27 September 2018: The Final Session of the Twin Cities “Worship Dialogue”

Yesterday it was my privilege to attend the final session of the “Worship Dialogue,” an ecumenical gathering of professors, pastors and those interested in worship issues, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis, MN. Founded in 1990, the “Worship Dialogue” focused on a particular aspect of worship in ecclesiastical and cultural contexts each year, inviting practitioners to interact with seminary professors and those skilled in the arts of worship around such topics as “Gifts of the Culture – Saying Yes/No,” “Worship and Mission: Living Toward God’s Future,” “Worship and the Prophetic Voice,” “Beauty and Wonder,” and “Remembering the Future.” The roster of presenters comprises a virtual “who’s who” of local worship leaders, primarily from Lutheran and Roman Catholic heritages (e.g., David and Susan Palo Cherwien, Robert Farlee, Carol Frenning, Dirk Lange, James Notebaart, Mary Preus, Mark Sedio, Mons Teig, Arthur Zannoni) with a sprinkling of nationally and internationally known liturgists and artists (e.g., Gordon Lathrop, Monte Mason, Elaine Ramshaw, Don Saliers, John August Swanson) offering broader perspectives.

The final session followed the pattern of other sessions I had attended. After a short gathering time to renew old acquaintances and initiate new friendships, the attendees delighted in a thought-provoking presentation by Paul Westermeyer. He had been given the task of tracing what has happened in worship and its study since the Worship Dialogue had been founded 28 years earlier. He called our attention to two contextualizing factors in the practice of and reflection upon worship: 1) a cultural context marked by idolatry of the market, frenetic behavior, the inability to distinguish fact from fiction, growing tribalism and a decrease in civil discourse; 2) an educational context (and the focus here was strongly on Lutheran seminary formation) where immersion in liturgical life and study of its theology and practice have been marginalized if not almost excluded from seminary curricula. He concluded by reminding us that as we Christians gather normatively around font, pulpit and table, we need to repent of ways in which we have compromised with or been seduced by the anti-Gospel forces of empire and seek to align ourselves with the Good News that is God’s word of judgment and offer of grace. The ensuing discussion explored many initiatives in present-day seminary formation in the light of their ability to form strong preachers and leaders of worship. After a lovely wine-and-cheese social, the gathering concluded with a gentle prayer commending the work of the Worship Dialogue to God’s future, led by Don Luther, a pivotal figure who had helped to found the Dialogue decades earlier and had wisely watched over it until the present.

I was left with conflicting emotions as we marked the conclusion of this fruitful collaboration of those concerned with faithful worship: a profound sense of gratitude for all the Dialogue had contributed to the local life of the Church and the churches; and a wistful sense of sadness that the participants were almost all in our 60s through 80s and apparently had not been able to inculcate in new generations a love for the liturgy that would keep the Worship Dialogue alive.  Perhaps the mutual support and enlightenment that we experienced in the Worship Dialogue is being transferred to new venues, such as the virtual discussions engendered here at Pray Tell and in similar blogs and vlogs. Mostly I pray in thanksgiving for all the Worship Dialogue has meant to its members over the years and in hope that new liturgical aficionados will arise through God’s grace.

Image: a boat with a cross for a mast is a common symbol of ecumenism.

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