“The Royal Banners Forward Go”
Editor’s Note: Last year a new visual feature was added to the procession for special worship services in Concordia Seminary’s Chapel of Saints Timothy and Titus. Its use generates occasional discussion, both on campus and off. Dr. Kent Burreson, Dean of the Chapel, circulated a recent e-mail to the faculty concerning its use. He has given permission for that e-mail to be shared on this website. Two replies, one by Dr. David Adams and one by Dr. Robert Kolb, are also posted by permission. We thought the following dialogue provided a poignant example of the kind of collegial theological conversation that happens amongst the faculty. You’re invited to join in. A video of a recent procession is provided below.
From Kent Burreson:
It might be helpful if I provided some insight regarding the streamers, especially if students ask about them. Some have wondered what they mean. They mean NOTHING. What I mean by that is that liturgy is not fundamentally an allegorical enterprise. We did not introduce the streamers with the intention that they correlate with some specific theological truth or proposition, whether in connection with special worship services or elsewhere in theological discourse. As Romano Guardini, the Roman Catholic liturgical scholars says in his treatise, The Spirit of the Liturgy, “The conception of purpose regards an objects center of gravity as existing outside that object, seeing it lie instead in the transition to further movement, ie. that towards the goal which the object provides. But every object is to a certain extent, and many are entirely, self-sufficient and an end in itself…their significance consists in being what they are. Measured by the strictest sense of the word, they are purposeless, but still full of meaning.” In this sense the streamers are purposeless. They are playful, celebratory. As Guardini notes, liturgy in this sense is like the play of a child, it is like life pouring itself forth without aim, which is what a child does. Liturgy plays in and rejoices in the new life in Christ. The streamers are an example of such celebratory playfulness. Perhaps because it is the world of the child in this regard, adults often consider it silly, trite. Then perhaps we ought to re-examine our theology of the child as fully human! (I recognize some might disagree with Guardini or my interpretation of him, but I think both a sound theology of creation and anthropology affirm both Guardini and my reading of him.)
Thus, in one respect worship is celebration (playful; that is certainly not all it is, but that is one aspect), celebration of the resurrection victory of our Lord Jesus Christ and his lordship over all of creation. The streamers are a way of celebrating that victory. The movement and color of the streamers contribute to that celebration. Historically, there was a time (5th century) when the church introduced banners into its worship (“The Royal Banners Forward Go”). They were not there from the beginning. I suppose there were those then that would have understood such cultural elements to be trite, silly, dumb. Adults might have thought they pointed away from Christ. My guess is that children would have rejoiced to celebrate with their Redeemer in the waving banners. After all, Jesus did indeed say that we must become as little children. The streamers are one way of doing that in worship, not too dissimilar from vestments and banners and artwork and the sign of the cross and processional crosses and balloons and icons and…
Hopefully that provides some context for understanding the use of the streamers.
From David Adams:
I have always taken the streamers to be nothing more or less than a celebratory gesture without any specific symbolic associations, as Dr. Burreson has suggested. As such I don’t particularly like them, but I don’t particularly dislike them either. And in matters of adiaphora I don’t think that my personal likes and dislikes ought to count for all that much in any case.
Having said that, I found the explanation of their use to be potentially more disquieting that the use itself. Without intending to put words in anyone’s mouth, I suspect that should someone not like the streamers, they would find the description of “worship as play” to be much more problematic than the use of the streamers per se. The use of the streamers is simply a matter of taste; the “worship as play” metaphor raises serious theological issues over the nature of worship and how the nature of worship expresses itself in our liturgy. Specifically, it rather clearly places the predominant emphasis in worship upon us and upon our feelings, and downplays — sorry, but I could not resist the pun — the emphasis upon worship as a Christ-centered activity whereby God’s Word is proclaimed and his gifts received. It reminds me of the sort of thing that I used to hear coming from the proponents of the “holy laughter” movement within Pentecostalism a few decades ago. I am not suggesting that worship should be a somber and abstract exercise; color and noise and celebration are all good and appropriate. The elements themselves may be “meaningless” in the way that Dr. Burreson suggests, but the way that we conceptualize our use of such things does matter. It seems to me to be prudent to conceptualize them in a way that puts the predominant emphasis on Christ and his redeeming work than upon our experience.
From Robert Kolb:
I do agree with David that there is something more at stake here than might at first meet the eye, if my recollections are correct. I guess this point is to be made whether or not my recollections are correct.
My doctoral student, Guntis Kalme, wrote his dissertation on the implication of God’s defining himself publicly as “for us” or “for you,” and in that context did a comparison of Luther’s understanding of the goodness of the created order and the holiness of our earthly vocations, all of them, to which Luther, of course, added a sharp critique of the monastic practices of his time. Guntis compared Luther at the insistence of his department to V. Lossky, a leading voice in Russian Orthodox theology in the 20th century. Lossky thought the fullest way to live out our humanity was to flee from the created order into the monastery, not to be mother and father, the vocationes Luther thought at the heart of the way God runs his world. All this as background to my point: banners are Lutheran. Or can express an important part of our delight in God’s creation and its colors and its playfulness. If you have an Eastern – orthodox it is not, although it may be Orthodox – view of things, you will, of course, not be able to appreciate that.
I just read last night Bob Benne’s article in the latest Cresset on the loss of the concept of beauty from U.S. American aesthetic sensibilities, and it occurs to me that that kind of rejection of God’s creation is at the other end of the spectrum from – no, very, very close to – an Eastern way of thinking about dealing with the loose edges of God’s creation by fleeing the joy he designed it to bestow. Gnosticism, too, as we have invented the phenomenon, embraced both libertinism and asceticism. I would suggest out of the same raw materials that Eastern, Greek and Russian, theology does.
Since the issue at hand is primarily one of aesthetics and preferences, readers may wish to compare a previous post which discusses these issues.