Review: In the Context of Unity

I have a lot of things to post that of course I’m behind on, but I thought I’d start with an easy one.

This book caught me interest as I researched the development of the Daily Office in American Lutheranism. In the Context of Unity: A History of the Development of Lutheran Book of Worship is exactly what it says on the tin. Ralph W. Quere, who served on the Liturgical Text Committee of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, walks the reader through the process that led to the publication of Lutheran Book of Worship, from the original call from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in 1965 all the way to its publication in 1978 (without the LCMS’s approval–more on that later).

Querre takes a clinical and historical approach. He extensively references all of the documents available from the ILCW and its committees, and uses them to guide the reader through the timeline of the project. His concern isn’t always for the details of deliberation: more important to him is who suggested what changes, and how the committees handled their disagreements. In that way, the book disappointed me. I was hoping for more insight into the choices of the authors called upon to craft the new texts, and Querre rarely gives it. The changes debated, yes, but not necessarily the original texts.

The Centrality of the Eucharist

One theme that connects the book, and therefore the entire ILCW process, is the theological debate over the Great Thanksgiving–specifically, the eucharistic prayer. The “re-introduction” of the eucharistic prayer (even though it had appeared in both The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 and Service Book and Hymnal of 1958–which critics of the critics were quick to point out) sparked fierce controversy that raged over a decade. To someone who was born after the publication of LBW, and who therefore has always worshiped in a Lutheran church that used a eucharistic prayer, the debate feels so far away. But it threatened to derail the entire project from the very beginning. Luther jettisoned the Roman Canon when he reformed the Mass because of its sacrificial language, and the idea of including it in a new liturgy meant for all Lutherans (without the sacrificial language) ruffled quite a few feathers. Querre presents the arguments and viewpoints of numerous theologians who influenced the work and decisions of the ILCW, decisions that extended beyond the inclusion of the eucharistic prayer. “There is a sense in which all of the controversies swirling around the ILCW’s work were ‘eucharistic’,” Querre says, and he’s right. Everything seemed to come back to it in some way.

Unity: Hope and Threat

The title of the book, In the Context of Unity, represents the other major theme in Querre’s work. When the LCMS called the other Lutheran church bodies in America to the work of creating LBW, it was to craft a new Common Service, a liturgy that reflected the growing unity in American Lutheranism. Unity could also be seen in the closer ecumenical relationships Lutherans were forging, specifically with Episcopalians and Presbyterians, in a post-Vatican II world. That hope, that promise, a decade later became a threat.

During the creation of LBW, the LCMS experienced a seismic event. The “Seminex” crisis and the formation of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches tore the LCMS apart. “Missouri appears to be a different church from that which passed the ILCW resolutions in 1965 and 1971”, a church more focused on individuality, identity, a church that believed it was under attack from without and within. In that context, “unity” represented the end of LCMS particularity and its self-understanding as the doctrinally superior–pure–church. So it was that in 1977, the LCMS pulled out of the LBW project and created its own hymnal, Lutheran Worship, which was in text and design nearly identical to LBW. Querre mostly refrains from passing judgement directly, preferring to use the words of his contemporaries published at the time to express his disdain for the way the LCMS intentionally torpedoed the ILCW’s goal of a hymnal for all American Lutherans.

The unity that the ILCW laid the groundwork for did come around, but without the LCMS. In 1986, the churches that created and used LBW–the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches–merged to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That church has in turn forged closer relationships with Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist, Moravian, and UCC churches. Querre sees the seeds of that merger and its ecumenical outlook planted in the dialogue fostered by the ILCW. It’s hard to disagree.

Conclusion

Creating a new hymnal is never easy. Querre shows how the creation of Lutheran Book of Worship, what he considers to be the result of the most in-depth, intense, theologically-focused inter-Lutheran project to date, was a massive effort. Dozens of theologians sat on the ILCW, and dozens more were consulted. Some texts and tunes were accepted as first proposed. Others underwent years of scrutiny until the wording was just right. At the eleventh hour, the very church that proposed the new hymnal tried to discredit, destroy, and replace it. This book opened my eyes to just how incredible the resulting hymnal was, both in its goals and in its execution. I’m glad I currently worship using LBW’s successor, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, but I’m equally glad I grew up with LBW.

I wouldn’t recommend the book for casual readers–it’s not a narrative, it’s a presentation and analysis of facts and figures. But for someone interested in how the LBW came into being, it’s an indispensable resource.

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