Lutheran Ritual: An Identity Crisis (The Divorcing of Substance from Style) (Part 4)

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The Medieval Inheritance and the Reformation of Ritual [continued]

The medieval church believed that the ritual system made the divine present and brought that presence into being.  Contrary to this ‘doctrine of presence’ was the Reformation idea of ‘re-presentation’.  According to this philosophy, rituals should not be understood as a method of behaviour that creates presences and enacts being.  Instead they are to be seen as a language of communicated meaning.[1] Inherent in this ‘theory of re-presentation’ is the Lutheran idea of proclamation and understanding.  What was vital for the Reformation was not that a ritual made the divine present but that something about the divine was communicated to the community of believers.  Also important was that the community understood what this presence meant (a clear focus on cognition).  A motivating factor behind this theory of ‘re-presentation’ was the humanist principle of reconciling ritual practices with Biblical evidence.  Reformers hence found no (sacramental) justification for confirmation, ordination, marriage, extreme unction and penance.[2] The divine could not be present in a ritual action because the Bible gave no precedence for such a presence to be enacted.

Consequent to this was the Reformation practice of judging the value of a rite based upon the spiritual response of the believer.  “The process of gaining access to the sacred shifted from experiencing the divine body through sight, touch, and ingestion to interpreting the scriptural Word, a process that had wide-ranging implications for the status of ritual as well as for the mentality of lay believers.”[3] Accordingly, the divine presence is separated from the ritual action as the scriptural Word is set in distinction to a bodily presence of the divine.  The whole ritual system was essentially brought into question.  The statement ‘this is my body’, for the sacramental Protestants, became a statement about how the divine was represented rather than presented in the sacrament.[4] No longer was the rite imbued with the presence of the divine, but instead the presence of the divine was based upon how the divine was represented in the bread by the words ‘this is my body’.  Susan Karant-Nunn speaks of the same development as she writes, “Worship services in their entirety ceased with the Reformation to be the replication of a miracle and became instead a means of shaping the individual faith.”[5] According to Reformation philosophy, the divine was no longer present in the rite itself; instead the focus fell upon how the word would represent the divine.

Luther himself did not deny contact with the divine presence within ritual.  Still, Luther was not willing, unlike Calvin, to deny that the divine became present in the sacraments.  His defence of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper shaped ritual and piety (he called the Sacrament of the Altar itself gospel).[6] But the focus for Luther shifted from the rite itself to the word used with the rite.  The words of institution were the essential element that made Christ present, not the rite.

The mode of presence of the divine was a highly contested debate amongst the Reformers.  Before the Reformation, communicants ate the host because it literally presented Christ’s human flesh sensually, to the mouth and the tongue.  After the Reformation, this form of divine presence became the subject of persistent debate.[7] Debates as such between Zwingli and Luther are well documented.  The crux of the issue lies in the doubt that was cast upon the rite of the Eucharist.  For the medieval believer Christ was present because the divine was present in the rite itself and also corporeally in the host.  Once the Reformation called into question the mode of presence the actual presence itself came under a cloud of doubt.

st-peter-st-paul-cranachTorevell claims, “For Luther and like-minded Reformers, the imparting of grace had nothing to do with sacred objects or actions performed.”[8] This statement is a bit overwhelming but behind it lies the central fact that has been raised.  Luther valued the sacrament of the altar as the ‘gospel’ and as the real presence of Christ.  He surely believed that grace was received by partaking of the sacrament.  But Torevell is correct in saying that Luther put no faith in the “sacred object or actions performed.”  For Luther it was not the actual object or the act that made the divine present, it was the consecration using the last word and testament of Christ.  Torevell states it like this, “Liturgical and holy things became transmuted into mere objects which were only to be valued for their function in stimulating faith, not in themselves.”[9] Torevell believes that this resulted in a truncating of the sacramental life of the Church.  Instead of the ‘body’ of the divine being the centre of theology, a radical transcendence of the divine and the utter fallenness of humanity took centre stage.

Muir provides a more favourable description of Luther’s approach to ritual than does Torevell.  Luther did insist on retaining the Real Presence in the Eucharist and refused to abandon a ritual communication or to accept a symbolic interpretation.  “The ritual generates power and produces profit.  Ritual kept its efficacy for Luther, at least as long as the communicant is spiritually receptive, and ritual was still necessary for him, precisely because God must reach our bodies as well as our souls, and immaterial words are insufficient for the task.”[10] Although Luther is not described as supporting ritual as a medium of divine presence, Muir contends that Luther did see the necessity of it so that God could reach our body and souls.

Another aspect of the medieval ritual structure was the ideal of the performance of the ritual over the understanding; in other words, contact with the divine through the senses compared to contact through cognition.  The Reformers essentially reversed this ideal as there began to be an overwhelming appeal to the mind as the means to divine interaction.  “Consequently, the mind began to replace the body as the focus of attention….”  The pastor was no longer the ritual expert, as he was in the medieval church, but now he was a person who saw to it that the worshippers understood exactly what was happening and why it was happening.[11] What this approach denies is the previously stated nature of ritual—that ritual speaks with many voices on many different levels.  It defies explanation (or is at least “de-sacralised” with attempts at explanation).

The dynamic element of the rite was stifled as Reformers began the process of interpreting ritual.  “By moving from experiencing a ritual presence to interpreting a ritual re-presentation, misunderstandings propagated themselves in that breakneck destructuring rush called the Protestant Reformation.”[12] The experience of the ritual and its divine presence was the lifeblood of the medieval ritual structure.  No longer was this to be the case within Reformation churches.  The process of interpreting ritual emptied the multi-faceted level of meaning, leaving behind a rite that is clearly defined but also unable to express, as it once did, the presence of the divine.

Two major reforms of the medieval ritual system remain.  The first is the didactic element of ritual.  The Reformation makes virtually no use of this element.  The only sense that one gets is that they taught people what the rites did without allowing rituals to teach.  The mind was elevated above the body, cognition over the reception of the divine presence through the senses.  A vital aspect of the medieval system is a community that learns together grows together.  The dynamic life of the ritual system not only taught the medieval laity but also created and strengthened their bonds as a community.  Did the loss of the didactic element of ritual in the Reformation also damage the unitive element?  (This is not to say that the aspect of community was solely dependent upon the didactic element, but there is an element of relation.)

Scholars present information on both sides in this area of the reform of the ritual system.  First of all, for the Lutherans, church rituals had come to signify two things by 1618: one was a means to delineate oneself from another denomination and the other was to build and strengthen greater confessional cohesion.[13] The rituals (or ritual elements) that are being referred to here are such things as the fraction, stained glass and statuary.  By retaining things like stain glass and crucifixes and refusing the fraction the Lutherans set themselves apart from Reformed bodies that followed Zwingli and Calvin.  This enabled the communities, through ritual observation, to strengthen their resolve and community ties.  The response of the community also melded them together.  Their beliefs and what they had been taught were inherent in their responses to what took place during worship.[14]

The building up of the community was not the only result of the Reform of the ritual system though—individualism was strongly fostered as well.  “The hymn collections from the later sixteenth century reveal a more individualistic content, and more hymns concentrating on the cross, on human suffering in times of pestilence, warfare, and poverty.”[15] Another place where individualism began to makes inroads were the prayer books from the era of “Lutheran Orthodoxy.”  According to A.G. Roeber, possibly as a result of the refinement of doctrine and intense battles with other theologians, there was a decline in confident expressions of communal identity.  The prayer books opted to contain spiritual advice dealing with individualized dilemmas and problems.  A piety focused upon the reception of the Lord’s Supper was not a primary focus of these prayer books.[16] As we noted earlier, the medieval ritual system and the sense of community was focused upon the Eucharist.  This focus was lost in the reform of ritual and along with it the strong communal ties, while strengthened in one area of piety, were waning in others.

A contributing factor to this development of individualization may be the long-term effects of catechizing children in the Lutheran household.  What this process accomplished was an internalization of individual responsibility for faith which, according to Roeber, resulted in the challenging of authority in the house, church and state.  This included a challenging of the necessity for individual confession, absolution and frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper.[17] And so it would seem that one could conclude that a result of the Reformation of the ritual system was an increased sense of individuality and a decreased sense of community.

To conclude that the Reformation completely reversed the whole medieval ritual system would be a bit harsh and overstated.  There was a progression from a “doctrine of presence” to a “theory of representation” that took the focus off of the rite as location of the divine presence.  The reform of the system also resulted in a rejection of contact with the divine through the senses in favour of contact through meditation and interpretation of the words of scripture.  (This is not to disregard Luther’s insistence upon the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper and the contact that took place therein.)  Cognition as interaction with the divine, instead of through the performance of the rite, developed as well as the attempt to interpret rite instead of experiencing it.  Resultant upon all of these reforms was a gradual loss of a sense of community in favour of individuality.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The current dilemma that confronts Lutheranism (and Christianity on the whole?) is the ever-increasing trend to divorce substance from style.  The in depth analysis of the medieval ritual system and the reform of that system in this article is meant to speak definitively on this dilemma.  What does the reformation of ritual tell us about this ‘divorce’ within Lutheranism?  Do the 16th and 17th centuries reform of ritual support such divorces of substance and style?  Or, is it not the Reformation’s fault (or Luther’s) but later developments that created these current situations?

There is no explicit evidence that Luther or the Reformers supported a divorce of substance from style.  According to the medieval ritual system, style always informed and shaped the substance of ritual.  The difference that we can notice taking place in the reform of ritual by Luther is the flip-flop of this informing—substance began to inform style. In diverting attention away from the ritual act itself, Luther may have robbed ritual of being able to ‘present’ the divine presence.  Focus was placed upon the ‘word’ used within the ritual action as the true divine presence.  The understanding of that word became even more important.  The mind was elevated over the body—cognition over the senses. The results of all this reform are hard to pin point.  The lex orandi, lex credendi debate has raged on for a long time.  Is the phrase static or can the two Latin phrases be reversed without destroying the whole dictum?  One thing can definitely be said: the Reformation in no way divorced substance from style.  They might have mixed the relationship around but it was still a relationship that could not be divorced.

If these are the conclusions (or at least the analyses), what are the solutions?  Or, where do we go from here?  I would like to explain first of all why the divorcing of substance and style is impossible.  This was discussed in “The Role and Function of Ritual” section but added emphasis couldn’t hurt.  Secondly, I would like to promote a ritual system that does not divorce word from ritual but instead places God’s means of addressing us today within his self-revealing act of the incarnation.

Roy Rappaport, in his book Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity discusses in depth the inter-relatedness of style and substance.  He describes ritual as, “The performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.”[18] This definition is loaded with words that tell us exactly what ritual is and is not.  First of all it is invariant—ritual is constant without variation.  Secondly the acts of ritual are formal, not informal.  (We may remember that Luecke promoted informal ritual action which appears to be in all reality an erroneous belief.)  Finally, the performers do not encode the acts and utterances of the ritual.  This means that the performers do not have direct control over the structure or form of the ritual.

Rappaport also believes that in every ritual performance there is a “substantiation of form” and also an “informing of substance.”  The substance validates the style of the ritual while the substance is informed by its mode.  The style and substance are so intimately involved that they cannot be divorced.  There are such things as “self-referential” rituals though.  The performer, normally based upon their contemporary status and intentions, transmits the substance of this type of ritual.  The other form of ritual is the “canonical” which is not encoded by the performer and hence not “self-referential.”  The canonical rituals are already found to be encoded, like in the liturgy of the Mass.  “Since these messages are not encoded by the performers, and since they tend toward invariance, it is obvious that these messages (cannot in themselves) represent the performer’s contemporary states.”[19] The canonical rituals are the preferred form within the liturgy because they are already encoded and the performer is unable to change their substance through their actual performances of the rites.  Luecke earlier promoted self-referential rites against canonical while at the same time maintaining that there would be no change in substance.  His position is an untenable one.

The meaning of self-referential action is normally exhausted because it represents immediate and particular events of the performer’s state.  On the contrary, the meaning of canonical action is rarely exhausted because it represents general, enduring and even eternal aspects of universal orders.[20] Luecke also was highly critical of the highly traditional and formal language used in liturgical ritual orders.  Rappaport observes, “It is virtually definitive of ritual speech that it is stereotyped and stylized, composed of specified sequences of words that are often archaic, is repeated under particular, usually well-established circumstances, and great stress is often laid upon its precise enunciation.”[21] The language of ritual is like this for a reason—the style directly informs and conveys the substance.  “Indeed, ritual can perhaps be regarded as the reunion of forms and substances forever coming apart in the stress of daily usage.”[22]

Secondly, and finally, I would like to propose a theory of ritual that prevents the divorce of word and ritual form.  According to Robert W. Jenson, Reformation theology maintains that “since God’s gifts are given in and through the person Jesus, the giving itself must be a personal act.  Which is to say: God’s grace occurs as word, as address by which one person communicates him- or herself to others.”[23] God gives his gifts to mankind in the form of a man, Jesus Christ.  It is only natural that God would continue to give his gifts to mankind in a bodily, enfleshed manner.  The Word of scripture cannot be separated from the Word or Logos, Jesus Christ.  The word was always embodied and it follows that it would continue to be so today within the Church.  The idea is that a ritual action, performed by a body (a performer) and participated in by bodies, is the proper and fitting mode for God’s divine presence and address.

Further words from Jenson serve this theory of ritual:  “He is the Speech of the Father; as the Father’s speech to us he is embodied in the church and therefore does not, whatever might have been, speak except by his body.”[24] This is to say that Christ speaks exclusively through his Church.  But to stretch this line of thought further, Christ spoke to the Church originally as an embodied form—his words were never divorced from his embodiment.  The same should still hold true today.  There can be no distinction between the ‘words’ of a ritual (be they Christ’s words or the words of the worshipping community) and the embodiment of that ritual manifested in the ritual actions of the human body.

This is not to say that each one us is somehow supposed to be venerated.  “Within the assembly, our intention of God in one another is rescued from self-deification by common direction away from ourselves to sacramental objects which we are not.”[25] The ritual actions are enacted solely for the benefit of enacting the presence of the divine for the benefit of the community.  Ritual must be seen in an incarnational manner so as to prevent the divorcing of substance from style (word from ritual action).  The Word was embodied as God first addressed humankind, and since God is ever consistent, the Word must remain embodied amongst us today.


[1] Muir, 8.

[2] Muir, 170.

[3] Muir, 150.

[4] Muir, 166.

[5] Susan C. Karant-Nunn, The Reformation of Ritual:  An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany, (London; New York: Routledge, 1997), 192.

[6] A.G. Roeber, “Official and Nonofficial Piety and Ritual in Early Lutheranism,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 63:2 (April 1999) : 125-26.

[7] Muir, 151.

[8] Torevell, 67.

[9] Torevell, 69.

[10] Muir, 172.

[11] Torevell, 11.

[12] Muir, 151.

[13] Bodo Nischan, “Ritual and Protestant Identity in Late Reformation Germany,” Protestant History and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Europe, Volume 2, edited by Bruce Gordon, (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1996), 148.

[14] Roeber, 126.

[15] Roeber, 136.

[16] Roeber, 137-8.

[17] Roeber, 140.

[18] Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 24.

[19] Rappaport, 52.

[20] Rappaport, 53.

[21] Rappaport, 151.

[22] Rappaport, 153.

[23] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology—Volume 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 13.

[24] Jenson, 271.

[25] Jenson, 288.

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Lutheran Ritual: An Identity Crisis (The Divorcing of Substance from Style) (Part 3)

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The Medieval Inheritance and the Reformation of Ritual

The medieval understanding of ritual is based upon a couple core beliefs.  There was the idea that the divine, God himself, was present in ritual actions.  Related to this was a strong belief that contact was made with the divine through the senses.  Although this presence and interaction with the divine was of greatest importance, the teaching that took place within the ritual was where the medieval layperson received his/her “catechesis.”  (As we remember, ritual speaks with many different voices on many different levels of meaning.) Finally, the ritual actions of the Church involved the medieval layperson in personal ways that helped to bond individuals, creating a sense of unity and community.

The medieval mind was focused greatly upon the significance of the body.  The body was able to express and reveal the divine.  This understanding was rooted in the Incarnation—that God had revealed himself to the world through his Son Jesus Christ, God made flesh.  According to Torevell, Christianity is the first religion to isolate the body as an object of veneration.  This veneration was focused both liturgically and ritually around the body of Christ.[1] This can lead to the conviction that since God made his greatest self-revelation through the body of a man he continues to do so today.  According to Edward Muir, this understanding of revelation through the body led to the Roman Catholic doctrine of ‘presence’.  ‘The doctrine of presence’ was the belief that the rite actually made something ‘present’.  These rites also possessed the ability to enact or bring something into being.  An example: when someone is baptized, original sin disappears or, the “I do” that the couple says in marriage joins them together.[2] The body was a potent conduit for the ‘presence’ of the divine.

Following upon this belief of ‘presence’ through the body was the awareness that contact could be made with the divine through the senses.  In speaking of this essence of ritual, the interplay between the sacred and the profane arises.  This was because believers in the late medieval times approached sacred things in a sensual way.  These sacred objects were a way, or a medium, through which the sacred [object] came in contact with the profane [layperson] by the means of the human senses.  The two senses most commonly employed to experience this encounter were sight and sound.[3] The employment of the senses was not limited to these two though.  The point is that the senses, all rooted in the body, were vital for the medieval believer to come into contact with the divine.  One could hear the sacring bells during the consecration and then raise their eyes to behold the host.  This is just one example of sight and sound creating interaction with the divine.

According to Torevell, “Medieval spirituality and religious identity were rooted in the centrality of the body as a site and route for an experience of the sacred, which in turn became reflected in the highly ritualized practices and liturgies of the Church.”[4] Since the body was the route for the divine presence amongst the believers there had to be a ritualized, or ordered form for that divine presence to make itself present.  Chaos is not ritual.  The form could not be separated from the content.  The actions of the body and all of its senses had to remain ritualized so that the encounter with the divine continued to be the same.  If the actions [rituals] of the body [route] continued to change then the presence of God would rendered uncertain and fluctuating.

Could there be dangers in this understanding of ritual action? We learn from Muir that the priest was expected to have an intellectual understanding of transubstantiation and the scriptural basis for the Mass.  On the other hand, the laity were simply expected to assume their proper role in the ritual drama.  They were supposed to envision Christ on the cross when they saw the elevation; they were to adore, not to think.[5] This seems shocking and even a bit appalling to our modern minds.  But we must remember that for the medieval mind, “The essence, power and presence of God can only be satisfactorily felt and perceived through sensation.”[6] Their conceptions of interaction with the divine were never separated from an embodied experience.

This whole system of interaction with the divine was witnessed to in the writings of St. Bonaventure.  He maintained that the soul was the form of the body, being modified and changed by the experience of the sensible world.  The senses themselves were able to communicate in a very direct way the presence of God—the finite revealed the infinite.[7] Christianity was once again the first religion to focus upon the body as a center of devotion.  Consequent to the devotion of the body of Christ was the understanding that God self-reveals himself to us bodily and hence sensually.  The senses were not merely restricted to receiving God but also communicating the presence of God.  This resulted in the principle that the inherent virtue of a ritual lies in its proper performance rather than from the spiritual traits of the priest celebrating the act.  The priest worked the rituals by the power of his office and the powers of his soul.[8] The body was the site that harnessed the power of God, his divine presence, which was released through ritual to communicate that presence to the believers sensually.

None of this is to imply that an understanding of the faith was unimportant.  Ritual was not allowed to take on a life of its own.  In fact, the ritual actions, which made the divine present, were the instruments of teaching the laity in sensual ways: through sight, sound, touch, etc.  This proved to be a very effective and lasting form of education.  Most of the rituals, in their essence, were not intended to be catechetical.  But simply through involvement within and observance of a ritual the laity were taught Christian doctrine. “The unlearned and illiterate came to know the great truths of Christianity through the engagement of their bodies and senses in response to such dramatised performances.”[9]

If somebody cannot read or is unlearned, how else would they learn about Christian doctrine?  To see things acted out in a ritualistic manner is highly conducive to remembering and learning the content of the act.  This is another reason that the form of a ritual is indissoluble from its content.  The form is the medium for relaying the content to the laity—a change in form results in a change of content.  Muir informs us that on the eve of the Reformation, the Eucharistic piety amongst the laity was a pillar of the ritual system.  This is significant because the ritual of the Eucharist reinforced both an incarnational theology and the spiritual mystery of the Eucharist itself.[10] The education of the liturgy not only took place as a result of the ritual system but the system itself helped to reinforce those doctrines that were originally learned.

The book Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy provides primary evidence of the effects of the ritual system upon medieval laity.  Duffy states, “In the lay consciousness, however, the annual procession with candles, far from remaining a secondary symbolic feature, invaded and transformed the scriptural scene.”[11] This is in reference to the Candlemas ceremony, which involved all of the laity carrying candles throughout the Church for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  The procession with candles represented the entrance of Christ, the light of the world, into the Temple.  An observance like this had come to shape the perceptions of the event, which were commemorated in the medieval mind.[12] Ritual action was able, through the senses, to inform and reinforce central doctrines of the Church and the events of Christ’s life.

Another example of this was the ritual of the Easter sepulchre.  This was the event that involved the placing of a host in a sepulchre within the church on Good Friday.  The placing of the host was to signify the placing of Jesus in the tomb.  On Easter Sunday the host would be removed to signify the resurrection of Christ.  This whole ritual was designed to give expression to the teaching of Christ’s cross and passion and most notably to the significance of the Eucharist.  This custom of burying the host left a deep mark upon the minds of the medieval laity.[13] Such a vivid form of depicting these events both taught and reinforced previous teaching amongst the parishioners.  This ritual showed “re-enacted” and “reinforced” that Christ was truly buried and truly rose from the dead.  It also accomplished teaching the doctrine of real presence—the host was truly Christ as it was buried and raised.  This ritual served as the primary vehicle of the proclamation of the Easter Resurrection in medieval parishes.[14] This ritual was so effective that many people wanted to be buried next to the sepulchre.  As symbolic as this might be, what it showed was the equation of one’s own death and resurrection with that of Christ’s.  There was a widespread comprehension and internalization of the content of the Easter liturgy through this ritualized form.[15]

One last example of the teaching elements of ritual are the Corpus Christi and Pater Noster plays.  These plays were widespread throughout medieval parishes and popular for their didactic purposes.  The Corpus Christi celebrations became primary occasions for the performance of didactic plays on the theme of salvation history.[16] These plays were used primarily for the purpose of teaching the citizens elements of the faith, as witnessed by the Corpus Christi guild of York.  The plays, according to Duffy, clearly involved a massive and corporate effort to promote and reinforce knowledge of elements of the Christian faith.[17]

One result of this didactic element of ritual was the cohesion of the community.  A community that learns together in such sensual and ritualistic ways also grows together, strengthening social bonds.  As Torevell says, one of the major strengths of Pre-Vatican II worship was its ability to develop a sense of community and a collective identity through ritual regularity.[18] The Eucharist was a main focus for the creating of a community.  Although receiving communion was a rarity in the medieval church, the laity gazed upon it and by being a part of that ritual action, created a sense of community.  Everyone would rush to the rood screen to peer through wholes to get a glimpse of the elevated host.  One can imagine the jostling for position that took place.  Bodies came together to form one community, a community centred on the divine presence.  It was common medieval practice for believers to commune through the host on Easter day.  This was where the formation of the community of believers took concrete form.  Receiving communion at Easter meant inclusion within the community; exclusion from the sacrament was sign of social ostracism.[19]

The understanding of the body was significant in relation to the community that took part in the Eucharist.  Here we talk not of a corporeal body but instead of the body of believers—the body of Christ with Him as their head.  The Mass itself became a reinforcement of collective values because the Christian community was seen to be a ‘body’ or a corporation.[20] The community was intricately tied together within the ritual system, not least in the sacrament of communion with both Christ and the rest of the Church.  According to Duffy, this unitive and corporate dimension of the Eucharist is insisted upon in late medieval sources.  In the prologue of the ordinances of the Corpus Christi guild of York, the Mass was a sign of unity “…as Christ unites the members to the Head by means of his precious Passion, so we shall be united in faith, hope and charity by the daily celebration of this sacrament of remembrance.”[21]

candlemasFinally, the plays that we mentioned earlier, Candlemas and Corpus Christi also functioned to foster a sense of community.  The feast of Candlemas was one of the more elaborate ones due to the fact that every parishioner was obligated to join in and carry a candle.[22] No one, no matter the social class, was allowed to be left out of this feast.  The ritual action of processing with candles not only represented the entrance of Christ into the Temple, but also bound the community together in a unitive action.  Added to this was the Corpus Christi feast:  “Corpus Christi, was conceived and presented in late medieval communities as a celebration of the corporate life of the body social, created and ordered by the presence of the Body of Christ among them.”[23]

The medieval ritual system served many multifaceted purposes.  It evoked the presence of the divine and enabled contact through the senses.  It also was one of the foremost didactic tools used within the parish and in so doing it also created a strong sense of community amongst the participants.  What were the effects of the Reformation upon these inherited aspects of the ritual system?]

Go to Part 4


[1] Torevell, 64.

[2] Muir, 7.

[3] Muir, 157.

[4] Torevell, 12.

[5] Muir, 164.

[6] Torevell, 53.

[7] As paraphrased by Torevell, 55.

[8] Muir, 156.

[9] Torevell, 38.

[10] Muir, 165.

[11] Eamon Duffy, Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, (New Haven, CO: Yale University Press, 1992), 18.

[12] Duffy, 18.

[13] Duffy, 29-31.

[14] Duffy, 31.

[15] Duffy, 35.

[16] Duffy, 44.

[17] Duffy, 66-67.

[18] Torevell, 9.

[19] Torevell, 59.

[20] Muir, 161.

[21] As noted in Duffy, 92.

[22] Duffy, 16.

[23] Duffy, 26.

Lutheran Ritual: An Identity Crisis (The Divorcing of Substance from Style) Part 2

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The Role and Function of Ritual

Understanding the role and function of ritual will decide how much importance is properly given to these actions.  Contrary to the approach exemplified by Luecke, Elizabeth Parmentier states, “In a secularized world, ritual remains in the end the only religious language still accepted and even expected on the part of our contemporaries.”[1] The sense here is that in a world that seems to be less and less religious, a little bit of constancy and lucidity should be expected from the Church.  To function chaotically is not what people expect and/or want from the Church.  They expect structure, even if it is more rigid than they are used to in their secular lives.  Parmentier writes these words as she reflects upon the marriage rites of the Refomration church’s.  “The contemporary request is for a ritual structuring of the stages of life, a structuring expected on the part of the churches because it is not really carried out by society.”[2]

Although some would have us believe differently, contemporary society is yearning for its life to be structured.  People commonly turn to the Church to accomplish this.  If the Church in turn responds with chaos it may very well not be performing an important function.  A vital part of the Church’s life is to demarcate a person’s life stages: from baptism, to confirmation, to communion, to death.  All of these stages are surrounded by ritual that create structure.  This is why the laying down and adhering to guidelines, rules and rituals is important.  People naturally expect there to be rules and resultantly expect them to be adhered to.  “Clear parameters prescribe the type of action that will take place, which if gone beyond or broken, may cause the spectacle to be punctured and lose its symbolic and theatrical potency.”[3] If the prescribed rules are not followed, if the boundaries of the ritual are violated, the value of the ritual is lost.  It has not served its purpose and the Church has not served its people.

A second aspect of ritual is the emotional states that are invoked during their action and the uniformity that is created.  Talk of emotional state within religion is dangerous because of our fear of subjectivism, existentialism and becoming products of the Enlightenment.  We are also fearful of being manipulated. We must be reminded that rituals do not aim to invoke emotion, but simply by being a part of the performance of a ritual evokes emotion (intention aside).  One of the things that ritual does is to give the participants access to emotions that are resistant to expression through language.[4] This is because the center of ritual is not the mind but the body and its senses.  Ritual brings to life and recognition in the mind those things, which originate in the body and the senses.[5] It is important though to not merely relegate the function of ritual to a recalling of an emotional state.  The ritual must be experienced as an act of uniformity.[6] If this is not so, then the ritual would merely serve to arouse emotional states of individuals apart from the community.

According to David Torevell, rituals by nature are public, collective and objective experiences.  As a result, subjectivism and private feelings are not at ease with such a public domain.[7] As we began to discuss the emotional aspect of ritual, hesitancy was voiced due to such results as subjectivism and individuality.  Instead of these results, ritual accomplishes the exact opposite.  It brings individuals into the experience of the community.  According to Emile Durkheim, ritual has the capacity to transform the individual and strengthen the collective identity.  It transforms a person from the profane secular world to a sacred world.[8] The emotional responses created by ritual connect individuals to one another, constituting and creating a community (not alienating people from each other).  “Religion has always interpreted the world in terms of an all-encompassing sacred order which prevented individuals from plunging into anomie.”[9] Ritual serves to prevent any such slips into obscurity, including and keeping the individual in the community.

The third aspect of ritual is its ability to say a lot through so little.  Ritual defies definition at times because it speaks on many different levels.  It is not merely language based, although words can be joined to the action.  Ritual is a sensual act that involves more than one of the senses, speaking to more than one simultaneously.  As a result, rituals are inherently ambiguous in both function and meaning.  They speak with many voices and on many different levels of meaning.[10] Torevell echoes this, saying, “A rite is never exhausted, its meaning never fully resolved.”[11] This is not to say that an individual could assign any meaning to any rite.  It would be absurd to assert that someone watching the elevation of a host after the consecration in a Church would interpret it as the process of baking bread.  It does mean that individuals within the community may see something different within the rite, but all will be related to the body of Christ sacrificed for the sins of the world.

The fourth aspect of ritual is the importance of the marriage between form and content.  This aspect reminds us of the distinction made earlier by Luecke between style (form) and substance (content).  As we noted earlier, ritual is highly structural with rules laid down for its execution.  Ritual places great importance in the body and its physical actions are symbolic actions, performed according to “highly formalized” guidelines.  Speaking, understanding and verbal explanations are secondary.[12] The main lines of communication in ritual are not through the sense of hearing, but through the senses of sight and touch.

Luecke claimed that the style of ritual could change without the substance doing the same.  Torevell, contrarily states, “What makes ritual a distinctively performative occasion is this marriage of form and content, whereby communication is able to flow naturally from a carefully structured and organic sequence.”[13] The contention is that the performance of the ritual is the line of communication as the message is wed indissolubly to the form.  The message itself is found in the medium of the ritual, so the form becomes indispensable.  The stimulation of the mind is not purely cognitive in ritual.  The symbolism of the rite and its actions stimulate the mind away from conceptually mundane thought and rationalism.  Being part of the rite is like being part of something greater than oneself.[14] To divorce form from content would be to lose this sense of “otherness.”  This aspect cannot be explained through words and an attempt to do so would be detrimental to the rite itself.  As a result, the form must not be changed lest the content change as well.

As we close this section on the role and function of ritual, a word of caution.  To some it may seem that ritual has been given free reign.  If it is vital to not change the form of the rite lest lose the content, ritual form seems to take precedence over ritual content.  Also, if the meaning is never exhausted then the form could possibly take on a life of its own, continually invoking more and more meanings (without boundary and limitation).  Torevell suggests that this is where silence in the liturgy helps to create stability of form and the experience of the sacred.  It must be always kept in mind that the rite is functioning to serve the community as an engagement with the other (the holy).[15]

Ritual has many aspects: it is governed by rules and regulations; it focuses upon the body and senses to create unity amongst individuals; its meaning is never exhausted; the connection of form and content is vital within a ritual; and it is important to maintain a stability so that ritual does not take on a life of its own.  It is not difficult to see that the description of ritual just given is quite different than that promoted by Luecke.  This being the case we must now examine the use of ritual historically: first within the medieval church, followed by an analysis of the effects of the Reformation.  As we begin we once again ask: Is it proper for Lutherans to distinguish substance from style?

Go to Part 3


[1] Elizabeth Parmentier, “The Ritualization of Marriage in the Churches of the Reformation: A Language to Express the Encounter of Human and Divine Love,”  Studia Liturgica 32 (2002) :  29.

[2] Parmentier, 29.

[3] David Torevell, Losing the Sacred: Ritual, Modernity and Liturgical Reform, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 25.

[4] Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.

[5] Torevell, 23.

[6] Muir, 3.

[7] Torevell, 31.

[8] As paraphrased by Torevell, 2.

[9] Torevell, 17.

[10] Muir, 5.

[11] Torevell, 28.

[12] Torevell, 23.

[13] Torevell, 24.

[14] Torevell, 30.

[15] Torevell, 29.

Lutheran Ritual: An Identity Crisis (The Divorcing of Substance from Style) (Part 1)

By Bryce P Wandrey

Lutheranism finds itself struggling with something common to all Christian communities.  It appears that more and more—even while being situated upon a confessional foundation—Lutheranism is struggling with her identity and how best to express that identity. This can be aptly diagnosed and studied with a focus upon the liturgy (and it attendant rites and ceremonies), for it is in the liturgy that the Church comes together to express her identity in praise and thanksgiving but also to come into God’s presence and receive what the Divine has to offer (to receive an identity). Hence,  I choose in this essay to approach this identity crisis through a study of a particular contemporary understanding of the style and substance dialectic (represented not only in Lutheranism), keeping in mind the Reformation heritage and the function of ritual action.

The contemporary situation will be covered to begin this study.  A sampling of a current approach to ritual by a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor will be analyzed to discover how and why some approach and utilize ritual. The relationship between style and substance will be a main point of interest in this section. The second avenue to explore is the function of ritual from both theological and sociological perspectives.  What will follow will be an analysis of the medieval approach to ritual and the consequent reform of ritual by the leaders of the 16th century European Reformation.  Finally, we will return to a treatment of the current situation asking ‘Where do we go from here?’ (It is probably worth mentioning at the outset that this essay was written while the author was a seminary student at a Lutheran seminary in the United States.)

The Current Dilemma

Lutheranism’s current dilemma concerning ritual may be no different than any other church body.  I would venture to say that the Eastern Orthodox Church is not confronting the same problems as the Lutherans but the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, along with most other denominations are.  My contention is not that Lutheranism is not entirely unique when it comes to this issue. The current dilemma over ritual within Lutheranism appears to revolve around the relationship between substance and style.  The substance of something in this context deals with the church’s confession.  This can be represented by the content of the Ecumenical Creeds, the stories of Holy Scripture, or the belief that the Book of Concord is a true interpretation of God’s Word (and for some binding for that reason).  Belief in the truths expressed by all of these statements (and the content of their objects)are things considered substance for the confessional movement known as Lutheranism.  Style is conceived of being how the substance is “packaged” and conveyed.  In this case, specifically how the liturgy of the Church, through ritual, imparts the substance of Lutheranism to the laity.

A leading proponent of divorcing substance from style within Lutheranism is David Luecke (and his approach will be analyzed as an example of this divorce).  Although it cannot be said that Luecke represents all or even a majority of Lutherans (numbers not being overly important for this analysis), his approach to style and substance seems to be a growing phenomenon.  Luecke is first of all critical of tradition itself.  He claims, “The tradition puts distance between [the clergy] and the congregation as audience—by the clothes they wear, the formalities they rely on, the specialized language they use, the distant pulpit they stand behind, the ritual they enact, the unusual songs they choose, and even their readiness to turn their back upon the audience.  The tradition takes the congregation for granted.”[1] All of these things—vestments, archaic language, spacial distance, ritual, and hymnody—according to Luecke, distance the clergy from the laity.  The main point is: formality takes the congregation’s presence for granted.

For Luecke, a way to get rid of this formality is to increase the individuality of worship.  By doing so, each person becomes intimately involved and does not feel in any way left out.  Instead, they are encouraged to share their personal feelings, and what could be better than that for enriching the liturgy?  “To concentrate on enriching the fellowship life through shared personal prayer is a style improvement that seems the most practical step toward more infectious faith talk.”[2] It must be noted that Luecke considers moving the structure of worship from community centered to individually centered as a matter of style and not substance.  While the outward presentation has changed, the truths that lie behind these externals have not.

The divorcing of style from substance is pivotal for Luecke.  He contends over and over again that certain changes to style will in no way change its substance.  “So long as personal experiences are shared in a context that appreciates and shares doctrinal truths, there should be no change in Lutheran substance.”[3] The question begs: What, if anything, would change the substance?  For Luecke, the substance is changed when things like Romanizing sacramentalism works its way into the Lutheran style of presenting the substance.  To take the Lord’s Supper for example, the understanding that Christ is corporeally present is unchangeable substance.  The frequency of celebration is changeable style.  “If stalwart Lutheran leaders from previous centuries were to look at this situation of Lutheranism in America today, one word would come quickly to their minds—a word now seldom heard: sacramentalism.”[4] Another example, according to Luecke, is the shortening of sermons down to fifteen minutes or less in order to increase the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to weekly means that style has changed the substance.

At this point we may be led to wonder: Why does changing the structure of the liturgy from community centered to individually centered not do the same thing (i.e. change the substance)?  We must begin to ask if this a valid distinction (separating substance from style) based up Reformation principles.  Can Lutheranism distinguish between the substance and the style that imparts that substance?  To follow upon this dilemma we will first look at how ritual actions function.  This will be fundamental in establishing what rituals are meant to do and what they actually accomplish.  Following upon that we turn to the medieval church’s use of rituals and consequently the Reformation’s impact upon that use.  Finally, we will return to our questions and to the situation presented to us by Luecke in an attempt to reconcile the Reformation with a modern Lutheran approach to ritual.

Go to Part 2


[1] David S. Luecke, Apostolic Style and Lutheran Substance:  Ten Years of Controversy Over What Can Change, (Lima, OH: Fairway Press, 1999), 9.

[2] Luecke, 9-10.

[3] Luecke, 97.

[4] Luecke, 83.