Liturgy and the Free Church

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.

2 Responses to Liturgy and the Free Church

  1. Jeff says:

    Keith —

    Thanks for this 50th birthday present! And I’m looking forward to reading your memoir that Bob keeps tantalizingly mentioning.

    My X-815 paper is something I pull out every couple years and re-reading; there’s much I’m still pleased with, and a few places I’d just explain what I’m trying to say differently, which I hope would equal “better,” and some places where I’d say “wow, was I young and inexperienced when I was young and inexperienced.” But overall, there’s nothing I regret about the four years and the classes I had at CTS. The regional formation/nurture & certification process, now that I’d rip up and re-do, but that’s actually what I’m getting to work with in the Christian Church in Ohio Commission on Ministry.

    I’m “old school” enough to say that seminary is about grounding & rooting in theology, history, and the process of practice, with the purely practical & logistical being rightly in the hands of the denominational structure. But people of good will can dispute where the line between those categories go — joking aside, plumbing and accounting are skills that a parish pastor should know something about, but seminaries shouldn’t be expected to teach them.

    In grace & peace,

    • Jeff, thanks for the good word about the positive effect of seminary. It is fully understandable that if we are intellectually alive and emotionally sensitive, we will change over the years. I’m glad your changes are in the mode of revision rather than revolution. I am working with some of my early papers, now half a century old. A lot of things I now do differently, but the old ideas are still intact, for the most part. As for the ms. that Bob refers to, I have a draft that I wrote a while back, but it is sitting untended for a time, and it would take a bunch more work. Meantime, I’m working hard on a history of COCU, which I hope to have under control (although not yet finished) by next June. Best wishes. Keith

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