The compliment of divergent worship

by Tom Tredway

We occasionally read in the histories of Pietism that our forebears scrutinized themselves constantly, and worried when they found hints of frivolity or jocularity. But by mid-twentieth century, there must have been a shift; the North Park College I knew in the ‘50s and ‘60s did not suffer for want of wags and wits. I still remember what one of my pals remarked ruefully about Covenant worship services: “A high church service is when the minister says, ‘We’ll sing the hymns without announcing the numbers.’”

There was some truth uttered in that jest. A couple of Pietisten issues ago, when declaring my intention to consider the contrasts my generation found between the two principal Swedish-American religious groups, Lutheran and Covenant, I noted that when some of us made our ways from North Park (then Junior) College to Augustana College to finish our undergraduate educations, we were at once struck with the contrast in the student worship services. At North Park, the center of those services had been spontaneous personal testimonies from the assembled, interspersed with gospel choruses; at Augustana services for students followed a liturgy printed in the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal with hymns from the same book; your own witness was not called for. Your attendance was testimony enough.

Karl Olsson wrote in By One Spirit, his 1962 history of the Covenant Church, that in the wide range of religious thought and expression among Swedish emigrants to America, “vestiges of order were the salvation of the Covenant.” He said that with reference to regulation of pastors of the denomination, but it certainly applies to Covenant worship as well. Not announcing the hymn numbers may have passed, as per my friend at North Park, for high church, yet, in comparison with the far wing of Swedish-American religion and practice, the Covenanters were somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. On that far wing Olsson located the progenitors of the Free Church, many of whom wanted no hymns at all, whether the numbers were announced or not. In fact, these free churchmen opposed an order of service altogether; having one would limit the Spirit, perhaps suggesting that the gathering was not open to His presence.

But Olsson also makes clear that, facing in the other direction, Covenant worship stood in clear contrast to the Lutherans from whom, both in Sweden and in America, the early Mission Friends parted company. “Worship which had been an act in the older church requiring both knowledge of and practice in an elaborate and complex pattern, was now seen as spontaneous and direct, requiring only a minimum of special skills.” The Covenant pastor “needed no liturgical competence except a strong voice.” And in regard to Holy Communion, Olsson writes that “the society became the celebrant.” Ordination to the ministry did not imply that a man (they were all men) could perform acts which lesser Christians were not entitled to.

With time Covenant worship came more to resemble that of the mainline Protestant churches. The Apostles Creed was included in the order of service, hymns from other traditions — Methodist, Calvinist, even Catholic — were added, and litanies and liturgies for special occasions found a place in the hymnal. A shift in architecture reflected the change in public worship. Olsson notes that the old tabernacle pattern, “a protest against all churchliness,” with its horseshoe-shaped auditorium and raised central pulpit began to disappear. Eventually, he says, chancels were divided, the practice of using the communion table to carry on ordinary church business was stopped, and newer church buildings affected a Gothic look. (Olsson’s book has pictures of Bethlehem Church, Minneapolis, and Redeemer Church, Chicago.) Ministers even showed up in black robes to lead worship.

During these decades in the early and mid-twentieth century, changes in worship also occurred among Augustana Lutherans, of course. But these did not exactly parallel those in the Covenant. Historians such as G. Everett Arden (Augustana Seminary) and George M. Stephenson (the University of Minnesota) note that while the earliest leaders of the Swedish-American synod were given to a free style of worship, they soon, in the maelstrom of American religious competition in the old “West” (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, the Plains), came to value anew and to advocate and practice the sort of liturgical worship they had known in the Church of Sweden. That reaffirmation accompanied their reassertion of the Augsburg Confession as the standard by which church thought and discipline ought to be guided.

By the time Karl Olsson’s contemporary, Conrad Bergendoff, was ordained, earned a doctorate, and became dean and eventually president at the Augustana Synod’s oldest school in Rock Island, Illinois, his Church was decidedly traditional Lutheran in its thought and life. Bergendoff himself was both a son of this trend and one of the principal persons to deepen and advance it further. The neo-Gothic sanctuary on Chicago’s South Side which his congregation, Salem, erected under his pastoral leadership in the 1920s was generally regarded at the time as the finest Augustana building in the city. The liturgical practices which Pastor Bergendoff instituted in that new Salem sanctuary reflected a move away from the low churchliness that had marked the Augustana Synod’s earliest decades, through and just after the Civil War.

On a leave from the Salem pastorate, Bergendoff spent the 1926-27 academic year with Nathan Söderblom, the Archbishop of Sweden. Söderblom himself was given to what one biographer calls kyrkoståt, church pomp. It was reflected in his revival of traditional medieval archiepiscopal vestments and his re-institution of ancient catholic liturgies. While Bergendoff did not think, as Söderblom had, that bishops were the best way to govern a Christian community, he did in other regards carry Söderblom’s high churchliness back to America with him. Teaching in the Rock Island Seminary in the 1930s, he became the Synod’s authority about proper liturgical practice. His correspondence files are full of letters from pastors in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Smoky Valley in Kansas, wondering about whether to chant or to speak certain liturgical passages or what paraments to use at the altar during Lent.

For Bergendoff and his church the emphasis on liturgical renewal might be seen as a parallel of their commitment to define their Lutheranism by faithfulness to the Augsburg Confession. In both cases, creed and liturgy, the idea was that the traditional formulae of the church were better expressions of Christian commitment than the extemporaneous and spontaneous testimonies and prayers which characterized the gatherings of Pietism in Europe and in America. To the Mission Friends the Church of Sweden and, by extension, other liturgical denominations suffered from dead formalism. But for many twentieth century Lutherans, these formulae of faith and worship, presumably hammered out by astute theologians and hallowed by centuries of use among the faithful, were richer and fuller expressions of their faith than the callow excesses characteristic of what Bergendoff once called “meager revival fare.”

It should be noted that these differences in matters creedal and liturgical were accompanied by differences over the nature of the Christian church and about personal Christian experience. Augustana Lutherans were influenced by Pietism, but their European background lay in a state church (or “folk” church). As they settled into life in America, they intended their congregations to be as inclusive as possible, especially when it came to the immigrants from Sweden. It was assumed that a person who had been Lutheran in the Old World would be in the New as well. The Mission Friends, on the other hand, believed that the congregation must be made up only of true believers, who could testify to their own encounter with Christ. Lutherans were satisfied to trust loyalty to historic forms; Covenanters emphasized personal experience.

So, I end this little series of essays as I began it two issues ago, recalling that when in the 1950s eight or ten North Parkers made their west on Illinois 92 to finish their BA degrees in Rock Island, they (we) were a little surprised, and maybe even put off, by the ritual and formality of Lutheran worship. They (we) wondered whether, buried in the middle of all the formality, there was a tendency to avoid the question of personal commitment by settling for defining one’s faith by ancient formulae, liturgical and creedal. For Covenanters, if you couldn’t testify on the spot to your faith, it was maybe a little weak. Our fellow students who were Lutheran seemed to think that such fervor was excessive, perhaps in poor taste and out of balance.

With time Lutheran and Covenant worship practices may have to a degree become more similar, the one growing more formal and the other perhaps relaxing a bit. But differences remain, and as is often the case in Christian history, they are instructive. Free worship has a long and honorable history, as does liturgical. Maybe the clue to making one’s way between these disparate ways of expressing corporate Christian devotion lies in the ecumenical options which operated in the twentieth century, in the years when both Olsson and Bergendoff were working at their most effective.

As the ecumenical movement matured, some believers hoped for and aimed at the union of denominations into one larger church. The assumption, perhaps unconsciously borrowed from Roman Catholicism, seemed to be that, without a single organization expressing their unity, Christians could not witness to it or even claim it existed. But others, and Bergendoff and Olsson seemed to be among them, thought that what was called for was dialog toward better understanding between groups, not necessarily organized unity of them.

Perhaps in liturgical and creedal matters, true catholicism does not consist in choosing one or another style of corporate worship, nor in the effort to hybridize the two strands into some new composite or synthesis. Maybe it lies in willingness to participate in each when one encounters them and to look for what their respective adherents find meaningful in them. That may have been one benefit of getting an undergraduate education at both North Park and Augustana; you got plenty of exposure to free worship and an equal opportunity to participate in liturgical services. The important thing was not whether the hymn numbers were announced or not; it was whether you sang them in the first place — especially if they came from Sweden!