“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.

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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.





9 responses to ““The Royal Banners Forward Go””

  1. George Carstensen Avatar
    George Carstensen

    Well said Gents. What I really objected to in the service was the Banner that was processed in. (Ha, just kidding.)

  2. Jay Winters Avatar

    Very interesting. I’m surprised that there was no mentioned link to vestments in their many different forms. I appreciated the banners at the call service, and to be honest – my first impression was an allegorical one: they reminded me that the Spirit was especially focused upon in this service. Thanks for this!

    in Christ,

  3. Steven Anderson Avatar
    Steven Anderson

    Thank you for the discussion gentlemen. I served as sacristan at Concordia for 2 1/2 academic years and consider myself privileged to have worked in the chapel. I found the streamers and the “worship as play” concept both somewhat disquieting, as I also find balloons in worship and liturgical dance. They all fall within Christian Freedom, but, to me, they trend toward an emotionalism and perhaps even a “feminizing” of Liturgy which can end in where we now see other church bodies. Perhaps you could explore a set of beautiful processional torches that could be placed on either side of the lecturn, which could be carried in procession.


    1. Kent Burreson Avatar
      Kent Burreson

      Thanks, Steve. I would love to have a set of 6 processional torches. ANY DONORS OUT THERE? But I wouldn’t view the processional torches as replacements for other ritual objects, whether born from the church’s memory or reflective of current cultural expressions, that might also be used in the assembly’s worship. My ultimate concern is that the worship of the Christian assembly serve the relationship between God and His justified people: allow us to receive his gifts and offer Him worship and praise through the concreteness of human life and culture. Processional torches may light the way and adorn the cross and those who process and streamers may do the same with movement and color.

  4. David L Adams Avatar
    David L Adams

    To follow up, the following message (slightly edited here) was sent to the faculty as part of the continuing discussion. It raises further substantive issues for consideration:

    What I was trying to get at is this: We all understand that there is a difference between matters of taste and matters of theology. The original blog made three critical statements about the service: (1) the use of streamers was “odd,” “out of place,” and “dumb”; (2) the lack of Gospel in the sermon was symptomatic of the preaching problem that exists in the church today; and (3) “Alabare” was sung at too slow of a pace. Of these, the first and third are simply matters of taste. As regards matters of taste we would do well to remember the Latin proverb De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum. Within any large group of individuals there will frequently be differences of opinion on matters of taste, and in churches these disagreements often involve matters of worship. While we may regret the disagreement, we need to recognize that differences of opinion on matters of taste are not theological differences (though they might entail theological issues, as my last comment about ‘worship as play’ noted). And to be fair to the blogger, he did not accuse the seminary of any false doctrine on these matters; he simply expressed his distaste with the choices made (perhaps somewhat rudely, but that is another matter). The fact that we have disagreements over matters of taste (and express them) does not mean that we are no longer one synod. And insofar as the blogger’s comments expressed his distaste with the choices that were made in putting together the worship service, he is entitled to his opinion and he has a right to state it. We need not be so insecure as to be troubled by someone disagreeing with us on matters of taste (or for that matter, having disagreements among ourselves about such matters … as I am quite sure do exist).

    The second criticism, the lack of Gospel in the sermon, is more substantive. Since I did not hear the sermon in question (I was out of town the day of the service), I cannot comment upon the accuracy of the complaint. In my experience there is a problem with quite a bit of the preaching in the LCMS today: too many preachers think that because they have “mentioned” the Gospel they have “preached” the Gospel, and the result is a great deal of moralism vaguely disguised as well-intentioned but often misguided “preaching the third use of the law.” Whether this was the case in the sermon at the vicarage call service or not, I cannot say. But “mentioning” the Gospel without really “preaching” it exacerbates the problem of how different listeners hear a sermon. I think that we all understand the fundamental rhetorical point that not all listeners hear the same thing (and all too frequently hear something different than the speaker intended them to hear!), and so it is possible for one hearer to hear the Gospel in a sermon and another not to hear it. This, I think, should serve as a reminder to all of us, and which we should not cease to emphasize to our students, of the necessity of striving for clarity in preaching so as to avoid (as much as is humanly possible) the problem of people mis-hearing what we say.

    So while, in my view, this whole matter is mostly, as Macbeth might say, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” it at least raises some useful questions about the role of taste in worship, about our freedom to disagree over such matters (hopefully in a responsible and respectful manner), and about the importance of a clarity in actually preaching the Gospel rather than just mentioning it. And on these questions I (at least) would welcome more discussion.

    One last observation: isn’t this whole matter a lovely case study in the impact of the Internet on relations within a community? In the ‘good old days’ the blogger would have said these things to his wife on his way home and we would have all gone happily on our way in the bliss of ignorance. Today every opinion becomes a public opinion, everyone takes exception to being publicly criticized, and civility and community are too often the ultimate victim. What have we wrought?

  5. Christopher S. Ahlman Avatar
    Christopher S. Ahlman

    “Worship as play” only “clearly places the predominant emphasis in worship upon us and upon our feelings” for folks who do not full implicate the Pauline theology, specifically that of Gal. 2:20:

    “I have been cruficied with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

    In this respect, Guardini’s comments (of which I have read a fair amount myself in my own advanced graduate work in liturgical studies) do not downplay the emphasis upon worship as a Christ-centered activity of proclaimed Word and gifts given, but assume it–or, rather, proclaim it. In other words, “worship as play” does not advanced ourselves or take ourselves seriously; it advances the Christ of Word and Sacrament and takes that Christ seriously. In this respect, celebratory items such as streamers not only bear faithful witness to the Christ promised to be among us; they also press the old Adam to “get over him/herself,” if you will. Thus, Guardini’s “worship as play” is quite fitting. It reinforces the truth that liturgical celebration is not a matter of focus or “emphasis,” but “doing the world the way the world was meant to be done: (A. Kavanagh). Put in the Pauline manner:

    “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

    Thus, liturgy is not a “Christ-centered activity,” (objective Christ) per se, but Christ-in-action (subjective Christ), reclaiming the world unto himself. That’s primary theological discourse. Where primary theological discourse is lost, secondary theological issues of the non-Gospel sort are bound to arise in order to hijack “play” (read “faith expressed” or “confession of Gospel”) into tyrannical “chores,” if not romanticized notions of propriety. Chores are good, to be sure, but they cease their tyranny when “play” has its way with children, and soon enough themselves resemble “play” in that they serve as opportunities to invent, recreate, provoke to imagination (read “Sanctification” confess rightly in Gospel ways). Romanticized notions? Well, that’s for another post, but you get the point, I hope.

    Thus, ultimately, you can’t divorce Christ-in-action from “our experience.” It’s one and the same. Christ has promised such.

    I hope this is in some way helpful.

  6. Steven Anderson Avatar
    Steven Anderson

    Greetings, and once again, thank you all for the thoughtful discussion. Dean Burreson, I am glad to see the chapel life in your capable hands, and while I am not in a position to donate six processional torches to my alma mater, I will certainly cover the cost of one, if there are any others who would like to make such a committment, as well.

  7. Rev. Robert Mayes Avatar
    Rev. Robert Mayes

    Brothers in Christ:

    Earlier I had seen the video in reference, and was quite puzzled at the use of the streamers. Hearing now the explanation from Dr. Burreson and the commentary by Drs. Adams and Kolb, I can see something of where this was coming from, but still have other questions.

    First, Dr. Burreson, you mention that the streamers were to be playful and celebratory, comparing their use to the play of children. I appreciate your historical knowledge of the liturgy, such as when banners were introduced to Christian worship.

    But how is it accurate to compare worship to the playful abandon of a child? True, Jesus does teach that we should have the faith of a child, such as in Mt. 18:2-3. But to have the faith of a child is to trust God’s Word as the truth, and not subject it to man’s reason over the Word. To have the faith of a child to God’s Word is not the same thing as to worship in a childish manner. St. Paul teaches us in 1 Cor. 13:12 that “when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” If the mature in faith are to put away childish things, that also suggests that the childish things that might be included in worship should also be put away.

    I have no objection to calling the use of streamers in worship adiaphora. As far as I can see, there is no command in Scripture for or against such things. But I think we should also recall what the Formula of Concord says about adiaphora: “Nevertheless, that herein all frivolity and offense should be avoided” (FC Epit. X, Triglot pg. 829). I don’t know if streamers are an offense, but it certainly seems as if they are frivolous, and Dr. Burreson’s comments indicate that they were included in the service for the sake of being frivolous. In holding to our confession, should the streamers continue?

    Dr. Adams – I appreciate your comments about keeping worship Christ-centered. I agree that the use of streamers can have the unintended effect of having us focus on our experience.

    Dr. Kolb – I don’t know as much about Eastern orthodox spirituality and worship. It seems to me that the desire to remove colorful banners and works of art from the sanctuary was also the position of Karlstadt, which Luther greatly resisted.

    However, I was curious why you suggested that it was important for Lutherans in worship to “delight in God’s creation and its colors and its playfulness.” Worship is not of this world or the old creation, any more so than Christ Himself is. We do not gather around the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments in order to delight in God’s creation, but to receive the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ’s redemption. It is more 2nd and 3rd article, than 1st article. Thus, having streamers that “mean nothing” (according to Dr. Burreson) and only enhance a sensory experience in worship seems to be contradictory to the point for having worship. I thought liturgical matters (such as vestments, paraments, ceremonies) were meant to teach. I guess I don’t see what streamers teach. Your comments on this would be appreciated.

    In Christ,
    Rev. Robert Mayes
    Fullerton, NE

  8. Rev. George Carstensen Avatar

    Wow. wow. I cannot believe some of the negative comments here and many of the comments about these streamers elsewhere on the internet.

    It occurs to me that many of my colleagues need to spend time worrying about things that matter rather than some innocuous streamers (which – by the way were used several times previous to the one in question.) and then blogging about it for the purpose of defaming an institution which I hold dear.

    Everyone has preferences – and if one of them is strong enough to cause issue – employ Matthew 18 instead of your keyboard.

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