Q. Ken, you were a sacristan, you seem like someone who would know liturgical stuff and all that. I’m working with a church that is having a big anniversary celebration, and even though the color of the day is technically green, the Pastor wants to know if they can decorate the church in other colors for the day. What do you think?
Short answer: Yes.
First, since today is a light-hearted day and I don’t often receive phone calls from pastors asking for advice, allow me to share this picture from the lovely folk at EveryDayImPastoring:
Now then, to the matter at hand.
My first reaction came from my liturgical, traditionalist side. The colors are there for a reason! Even if people don’t remember what the colors stand for, they can remember that we’re in the “green” season–after all, it seems to last forever. Liturgical colors are part of an old tradition of used to indicate season and the emotions that go with it.
On the other hand, as my friend and I quickly deduced, a certain set of liturgical colors (or the concept of liturgical colors altogether) are not mandated anywhere in the Lutheran church. They would fall under the Augsburg Confession VII §3:
It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere.
And in XV §1-2:
Concerning church regulations made by human beings, it is taught to keep those that may be kept without sin and that serve to maintain peace and good order in the church, such as specific celebrations, festivals, etc. However, people are also instructed not to burden consciences with them as if such things were necessary for salvation.¹
So, basically, a tradition like liturgical colors is a good tradition and not a bad thing, since it has a purpose, but it’s not necessary.
This really came to mind when we started talking about Reformation Sunday. Reformation Sunday is typically observed by Lutherans on the Sunday before All Saints Day, and there is evidence that it was celebrated as early as 50 years after the 95 Theses were posted (almost 500 years ago). The liturgical color for that day is red instead of the green it should, being still in the season of Pentecost.
The issue here is that Reformation Day is a good example of a made-up liturgical day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome day, especially now that, in many places, it’s much less of a Roman-Catholic-Bashing day and much more of a celebration of the good the Reformation brought. But even though it has a liturgical color, it’s still a made-up day.
The precedent is set, then, for important occasions to occasionally supersede the established liturgical tradition. That word, “occasionally”, is important. Being liturgically minded, I would prefer not to see this become the norm. Yet it would be wrong to enforce the tradition as if it were necessary. That’s the distinction in adiaphora (“indifferent things”). There are many traditions Lutherans inherited that aren’t connected to the work of salvation. Lutherans are free to either accept or reject them without judgment. If, however, those traditions were to become necessary, then Lutherans are bound to reject them.
I worry that there are other aspects of our own tradition that should be adiaphora, but instead are treated as necessities. I once suggested to my internship site, when it was discussing changes to its chancel (the area in which the pulpit and altar sit), that we should remove the altar rail. I was met with blank faces and informed that there had to be an altar rail. It was simply accepted as the way it had to be–it was necessary.
That’s a pretty tame example. But have you ever been to a meeting to discuss the color of the carpet in the sanctuary? You’d think Christ himself only walked on certain colors. Have you ever tried to get rid of a broken-down, dilapidated piece of equipment, only to have a church member demand it be returned because his great-grandfather bought if for the church, and he would be damned if he saw it thrown out? There are loud voices of complaint every time a new hymnal comes out because it changed something from the previous one, something that people came to adore and hold us as THE way to do things.
Lutherans are just as susceptible to making unimportant things the center of our lives as anyone else. The fact that my friend and I had to have a conversation on whether we were allowed to use different colors is evidence that this can happen without even knowing it. The concept of adiaphora is a good concept to use in church, but it’s also helpful to apply to everyday life. I know I focus on too many things that aren’t important. Maybe it’s time I started applying a little adiaphora to my life and cleaning it out.
Then I wouldn’t be worried so much about colors. And that, my friends, is a relief!
1. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneaoplis: Fortress, 2000).