Liturgy and the Free Church

August 16, 2011

Fifty years ago this year, in the fall of 1961, I began my 33-year career as professor of worship at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I had been interviewed for the position on campus the previous November. Flying back to California where I was engaged in my doctoral studies, I read an essay in the seminary’s journal, Encounter, written  by Ralph Wilburn, a Disciples scholar who was dean at another Disciples of Christ seminary. Wilburn made a case for the church of our time to be Catholic in substance and Protestant in spirit.

Instantly, I saw in this polarity the makings of a principle that could guide my work in the field of Christian worship. It was a long plane ride in those days before jet aircraft were prevalent. By the time my plane landed in Oakland, I had roughed out an essay explaining my adaptation of this principle. I talked about worship that would be liturgical in substance and free in spirit.

Soon after moving to Indianapolis, I finished the essay and gave it to Ronald E. Osborn, dean of the seminary and editor of its journal. He liked it well enough to publish it in an issue a few months later. This was my first published work after beginning my work as teacher and scholar. If publish or perish is a rule of academic life, I was at least getting my survival apparatus started.

Reading the paper now, I see evidences of my immaturity (I wouldn’t turn thirty until a few months after beginning my work as professor), but the principle that I presented in this paper has continued to be one of my guidelines ever since. Most of the Protestant liturgical movement and the significant liturgical development of Vatican II happened after this paper was written. My approach in 1961 allowed me to work with relative freedom and increasing contentment during one of the most remarkable periods of liturgical development in the history of the church.

I’m republishing the essay essentially as it appeared half a century ago. I have, however, edited it so as to revise the gender-biased language that still was in use when it was written. My book on this subject, Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship, didn’t come out until 1981, twenty years after I wrote the paper on liturgy and the free church. I have also added an extended prefatory note that provides a context for the paper.

To read the paper click Liturgy and Free Church.


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