(Editor's note: The author made slight revisions to the original first posted on March 31 in order to clarify her point.)
Ever since Vatican II in the early 1960s, many leaders in the Lutheran church have decided that the Lutheran movement is over and Lutherans should return home to Rome, which has reformed in a way that other Lutherans should find acceptable, as they do. Our long-term alienation from Rome has ended, many Lutherans think, for good reason, since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved the 1997 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” with the Roman Catholics.
As H. George Anderson argued in one of his first speeches as president of Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa, Lutherans have always been Janus-faced ecumenically, looking both back and forward. We come from the Catholic tradition, and have many similarities with those historic churches: a fairly high view of the Lord’s Supper, and a liturgy. On the other hand, although we did not go as far as other Protestants, with our traditional understanding of ministry and the power of the Word Alone, we have deep understandings of that side of the Christian church as well.
Although our leadership would deny it by citing our continuing formulation of agreements with those on our left, such as the new agreement being proposed with the Methodists, we have turned more and more toward our right. Today Lutherans generally know very little about what is going on in the evangelical side of things where we used to look. Most of what we think about today is the right side. We have changed our ministry so that it looks more like the Catholic churches with their historic episcopates and liturgical life. Our new worship books continue to incorporate, unwittingly, many rituals that Luther banned. The way the leadership gets this across is by calling it Lutheran, or more Lutheran than it used to be. So now Lutherans are going to be inundated by rituals that Luther and Melanchthon regarded as being nearly pagan: the making of holy water for baptisms, the emphasis on holy and ordinary time (such as the Easter Vigil as the most holy night of the year), the Eucharistic prayer, the Triduum (or Three Days from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday). The ELCA has on its website a way to pray a Lutheran rosary.
While these are decidedly Catholic rites and rituals, on second glance, it’s really "Catholic lite"—with the language changed not to offend certain political interest groups. What is curious indeed is that if anyone in the worship leadership group were to suggest that we go along with the Pope’s utterances on the moral life, the ELCA leadership would stand against it for their own “prophetic reasons”—which for them always seems to mean being prophetic against their own middle class, not their own status quo. Being forced to go along with all these worship renovations so we can be more “ecumenical” strikes me as picking and choosing what one likes for very little reasons other than one’s own prejudices. Why adopt the rituals if we shun the doctrines that make the Catholic church what it is? I think it is simply because we like all that rigmarole our new liturgical mavens are writing for us because it focuses on us and what we are doing, not the fierce Word of God which we have continued to silence with short, awful sermons about our own lives. We are becoming a church much more interested in our own worship than what God has to say to us through his Word in preaching, Bible study and catechization.
The prophets had a lot to say about a people who worshiped with their lips, but not with their hearts. “Because this people approach me with their mouths and honor me with their lips while their hearts are far from me, and their religion is but a precept of men, learnt by rote, therefore I will yet again shock this people, adding shock to shock: the wisdom of their wise men shall vanish and the discernment of the discerning shall be lost.” Isaiah 29:13-14
This is a danger for all of us, whether our worship practices are traditional or contemporary, high or low, whatever. Baal lurks in all of us. Eugene Peterson, the translator of “The Message,” noted in an interview in a recent Easter issue of Christianity Today, that a lot of worship in the churches today looks like Baal worship. He is not alone. Surprisingly, it is what Melanchthon said about the medieval church and the ancient idol worship of Israel and the notion that worship in and of itself produces atonement in his “Apology to the Augsburg Confession.” “Thus they increased those acts of worship and sacrifices, introduced the worship of Baal in Israel, and in Judah even sacrificed in the groves. Therefore when the prophets condemned those notions, they waged war not only against the worshipers of Baal but also against other priests who performed the sacrifices instituted by God with this wicked notion in mind. But this notion, that acts of worship and sacrifices make atonement, clings to the world now and always will. Carnal human beings cannot stand that this honor is ascribed only to the sacrifice of Christ or that he is the atoning sacrifice, because they do not understand the righteousness of faith.” Apology, Article XXIV: The Mass, 97-98.