So sang Willie and Waylon about cowboys, buy you can be a Confessional Lutheran and be a cowboy. The same can’t be said of being a Presbyterian. Never the twain shall meet. The thing conservative Presbyterians are closest to meeting is Unitarianism. I say this after visiting Redeemer Presbyterian, Austin, Texas.
In 2000, I met with a member of this church who had just come back from a conference between conservative Presbyterians and the LCMS. He was ecstatic over the meeting. That summer Dr. David Scaer was in Austin teaching a class. He too had been at that meeting. He said he went to bed each night with a headache. He came away convinced “we worship a different God than they do.” They worship a God who is present only by His Spirit. Didn’t Luther say, “You have a different Spirit?” I don’t recall him saying anything like that about Roman Catholicism.
The last time I was in a conservative Presbyterian church was over 30 years ago, so I don’t remember if I what I saw and heard here is consistent with that, but what I saw was an attempt to bridge the gap between the God they know is subjectively present in their faith and His objective presence in reality which they hint at but don’t confess. Their worship is the very best that man can do to build a tower that reaches unto heaven, not to make a name for themselves at the Babel builders wanted, but to reach the God they can’t confess is really among them. And the worship was a hodgepodge of Lutheran and Reformed elements.
There was no visible cross or crucifix. The minister stood front and center always facing the congregation. He preached from above the table with the Communion elements on it. This pulpit is higher than the lectern from which the Word of God was read. Dr. Kurt Marquart said in 2001 that Lutherans only put their pulpits above the altar during the Age of Rationalism.*
The minister was dressed in a Geneva gown yet he wore a stole with the appropriate liturgical color. The only liturgical gesture he made was to lift up his hands at the benediction. The only one I saw the people make was to stretch out their hands from their side to receive that blessing. They had a Corporate Confession of Sin which they sat during. They had what they labeled in the bulletin as a Declaration of Absolution, but it was no absolution. It was a Declaration of Pardon or Announcement of Pardon that Reformed churches usually have.
While being liturgical they struck the contemporary note enough times to make those with that itch feel scratched. The choir sang an anthem which I think they thought since it came from an opera based on a short story by Tolstoy it had to be liturgical. They were wrong. It had five verbs stating what we do (we call, we seek, we know, we breathe, we trust) and one verb stating what God does (“you hear our prayer”) betraying the anthropocentricism of the contemporary.
Continuing the mishmash. They said the Our Father which means as Augustine said they will be our brothers as long as they do. Yet they separated it from their Lord’s Supper which is something the ancient liturgies didn’t do and makes you wonder why they do. They do have the Pax Domini but it is not connected to the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar as it is in Confessional Lutheran Churches but sandwiched in between the Nicene Creed and the Tithes and Offerings. This is fitting since no Body and Blood of Jesus is on their table nothing can flow from it. And peace can flow from the Corporate Confession of Faith even as oil down Aaron’s beard (Psalm 133).
As for Communion, they make a point of the Fracture as the Reformed do which is why Confessional Lutherans don’t. They actually had a chalice, but only the minister drank from it. This was strange. After a sermon where we were exhorted that we were all ministers, they retained the symbol of pre-Vatican II Catholicism which distinguished between priest and laity. They also had the sine qua non of the modern ecumenical movement: open Communion. They are in fellowship with all baptized Christians who want to be in fellowship with them which means they are communing “Christians” who believe gays should marry, babies should be aborted, and men have evolved from apes.
The attempt to bridge the roiled waters between the Reformed and Confessional Lutherans continued in a one line Agnus Dei in which the minister actually chanted “Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” Curiously enough – actually the entire service was a curiosity – this came between the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine/juice. Like other Protestant churches I’ve attended, they made a big deal of everyone eating and drinking at the same time. Having denied the Real Presence, they won’t argue about a moment of presence [neither will confessional Lutherans], but they want to be sure everyone is present at the same moment.
How about the Gospel? It was in some of the hymns, but it was MIA in the sermon. Actually, it was an also ran there. It came at the end of the message in the line “And the blood of Jesus covers our sins.” This really isn’t either the active or passive obedience of Jesus which are constituent parts of the Gospel. This a fruit of them.
The whole service was designed to instill and/or impart a sense of the divine. This makes sense. When a person isn’t present you try to create a sense of their being there somehow, someway. So, moms don’t let your babies grow up to be Presbyterians where they will forever be trying to make a connection with God. May they be Confessional Lutherans centered on the Christ who is really present in things that have touched them, do touch them, and that they can eat and drink.
*This is my recollection of what Dr. Marquart said. Since he is in the Church Triumphant, he is not able to defend himself or justify my recollection. Reading the information below, you will see that this the statement I recollect him as saying is not accurate. That would be unlike him but I have ‘been there done that’ before. Perhaps I am remembering what he said incorrectly. Could he have said the practice only became popular in the Age of Rationalism? In any event, you should know that he was responding to the question of what he thought of the design of Our Savior, Houston. Here’s the correction a reader sent me
Evangelical Lutheranism’s commitment to maintain and express the centrality of the Means of Grace in the design of its churches came to be expressed most creatively and effectively in the development of the Lutheran “Kanzelaltar” (Pulpit/Altar). A pulpit/altar is a structure in which the altar and the pulpit are joined together in such a way that the pulpit is placed above and behind the altar. Typically the font is then located in front of the altar combining all three architectural representations of the Means of Grace most prominently at the central axis of the sanctuary. This combination becomes the dominant feature of the physical environment for the Divine Service. The pulpit altar is considered by many scholars to be the single most important contribution of Lutheran theology to the history of Church architecture.
In his definitive study Die Evangelische Kanzelaltar, Hartmut Mai argues that the evangelical pulpit/altar offers a unique opportunity for structuring a liturgical center in such a way as to give decisive architectural express to the focus of the worship of the Lutheran Church upon the Means of Grace as the one center around which the congregation gathers to worship God. At the same time, he contends that the pulpit/altar expressed the essential unity and equality of Word and Sacrament in Biblically defined worship. ( Hartmut Mai, Die Evangelische Kanzelaltar, p. 201, https://www.amazon.com/Evangelische-Kanzelaltar-Geschichte-Bedeutung/dp/B0000BSGS9).