Right or Rite?

Rev. William Rowe, a Roman Catholic priest, had already been removed from his parish when Bishop Edward Braxton of the Belleville, IL, diocese, took the extra step of forbidding him to exercise any public ministry. Rowe announced the move on Monday, July 9, and observed that he had been scheduled to preside at five weddings and a funeral this summer.

Rowe’s crime? He routinely altered the Mass, deviating from the wording of the missal’s prayers in order to make them easier to understand and also to reflect the theme of his message for the day. Rowe has been doing this for a very long time, but it became an issue when the Catholic Church began to enforce the recent revision of the Mass in English. Some Catholic news sources have been quick to point out that Bp. Braxton was within his rights to remove Rowe for this behavior, and I am in no position to determine how effective his changes to the Mass really were. Yet from the standpoint of the Catholic hierarchy, it’s not about Rowe being right but about being rite.

The story interests me as a Lutheran historian of the Middle Ages because it illustrates the Roman Catholic understanding of liturgy—an understanding that is diametrically opposed to a Reformation understanding of worship. The similarities between the forms of Lutheran and Roman Catholic liturgical worship obscure (particularly for those not well versed in Reformation history) deep and fundamental differences. The precise manner of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper are far from the only difference. The entire aim of each service is different. For the Lutheran Reformers, the service provided an opportunity for the proclamation of the Word and thus for God to do his work through that Word. So the Word had to be preached, read, sung, and prayed in words that the people could understand. The Roman Mass, on the other hand, could remain in Latin because the understanding of those gathered was not the point. The point was for the ritual actor (the priest) to correctly perform the ritual (the Mass) in order to obtain the desired result of receiving grace from God. It all had to be done “right” to be a “rite.” Even when there was preaching connected to the Mass, it was understood not as the Word of God through which God himself was at work but as mere instruction concerning God’s provision of salvation and what was required to receive it (chiefly the Sacraments).

Let’s fast forward to today. Although Lutherans argue about forms of worship, and some insist on liturgical forms, our discussions are not the same as those that go on within the Roman Church surrounding something like a revision of the Mass in English. Even when we produce a new hymnal, we are not constructing a single, correct, and, therefore, mandatory ritual. Because our worship is not our sacrifice or work directed toward God—something that has to be done “rite”—but God’s work for us in his Word.

Related posts

“This Joyful Eastertide”

"This Joyful Eastertide"

"This Joyful Eastertide"

A Concordia Seminary, St. Louis choir, led by James Marriott, sings the classic Easter hymn.

An Easter Toccata

An Easter Toccata

An Easter Toccata

James Marriott plays an organ work famous for its use as an Easter postlude.

Martin Luther’s Stand at Worms, Uncut

Martin Luther's Stand at Worms, Uncut

Martin Luther's Stand at Worms, Uncut

Erik Herrmann marks the 500th anniversary of Luther's most famous speech by introducing a new "director's cut" of the scene from a recent film.


  1. Bruce Hartung July 11, 2012

    “Rite” on, my colleague. This thoughtful response helps us see how our underlying theological presuppositions and worldview color even our “practical” responses. Thanks for taking us beyond the sound-bite reactive responses to this (and there have been those here and there) and showing us a way of thoughtful discussion.

  2. Don July 17, 2012

    Because our Worship delivers what Christ Instituted for His heirs in His testament we are not free to alter it willy nilly. Every Lutheran should be concerned that the Gospel is taught in it purity and the sacraments are administered as Christ promised. While it is true that the Christian church has always been translational we translate from the original not the latest cultural rag. While I do not believe that LSB is required for Christian Worship I think it serves the church well and it would be good for the church to use it gladly.

  3. Paul Robinson July 18, 2012

    The point is what we think we are doing with LSB. The Roman church believes it is translating an authoritative and inspired rite– the revised English mass is, in general, etymologically closer to the Latin original. One could discuss translation theory here, but I am more interested in what “original” we are translating. Is it the Latin mass? Which one? With or without Luther’s omissions? Which century do you want to privilege? Should we translate the German Mass and use that?

    I am not against liturgy and hymnals, but it is important to realize the role they ought to play in Lutheran worship. They are there to serve the Gospel and not to become a law unto themselves.

  4. Matt Priem July 18, 2012

    This is a good point to make when worship wars flare up. We do have a common ground in the belief that the focus should be God’s Word rather than the external forms. Some may assert that using culturally familiar forms do this best, and others may assert that using the same form until it becomes familiar is best, but the underlying assertion about the centrality of God’s Word is the same. Hopefully that is something that both sides can build on.

  5. Christopher S. Ahlman July 30, 2012

    Dr. Robinson:

    A few questions for further explication:

    1. I noticed a shift in your wording, from “Roman Catholic understanding of liturgy” to “Reformation understanding of worship,” followed by a fusion in the subsequent “Lutheran and Roman Catholic liturgical worship.” Is the shift from “liturgy” to “worship” intentional in word and concept, and if so, what is the intention? As a result, has a conceptual fusion indeed taken place with “liturgical worship”?

    2. Does liturgy simply “provide an opportunity” for the proclamation of the Gospel, or does the proclamation of the Gospel make liturgy inevitable? Given that the Gospel is God’s work unto salvation, and given that “liturgy” is nothing more than “service rendered on behalf of the public,” can one hear, receive, and understanding Gospel non-liturgically? Can one effectively divorce the proclamation of the Gospel from liturgical rite, comprehensively understood? Can Gospel proclamation be anything other than ritually-realized? Can it be done other than “rite”? I find AC V to confess Gospel in liturgical/ritual terms.

    3. While I concur that a “single, correct, and therefore, mandatory ritual” (and by “ritual,” I take you to refer to “order of service” or “script with choreography”) is not meritorious and thus must not be sought for such a reason, in principle, would you concur that the liturgy should be done “rite” with respect to civic righteousness, for the sake of good order, and thus for the sake of “good ordo”–which is to say, for the sake of God’s work (liturgy) in Word and Sacrament on behalf of the public? How does this affect our understanding of “using liturgical forms”? If the Gospel is proclaimed in Word and Sacrament according to Christ’s institution, can a “liturgical form” really even be possibly absent? Is opting out of a liturgical form (whatever that may be) even possible with respect to Gospel proclamation? In this respect, is it even possible for any Christian to not find themselves in a liturgical form (whatever that may be) in the gathered assembly around Word and Table?

    Many thanks for your consideration. I look forward to your responses.

    Chris Ahlman

    • Paul Robinson August 7, 2012

      1. I do mean to make a distinction between liturgy as Rome understood it and worship as the reformers understood it. The phrase “forms of Lutheran and Roman Catholic liturgical worship” is not a fusion but two separate things. The fact that Lutheran liturgy and Roman liturgy can look quite similar does not mean they have the same purpose and orientation.

      2. I take you to mean that liturgy in a broad sense is inevitable because people naturally create rituals around the means of grace that are the subject matter of AC V. I am using liturgy in the common narrower sense to mean a particular form or set of forms for public worship. I suppose even those who try to avoid liturgy entirely nevertheless have a liturgical rite ” comprehensively understood.”

      3. This conversation about the relationship freedom and order is one among many that needs to take place. My point is that it needs to take place with clearly articulated and genuinely Lutheran understandings about the nature and purpose of the worship service.

  6. Christopher S. Ahlman August 15, 2012

    Concerning response 1: yes, *ex opere operato* (“liturgy as Rome understood it”) is not the same as *faith in God’s promises* (“worship as the refomers understood it”). That’s quite clear. I wasn’t after clarification between Roman and Lutheran theological understandings and reflections but simply wanted clarification concerning your own use of the terms “liturgy,” “worship,” and “liturgical worship” apart from the attendant 16-century theological reflections upon those realities. I would find more helpful discussions contrasting pre-Tridentine Roman understandings of liturgy with Reformation-era Lutheran understandings of liturgy, then pre-Tridentine Roman understandings of faith (in the work being worked) with Reformation-era Lutheran understandings of faith (in the promises of God), and so on. As it stands, it appears as if you’re comparing a thesis of Group A with a antithesis of Group B (different loci, as it were), even as they are closely related.

    Concerning response 2.: What I mean is: “liturgy” is God’s work on behalf of the public in Christ through the Spirit to save sinful humanity, which is to say that liturgy is Gospel and Gospel is liturgy. Liturgy is primary theological discourse (God acting on behalf of his people), not secondary theological discourse (theological reflection about God). Liturgy proclaims and not explains. I supposing I’m speaking in more primordial ways, but I think that’s the vital thing that missing in a lot of our discussions concerning this reality. Kirchenordnungen are simply road maps for the inevitable “enfleshing” of that grand reality.

    Concerning response 3.: I couldn’t agree with you more, which is why I’d like to see discussions about liturgy to be about liturgy, discussions about worship (faith) to be about worship, and so on. Having done this, one can then see that worship (faith) is given for the sake of receiving/clinging to the promises of God where they are to be found, delivered, and received/clung to (liturgy).

    Many thanks.

    Chris Ahlman

Leave a comment