Book Review: The Lutheran High Church Movement in Germany and its Liturgical Work

The Lutheran High Church Movement in Germany and its Liturgical Work: an Introduction by Arne Giewald and Günther Thomann., 2011. Paperback, 114 pages. $13.04.

Within the Christian church, worship is central. In the Old Testament, God gave very specific worship laws for the Israelites when they were rescued from Egypt and called to be His people. Jesus participated in 1st-century Jewish worship until He sacrificed Himself on the altar of the cross, perfecting and completing all of the Old Testament worship laws. However, His disciples and followers still gathered together in worshiping communities to “continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

All true Christian worship is founded upon and revolves around Christ. Having faith in Christ is the true worship of God, but how you do it does matter. The forms of the divine liturgy have not been prescribed in the New Testament, but church tradition does much to inform the “good order” that St. Paul encourages in Colossians 2:5.

As confessional Lutherans, we have a history of liturgical worship with periods of moving toward and also away from the traditions that we inherited from Luther’s Deutsche Messe (German mass). Luther did not create his order of the divine service out of thin air. He drew on the best traditions of the Christian church that he inherited. During the time of the Reformation, many Protestant groups began finding their liturgical rhythm apart from the Church of Rome, and out of this grew both pro-liturgical and anti-liturgical movements.

In The Lutheran High Church Movement in Germany and its Liturgical Work: an Introduction, Father Arne Giewald and Mr. Günther Thomann examine two such 20th-century pro-liturgical movements: the Berneuchen and the Alpirsbach movements in Germany. The authors evaluate their liturgical influence on the divine service and give biographical information on the movement leaders: Heinrich Hansen, Karl Bernhard Ritter, and Friedrich Heiler. These movements took place in the Evangelical Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), the Union Church, apart from what the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would consider “confessional” Lutheranism. However, anyone doing a study on liturgical developments in Germany at the time of the development of our sister church, the SELK (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche), would find this book interesting. While the SELK was finding its way in the confessional Lutheran world, the movements of Berneuchen and Alpirsbach were trying to find their way within a Lutheran body (EKD) that was not receptive to high church movement. Giewald and Thomann reach back to the 19th-century roots of these two movements and give a short examination of other Lutheran voices who were calling for liturgical renewal on the “confessional” front, such as Claus Harms and Wilhelm Löhe.

The Berneuchen movement produced the Brotherhood of St. Michael (the author uses the term confraternity). It began as a secret group in 1931. Soon it began to struggle against the Nazi regime and found itself in opposition to the protestant groups that snuggled up to the Nazis. Within this brotherhood, a high church movement was started, which culminated in the production of a Missal entitled Die Eucharistische Feier (The Eucharistic Celebration), published in 1961.  It included three services (low-mass, sung-mass, and high-mass), a full set of propers, and rubrics. The liturgies within the Missal were based on Luther’s Deutsche Messe and certain Eastern liturgies.

The movement of Alpirsbach began when many pious laymen wanted to bring plainsong into the church’s liturgy. In the early 1930s, they began to meet and deliver papers on Gregorian chant and the use of plainsong within the Protestant liturgy. Unlike the Berneuchen movement, they never developed a liturgy for the Mass; they simply set their existing Protestant liturgy to plainsong.

In the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, many cultural innovations forced themselves into the liturgy of both of these movements. The authors leave the question open as to how far cultural influences will manipulate the orders, music, and ceremony of their respective liturgies. However, in the view of this reviewer, if culture is playing such a large role, then both of these movements have left the historic foundation on which they were founded.

Overall, this is an informative survey of two Lutheran liturgical movements in Germany that affected the development of the current liturgical picture of the Protestant Church in Germany. The two movements attempted to bring the Protestant church’s liturgy back to historic foundations. The authors bring to our attention the fact that there is constant movement within denominations and church bodies with regard to liturgical renewal and development. They also conclude with what may be interpreted as a warning about the role of cultural influences.

Arne Giewald admits that this book was a description of his own development as a Christian and pastor. His own liturgical development has led him out of the EKD into the Orthodox Church in France (becoming a priest in 2009). Günther Thomann co-authors as an Anglican priest. Giewald’s perspective from the “outside looking in” is not a harsh critique with an axe to grind, but rather a nostalgic review of where he came from.

The Lutheran High Church Movement in Germany and its Liturgical Work: an Introduction adds another piece to the liturgical puzzle. It raises questions regarding the liturgical movements in the confessional churches in Germany in the mid-20th century. What role did Harms, Löhe, Vilmar, Kliefoth, Walther, and others play in the liturgical movements that led to the current liturgical situation in the S.E.L.K.? How did those influence the liturgy in the Lutheran church bodies in America? What role did the cultural influences play? How were these accepted or rejected? How can brotherhoods help a church body shape the liturgy?  The further study that these questions prompt make this book a worthwhile read.


Reviewed by Rev. Michael Frese


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