The Willan Setting and Closed Communion

Our sincere desire is to present a welcoming face to our visitors, to include them and get to know them, but two obstacles sometimes arise before we get the chance. It is our hope that this page can remove these two obstacles. The first often offends visitors from our sister congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the second has a tendency to offend visitors from other denominations.

The Difficulty of “High Church” ceremonies and the Willan Setting

High Church

The simple reality is that our services can feel foreign to many protestants in America – including those who grew up in the Lutheran Church. “High Church” is the term often used by such people as a pejorative implying that we value aesthetics and art over content.

In fact, our services are very similar to the sort of worship practiced by Martin Luther in Wittenberg after the Reformation. We do not prize aesthetics and art over content, but we do contend that form follows function and the medium carries meaning along with the message. Our ceremonies are not accidental or even merely habit. They are very deliberate and always based on historic practices. Though they are aesthetically pleasing to many, their intent is not to convey beauty but to communicate God’s presence among us in Word and Sacrament.

The founding document of the Lutheran Church is the Augsburg Confession. That document refers to the Communion Service as the “Mass.” There Redeemer finds its defense and also its marching orders:

“Our people have been unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. But it is obvious, without boasting, that the Mass is celebrated among us with greater devotion and earnestness than among our opponents. The people are instructed more regularly and with the greatest diligence concerning the holy sacrament, to what purpose it was instituted, and how it is to be used, namely, as a comfort to terrified consciences. In this way, the people are drawn to Communion and to the Mass. At the same time, they are also instructed about other, false teaching concerning the sacrament. Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ.” (Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000, 68).

Thus, we ask our brothers and sisters from the LC-MS to give us a chance before they become frustrated and dismiss us. We are fully committed to The Book of Concord and seek to carry it out faithfully in all our practice. You do not need to participate in every outward ceremony in order to worship with us. Please ask us if any particular ceremony is confusing to you. We are  more than willing to explain them.

The Willan Setting of the Divine Service

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod commissioned Canadian composer Healey Willan to create a new musical setting for the Order of Holy Communion on page 15 of the The Lutheran Hymnal (1941). The Service was published by the Commission on Worship in 1959, and the congregations of the LCMS were encouraged to use this setting. Because it is more musically intricate and complicated than that in TLH it was not heartily embraced by the congregations at large. It did take hold at Redeemer. We recognize, though, that its complexity can be very off-putting to those who expect our service to be the same as that of their home congregation and are looking for the comfort of familiarity.

We find it to be the finest musical setting for congregational singing yet to be composed. Even though the synod has left it behind and it was never published in a bound book, it is, nonetheless, one of the synod’s authorized orders, and we still use it for all Sunday Services and high feasts outside of Advent and Lent. Because the latest hymnal committee chose not to include this setting, we use the hymnal for hymns but print the order of service in the bulletin. (During Advent and Lent and during our Wednesday morning and Thursday evening services, we use Divine Service III from the Lutheran Service Book.)

Yes, the music is more “difficult” than typical congregational music. It requires serious initial effort on the part of our visitors. However, we have suggested to many first-time visitors that they should listen and concentrate upon the words if the music is too much of a struggle for them. Participation can be very salutary through the ears. Visitors have told us that after about 3 or 4 Sundays, the music starts to become easier for them. We believe that the effort pays off. The music, for all its complexity, is very beautiful and seems to grow in appeal over time, once people get comfortable with it. It carries the sacred text remarkably well, too.

The Difficulty of Closed Communion 

The traditional Lutheran understanding of communion is absolutely foreign to the majority of American protestants and to the pious members of the ELCA. Whatever else they believe about Holy Communion, they almost always seem to regard it first and foremost as an act of hospitality. For them to deny people communion is to be unfriendly, rude, and even judgmental.

We have a different understanding – one that requires us to deny communion to those we do not know. And we are well aware that Redeemer visitors can find this unwelcoming.

We are sorry for this and do not wish anyone ever to feel unwelcome or judged. At the same time, the difficulty is born of doctrinal division. Our understanding of the Holy Communion is that it is an expression of unity, not hospitality. We feel that hospitality is conveyed in providing a warm greeting, coffee and donuts, and genuine Christian care and conversation.

We are glad to have visitors. And in fact, we have anywhere from 15-20 visitors per week. We want visitors to speak to either Pastor Petersen before the service in order to introduce themselves and announce their intention to come to the Lord’s Supper. Our ushers can help you locate one of them. We are happy to welcome non-Lutherans to join us for worship, but there are intimacies attendant to participation in the mystery of Christ’s bodily presence in the Holy Communion that are reserved only for the immediate family.

We realize that this view of Holy Communion feels wrong to many Christians. We ask, however, that you would respect our wishes and get to know us. Please believe that our deepest desire is not to commune alone. We want you to join us. But we want you to join us understanding what it is you are getting into and what it means to be a part of our growing family. True Christian love comes from God and is born out of unity in doctrine, understanding, and purpose.

If these obstacles seem like too much for you and you would like to talk about them, please don’t hesitate to contact Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne. We welcome the conversation.