congregations may be the summit and source of the church’s life.


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