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Alumni Convocation
Renewing Worship: Learning to be Church again
April 19-21, 2004

Make bath, table, prayer and word
available to Ďevery seeking soulí

Dr. Gordon Lathrop, soon to retire as Charles Schieren Professor of Liturgy at LTSP, advised alums on renewing worship where they serve

Photo of Lathrop and Saliers
Gordon Lathrop, left, and Don Saliers, right, were the two keynote speakers at this year's Spring Convocation.

PHILADELPHIA (April 22, 2004) Ė The Rev. Dr. Gordon Lathrop drew on a metaphor about water as he called upon seminary alums this week to think carefully about renewing worship where they serve.

Lathrop said he first heard the metaphor used some 20 years ago by the Rev. Dr. John Vannorsdall on the occasion of Vannorsdallís inauguration as seminary president. In his inaugural address, Lathrop said the new president asked his audience to imagine a setting of rural houses and farms with a spring and springhouse on one of the properties. Not uncommonly, Vannorsdall said, springhouses erected to protect spring water run into trouble. "Broken pieces and ruins from the house get into the water, and the water needs to be cleared out," he said of Vannorsdallís thoughts. The new president was inviting his listeners "to think about Christian renewal by not inventing the water, but making sure the water runs clear."

"The metaphor applies to parish ministry," he said. "Clear out the spring. Get rid of the junk. Make thirst-assuaging water available to the people you serve, but donít feel you have to reinvent the water."

Lathropís spring convocation presentation was the last time many alums in the audience will see the Charles A. Schieren Professor of Liturgy as a full-time member of the seminaryís faculty. Now the facultyís senior member and having served LTSP for 20 years of a 29-year teaching career, Lathrop will step down June 30. Retirement for Lathrop will mean continuing to address the challenge of worship renewal in other ways. He will write, give a series of lectures in Scandinavia next year, and he will continue to teach at times.

The professor drew on language from Isaiah 43: "I am about to do a new thing." He described Godís intention to "act on the old to make it new. Clear out the spring. Donít invent the water. Word and sacrament is at the heart of the assembly of Godís people. The grace of God is the water. In clearing out the spring the old is turned inside out. It is not our cleverness, but Godís presence that is most important," he said.

Lathrop cited examples of church history at length to advise alums to steer clear of "coercion or whatever works" in thinking about worship renewal. He recalled how Reformer Martin Luther railed against certain compulsive ceremonial practices that were being imposed by law in the 1500s. "Spring water invites us to faith. It does not compel us to love. He was also critical of the kind of "biblical pragmatism" once espoused by Charles Finney, a traveling preacher who served as a college president. Finney, Lathrop said, spoke against the use of form in aspects of worship and advocated making the gospel known "in the most effectual way."

"Teaching and preaching are a form, and baptism spoken of in the Great Commission is a form," Lathrop said. "We do not need new measures in worship today. Clear out the spring. Set out simple matters given to us by God in a call to faith. Trust the old. God acts among and with the vulnerable and weak to do a new thing. Word and sacrament are part of the spring that needs to be kept clean. Do the old faithfully for the sake of an always new thing made possible by the gospel. Learn to be church again by being drawn to the gospel and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by thirst-quenching water." Lathrop said word and signs, side by side in the gathered assemblies of Godís people always calls them to new meaning. "the meal speaks of the death of Christ until he comes. The bath (baptism) is Godís participation with the unclean. Care for the fullness and integrity of these signs. Love, not the law, is fulfilled in the eating and drinking of the gospel."

Key to maintaining the forms of word, sacrament, he said, are the recovery of preaching, reading of scripture"and setting out of the bath using real fonts Ö "not as fire insurance for the afterlife, but to make us alive again in the present world." He said such a clearing out of the spring means the old forms will not be new, but we will be placed in the presence of "a new-making god. Our common task in the midst of each assembly is not another program imposition but to wield a shovel for clearing out the spring. There is no more important sign than the body of the assembly witnessing to God in the world.

"If you have for any reason ceased loving your assembly," he said to the gathered alums, "then by all means find some other work, for it will kill you if you donít. Godís beloved people in your midst are the ones God gave to you and there are no others who are better. Love them and let them love you," he said.

Lathrop talked about inscribed words on an old bell in a little church in Northern Wisconsin, a church destroyed by fire at the end of the 20th century. The inscription said "I call every seeking soul to the bath, table, prayer and word." Lathrop said the inscription refers to central signs, but does not mention music. In a moving tribute to Mark Mummert, the seminary musician Lathrop has worked with as chaplain, he recalled their discussion of the absence of music as a sign in the inscription. "But Gordon," Lathrop recalled Mummert chiding. "Itís a BELL." Lathrop said music "calls and surrounds us and enables us to be gathered into these central things. Music is a gift of God that is only just short of the word in significance," he said.

He urged his listeners to make of their assembly space "an open door to every seeking soul," and he reminded them that such open doors also lead out toward meaningful service by the assembled to a world "too divided, hungry and overfed. Make bath, table, prayer and word available to every seeking soul. Clear out the spring."

Lathropís remarks were a followup to keynote remarks made the previous day by the Rev. Dr. Don Saliers, who teaches liturgy at Emory Universityís Candler School of Theology.


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