Lutherans and Monks Together

ALCM 2The Association of Lutheran Church Musicians wished to worship jointly with Catholics in 2017, the anniversary year of the Reformation. And so it came to be, during their convention this past week in Minneapolis, that they made pilgrimmage to Saint John’s Abbey Wednesday for Evening Prayer with the monks and other guests.

ALCM’s time at Saint John’s was to begin with an informal plenary in the abbey church with me and art historian Br. David Paul Lange OSB. But alas, it seems that two buses lost their way or somehow got delayed. What to do while waiting 20 minutes? The Lutherans had a solution and they didn’t need hymnals in hand for it – they sang hymns. When they struck up “How Great Thou Art,” I couldn’t resist hopping on the organ and playing along from memory.

Bell BannerThe Evening Prayer service itself was to be ecumenical. But we planners were aware that the Lutherans were not coming to St. John’s to experience typically Lutheran worship – they already know that – and it was perhaps more hospitable for St. John’s to offer characteristically postconciliar monastic worship “with a Lutheran accent.” Here is the leaflet (with some copyrighted items partially hidden).

Download (PDF, 887KB)

We allowed ourselves to begin the service with a bit of history from the sixteenth century, while conscious that the service could not be entirely traditionalist and also needed to look forward at some point. As a prelude a schola of monks sang the pre-Reformation Latin chant office hymn Rerum, Deus, tenax vigor, set as it is in the Liber Hymnarius to the melody Veni, Redemptor gentium during Advent. This chant hymn was selected because Luther employed it as the basis for his great hymn “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort,” which served as the opening hymn.

Lutheran Organist Wayne Wold did a masterful job leading the hymns, with me playing for the service music – meaning rapid jumping on and off the bench for both of us. As the strong, modal strains of ERHALT UNS HERR began to fill the church, and full-throated singing of Lutherans and Catholics filled the space: “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word,” tears welled up for me. I hadn’t anticipated how emotionally moving this service would be.

The first two office psalms were sung in the hallowed, medieval monastic style of a psalm tone with alternating choirs, but it was more practical to have alternation in this case be between a small group of monks and the entire congregation. And the decision had been made that monks and guests would be seated mixed together in the nave of the church. (A decision never made without just a bit of grumbling in the cloister from one or the other monk about loss of our monastic identity and disruption of our daily rhythm. But it was the right decision, I and most monks are convinced.)

The format of the psalmody was medieval, but the harmonies decidedly modern as set by Fr. Jerome Coller, OSB, who did his doctorate in composition at Columbia University. Here is the accompaniment to the first two psalm tones.

Download (PDF, 41KB)

The third psalm was responsorial, allowing for leadership from a Lutheran schola of women and men to complement the schola of monks. I printed the Isele refrain in parts, knowing that this congregation would delight in that, while the schola sang Isele’s verses in parts. As organist I anticipated with relish being able cut back the organ on the refrain at times, and even drop out entirely, as the congregation took over.

It’s not our typical monastic practice to sing the Magnificat as a metrical strophic hymn, but it’s not unheard of either, and so we were ready for the hymn tune by the great seventeenth-century Lutheran composer Heinrich Schütz as found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006). More part-singing by the congregation. I don’t know how many ELCA Lutheran guests noticed, but some monk involved in the planning switched out the text of the final, doxological stanza as found in ELW so as to employ traditional “Father, Son, Spirit” language. (Was that a bit overly assertive of me??)

Of the five stanzas of the Magnificat, men sang stanza 3 alone, women stanza 4. Such alternation is always striking, and I find it more effect to do men alone first so as to set up the contrast with the higher voices. I had a bit of pang of conscience that this meant the men sang “Your arm is strong…,” while the women sang “You feed the hungry…”. Some might question the gender stereotyping. At first I said that the problematic association was worth it for the gain in musical effect.

But upon reflection I realized that there is a better way to look at this issue. Spiritually, everybody sings every verse – some with their voices, some in their hearts. We are members of one another in the Body of Christ. Otherwise, monks singing antiphonal Office psalmody for the last 1,250 years would have thought to themselves, “This week I’m praying the odd verses of the psalter since I’m in the west choir; next week when the choirs rotate I’ll be praying the even verses which I’m ignoring this week.”

Singing the Lord’s Prayer was a bit of a challenge, for Catholics and Lutherans each have their melodic versions based on the old Latin chant – very similar in general melodic shape, but just different enough to throw one off. Since the Lutherans are note readers, it was easy enough to use a contemporary version by Robert LeBlanc entirely unknown to them, but well known to monks who use this setting as a festive tone on solemnities. It worked.

The monastic Office does not end with a hymn. But both Lutherans and St. John’s monks are big-time hymn singers and relish the historical, ecumenical hymn heritage that continues to grow, so we let ourselves conclude with a hymn on this occasion. Pastor Craig Mueller proposed O Praise the Gracious Power / CHRISTPRAISE RAY by Thomas Troeger and Carol Doran. (BTW, I’m preaching the sermon at Pastor Mueller’s Lutheran church in Chicago this coming Reformation Sunday.) The hymn was perfect for this moment. “Persistent truth that opens fisted minds… inclusive love… tide of grace… Your cross has made us one!” More tears for me.

ALCM 1At one point the plan had been for Abbot John Klassen, OSB to preside, and he would invite a Lutheran pastor forward to join him in bestowing the final blessing. But that wasn’t the right symbolic statement. So Pastor Kristine Carlson of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis was invited to co-preside – she in alb and stole, he in monastic habit. Pastor Carlson spoke of this opportunity as a high point in her Christian life.

The texts for the introductory comments, litany, and blessing were taken from “From Conflict to Communion” produced jointly by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

And so we heard Pastor Carlson read:

“For over 50 years Lutherans and Catholics have been on a journey from conflict to communion… When Lutheran Christians remember the events that led to the particular formation of their churches, they do not wish to do so without their Catholic fellow Christians. In remembering with each other the beginning of the Reformation, they are taking their baptism seriously.”

Co-planner Bob Farlee, longtime editor at Augsburg Fortress, read the litany. He said he was especially moved reading the last intercession of the litany, as was I:

“God our sustenance, bring us together at your eucharistic table, nurture within and among us a communion rooted in your love. Your mercy endures forever!”

After the service, the ALCM convention schedule called for a brief dialogue between Catholic priest and theologian J. Michael Joncas and liturgical leader Pastor Susan Briehl.

I will note two striking things from the wide-ranging, interesting, collegial conversation. First, Briehl expressed her angish and disappointment that the Roman communion abandoned English-language worship texts shared in common with other traditions and went its own way with its 2011 Roman Missal. (Let’s all pray that the pope’s commission to review the whole translation issue bears fruit!)

Second, as Pastor Briehl was expressing her admiration and gratitude for the ministry of Pope Francis – I believe this was in relationship to his encyclical Laudato Si’ – it did not go unnoticed that she referred to “our pope,” with just enough understated emphasis on the possessive pronoun to highlight the ecclesological bit of dynamite she was dropping.

“A far cry from the ‘whore of Babylon’,” Abbot John commented. Indeed.

Soli Deo gloria!
In omnibus glorficetur Deus!
Ut unum sint!




  1. Those of us who were there will remember this service for a very long time. We’ll ask ourselves over and over again “what does this mean?”
    And we’ll pray services like this become more and more common, leading us to reconciliation.

  2. Thank you, Anthony, for this animated account of what must have been a wonderful experience, expressing the unity that already exists and taking it further.

    Gott sei Dank!

  3. Your account allows us to imagine being present. I wish I had been there and appreciate all the spiritual thought. effort, and nuance expressed in the liturgy. May the blessings of this exchange continue to grow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *