WELS Hymnal Project

The Agenda: Getting Rites Right

"The pastor-elect presents himself before the altar…"

The Agenda is a book of details. An example of such is the sentence above, what we call a rubric. Rubrics are worded to be clear and designed to provide a dignified, logical flow to a given rite. Some freer spirits may roll their eyes at such details, or even openly chuckle that there is an entire page in the Agenda devoted to guidelines for ringing church bells. To some, such details are sometimes disparagingly dismissed as "high church." Still, many others greatly appreciate the fact that they can pick up a rite that someone has carefully thought through and use it as is without alteration, knowing that it will accurately reflect our synod's doctrine and practice.

Granted, such things as rubrics and guidelines are hardly the meat and potatoes of the gospel ministry. Yet some of us, I'm inclined to bet, have sat through a rite (such as, for example, the reception of new members) where the language is overly casual or where (worse yet) the worship leader is making it up as he goes along, getting the "general idea of the thing." Usually, poor planning leads to redundancy, repetition, omission of essential words and concepts, and may well take twice as long as it needs to. In contrast, rites that have been thoughtfully constructed are both accurate and efficient in their wording and presentation.

The type of language that the Agenda committee is striving to use is language that strikes a balance between the overly casual and the excessively formal. We want to speak in the language that people use and understand, avoiding erudite and ecclesiastical sesquipedalianisms that leave the congregational members saying, "Huh?" and tuning out when they hear what they perceive as "church language." On the other hand, there is such a language as "church language" that is—and should be—used for formal, serious occasions such as those requiring the use of a rite.

Also, as mentioned above, the content of the language needs to be clear as well so that it accurately reflects doctrine and practice among us. In our work on the Agenda, the committee did, for example, consult with the Conference of Presidents concerning the best way to publicly speak about the ministry. Should we use "Holy Ministry," "holy ministry," "ministry of the Word and Sacraments," "minister of the Word," "minister of the gospel"—all of the above, some of the above? Are there terms that, for confessional reasons, we should avoid using in public rites? Or, as another example, in the rite entitled Installation of a Vicar, should we say the vicar is "assigned" or "called"? Is a vicar "assigned" to a supervising pastor (yes), or is he "called" to a congregation (yes)? How do we word the rite in the right way so that it clearly expresses both concepts? After all, words mean things!

In summary, the work on Agenda indicates that standards for public rites in the church exist and they need to be found somewhere. We desire our rites to communicate clearly in a dignified, orderly way that also articulates what we believe, teach, and confess. It is our prayer that all the work of updating and adding to the public rites of the church may be a blessing to both worship leaders and worshippers for years to come.

About Keith Wessel

Keith C. Wessel currently serves in the Foreign Language and Theology divisions at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, MN. Prior to his current call, Keith served as pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Marietta, GA, and at Michigan Lutheran Seminary, Saginaw, MI. He also served as the chairman for the Rites Committee of Christian Worship: Supplement, published in 2008. He and his wife, Liz, have been blessed with five children.


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