THE PAIDEIA LETTER SUPPLEMENT
Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Spring 2007
A PROPHET’S CALL TO WORSHIP:
This is a tribute to my late friend Robert E. Webber, who died of pancreatic cancer this spring. For more than thirty years, he had a quiet but profound influence upon me and, by extension, our entire family. But first, some context for our friendship and his influence.
Like him, I grew up in the home of an independent Baptist pastor and his wife, a conventional environment, as suited the 1930s and ‘40s and ‘50s. Our lives centered around church attendance and its related activities. These presumably constituted “worship” and “fellowship,” both of which required wholehearted and joyous participation every Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening, plus Wednesday night prayer and Bible study.
But the principal event of our lives was always Sunday’s morning service, usually at 11:00 o’clock. Surely this was the occasion to which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews referred by warning, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is.” This is what our culture meant by “Sunday go-to-meeting” attire. My father never wore clerical robes, but he did dress in winged collar, cravat, and swallow-tail coat with striped trousers. My mother, sister, and I also wore our “Sunday best.”
Like “the laws of the Medes and Persians that altereth not,” the morning’s order of service never changed, and we never discussed its origins or traditions. Near the end of the organ prelude, the choir and pastor arrived on the platform. A call to worship summoned the talkative congregation to silence. “Holy, Holy, Holy” or some other familiar hymn was announced. A prayer of invocation followed; then a responsive reading from the back of the hymnal. The choir sang its anthem—nothing too lofty nor in any language but English—before my father’s pastoral prayer covered the full spectrum of spiritual and medical and practical needs within the church. Thereafter he made the morning’s announcements; one of the ushers would be called upon for an impromptu prayer of thanks as they received the offering, following which we sang the Doxology. Another hymn dismissed the choir to sit among the congregation, whereupon my father presented his sermon—a textual exposition—preceded by the reading of a biblical text for that occasion. Another hymn accompanied a challenge—the “invitation”—to those who may have been stirred by the sermon to make some decision that would change their relationship with God; then the benediction, and dismissal.
For more than twenty years, I knew nothing other than this series of acts described as “Morning Worship.” Of course, it was its own informal liturgy—the work of the people in worship. However, my father had some latent affinity for traditional ecclesiastical formality. For instance, during his years as pastor of the Bay Ridge Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, he and I never missed a Christmas Eve midnight service at some Methodist or Episcopal church; and each Good Friday afternoon found us at The Brick Church in Manhattan, where the choir annually presented John Stainer’s cantata, “The Crucifixion.”
But not until my wife Lory and I arrived at The Stony Brook School and began to participate in that boarding school’s Sunday chapel services did I ever experience an order of service that included reciting The Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and singing the “Gloria Patri” after the Scriptures had been read. For several weeks, it all seemed quite foreign—even Roman!—to me.
In the late 1960’s, Lory and I became reacquainted with Tom and Lovelace Howard, whom I had known a decade earlier at Wheaton College. Living in New York City, they were parishioners of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin just off Times Square (known as “Smoky Mary’s” because of the extensive use of incense during worship). On occasion, I’d meet Tom in the city, and we’d go for vespers or other worship before dinner; from this, Lory and I developed the habit of spending an hour or more on Good Friday at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.
Then in 1970, I came upon the writings of Robert Farrar Capon, a local Episcopal priest of some repute as both a gourmet cook and an unconventional preacher. Our family began attending services at Christ Church in nearby Port Jefferson, where Capon was rector. Our children in particular enjoyed his folksy sermons—especially the one in which he compared The Lone Ranger, Matt Dillon from “Gunsmoke,” and the dog Lassie to Jesus as Savior. I reviewed his book The Third Peacock: The Goodness of God and the Badness of the World for The New York Times Book Review, and we began to think more seriously about the Episcopal liturgy and its effect on our attitudes toward worship.
In the summer of 1973, I was invited by Vernon Grounds, now chancellor of Denver Seminary, to take part in two important seminars on faith and learning being held at Wheaton College. The first was the summer-long workshop required for Wheaton’s junior faculty seeking tenure; the second was a two-week version of the first, sponsored for its members by what is now the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. At both sessions, my task was to help professors from various disciplines fuse their Christian faith with their art or science.
Early during the first session, Grounds invited me to join him for dinner with a friend to whom he wished to introduce me. We met in a student lounge, and as Grounds and I talked, I watched a good-looking man about my age enter, wearing a summer suit and a dazzling floral tie. From every corner of that lounge students suddenly rose and left their places, dropping their conversations or their reading or their cat-napping or their romantic interlude to crowd around him and win his greeting by name.
It was my first impression of Bob Webber, rock-star professor and theologian.
During those two interludes at Wheaton College in the summer of 1973, I spent several more evenings with Bob Webber and his wife at that time. They were enjoyable companions, and the talk went late into each night. I learned that our upbringing was quite similar—Baptist missionaries’ son, fundamentalist ethos, including his undergraduate years at Bob Jones University. But his experience had diverged from mine soon after college: He had received his initial theological education at Reformed Episcopal Seminary, followed by further studies at Covenant Theological Seminary; his doctorate was earned at Concordia Theological Seminary. Bob and his family were now parishioners in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in nearby Glen Ellyn. Here was another example of someone—much like myself—who had been drawn from fundamentalism and even evangelicalism toward liturgical worship and historic Anglicanism.
Bob and I kept in fairly close communication—enough so that I was one of those in whom he confided his grief and rage when his wife abandoned him and their children and their marriage eventually dissolved. In 1977, I was able to invite him—on behalf of The Stony Brook School—to deliver the Thomas F. Staley Lectures; he spoke compellingly about Martin Luther and the effect of the Reformation upon 20th century American Christianity.
That same summer, I returned to Wheaton College as visiting professor of English. Over the span of six weeks, I must have spent fully half the evenings with Bob Webber. He had news that preoccupied him and dominated our conversations: He had met Joanne Lindsell, who had similarly been abandoned by her former husband; she is the daughter of the late Harold Lindsell, a well-known theologian and former editor of Christianity Today, as well as author of The Battle for the Bible, an uncompromising defense of biblical inerrancy. He was also a member of the Wheaton College board of trustees.
Bob told me how his meeting, romance, and courtship had begun and progressed. He described his teen-age angst on the occasion of their first date: Walking to the front door of her parents’ house, being met by the august presence of her father, and mumbling something incoherent like, “Good evening, Dr. Lindsell, I’m here to take your daughter to dinner.”
When I next returned to lecture at Wheaton College, Bob and Joanne were engaged. Three decades ago, this constituted a crisis for the College’s administration and trustees: How could a professor of biblical studies—a divorced man—marry a divorced woman and remain on the faculty? The prospective father-in-law took the matter in hand. He informed the board that nothing in Scripture prohibited their remarriage. “Furthermore,” Harold Lindsell said, “I’m performing the wedding ceremony!” Bob Webber’s position remained secure.
Subsequently, Bob Webber was known to claim that he was now “inerrant-by-marriage.”
In the years immediately thereafter, I recall several instances in which Bob arranged for me to preach at St. Barnabas Church. As I passed through Wheaton, I either stayed with Bob and Joanne or made arrangements to dine with them. Bob’s influence had been expanding since Common Roots (1978) first introduced many evangelical readers to the influence of the 2nd century Christian church upon worship; he was interested to know about the seminars and workshops I was beginning to offer, and I recall discussing such issues as fee structure and scheduling. His seminars were so well received that, in time, Webber founded his Institute for Worship Studies (now The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies).
He wrote several other important books, including Worship Is a Verb, The Divine Embrace, The Younger Evangelicals, and an eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship serving as both a compendium of texts and an encyclopedia on forms of worship for contemporary adaptation. But it was his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church, that cracked open the door to opportunity for Bob Webber’s wider scope of influence. In this volume, he traced his own pilgrimage toward liturgy and The Book of Common Prayer, then invited others to tell their stories. He asked me to contribute, but I declined because I knew I would someday write such a book of my own.
This book was the literary equivalent of Bob Webber’s in-person magnetism that attracted people to new/old worship. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a score of anti-liturgical evangelical pastors across the USA—some of them among the household names in their denominations—complained to me about either or both Webber’s book and Webber’s persona. A Southern Baptist pastor told me, “I’ve got people in my church who have read Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail and think we’re pagan for not reciting the Nicene Creed and for using only grape juice at the Lord’s Supper.” A pastor of a mega-church in Ohio lamented, “I send my best young people to Wheaton College, and they come back at Thanksgiving, after only three months on that campus, already crossing themselves and wanting to receive communion on their knees at the altar.” If only they knew . . . ! Like our contemporary Peter Gilquist—former staff member in Campus Crusade for Christ, now archpriest in the Eastern Orthodox Church—Bob Webber himself seriously considered a move from the Episcopal Church to Eastern Orthodoxy. This was the period in which he was still planning those workshops we had discussed and researching in preparation for a distilled representation to uninformed evangelicals of what he later came to call “Ancient-Future Worship.”
I regret that, over the last ten years—especially after he left Wheaton for Northern Seminary—my relationship with Bob Webber lapsed into fleeting exchanges. We had our last serious conversation at a convention of the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges (now the Association for Biblical Higher Education). I had already delivered the opening keynote address, and Bob had just arrived to make his presentation. We met in the convention hall foyer and spoke for not more than fifteen minutes. I learned that he was experiencing some medical problems, and I promised to pray for him—which I did and have done each Sunday by name during “The Prayers of the People,” including on Sunday, April 29, two days after he was called Home.
Bob Webber, and what has been
Almost from the time we first met, 34 years ago, I knew him to be a sincere and committed revolutionary—at least by conventional evangelical standards; even a flaming radical by our former fundamentalist categories. For instance, I was not surprised when, in the fall of 1973, I learned that he had been among those who wrote and signed the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” placing him in the same circle with Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and others who dared to claim that Jesus of Nazareth was calling us to express our compassion by doing something constructive in the cause of social justice.
He was a scholar from unlikely roots, but while both of us could laugh about some of the follies and foibles of our upbringing, he was never disdainful of those who had taught him the truth of God’s Word as they perceived it. He was respectful of some of his Bob Jones University professors, even though—no doubt—he may have been among those graduates whose names have been stricken from the alumni roster.
Webber was a master-communicator, both on his feet and in his writing. Although he had been born in the Belgian Congo to missionary parents, he was reared in the Delaware River Valley and had a tinge of that “Philly/South Jersey” accent (he loved to mimic the late Francis Schaeffer, whose speech was similar). Bob Webber’s talks were carefully prepared and executed with both charm and power; so too his books. He was a rhetorician in the best sense of that word, articulate and persuasive.
But more important, the Bob Webber I knew was an earnest and godly person. I knew him in joy and in sorrow, and I knew his utter dependence upon God’s grace for himself and those he loved, as well as for those who had injured him. I knew him when he faced criticism from colleagues, some of whom jealously regarded him as a mere hot-shot and even a lightweight—a grossly unfair judgment. Whatever might have been the hurt he felt and perhaps expressed privately to his wife, I never heard him utter a word of retaliation or self-justification.
Finally, Bob Webber had a prophetic calling to summon the late 20th and early 21st century Christian church to return to its ancient and future moorings. By example and precept, he led many of us to grasp a fuller understanding of and thankfulness for the great heritage of our faith and the profound gift of walking in that historic tradition with the apostles, saints, and martyrs who have preceded us. For this, Bob, I am grateful.
D. Bruce Lockerbie, Chairman/Editor
Office Box 26
Reprinted and published by special permission.
The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies
151 Kingsley Avenue
Orange Park, FL 32073