I get quite a bit of flak from Brethren about my love of tradition and liturgy. Low church Protestants struggle with such concepts fearing that simply uttering the words will make them high church Catholics. I roll my eyes and attempt not to eviscerate their arguments—it’s ridiculous to think that you read the Bible without any interpretive standard (call it tradition, hermeneutics, etc).
But what about Brethren? Rather than being non-liturgical, Brethren have been liturgically plain. It is an agrarian liturgy (by and large). There has always been an earthiness in Brethren liturgy.
Historically, this earthiness expressed itself in the ritual observances of the Brethren (many similar to other Anabaptist groups). Rather than sacerdotal duties, those tasks only administered by clergy, Brethren rituals, which have historically been called “ordinances,” were communal and embedded in the life of the community. For example, look at the following list:
- anointing—for cleansing or healing
- laying on of hands—blessing, baptism,ministerial installation
- kneeling—posture of prayer
- annual visit—to ensure faithfulness and unity
- holy kiss—distinctive greeting to same-sex members
- plain dress—nonconforming to the outside world
- council meeting—for congregational discipline and administration
- avoidance/disowning—like the Amish ban
- public confession—for restoration in full fellowship
- annual meeting—gathering of all Brethren at Pentecost
Unlike other Anabaptist groups, however, Brethren placed emphasis on getting the ordinances “right.” In everything they tried to follow the biblical example: foot washing before the meal, baptism to be done in a flowing river, anointing as found in the early church. According to Carl Bowman in his book, Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People,” the ordinances were “a visible sign by which Christ’s true church could be recognized…Comparing themselves to their Anabaptist neighbors, Brethren believed they were the only ones that had all the apostolic ordinances, preserved in their original form” (Bowman 1995, 76).
Are the Brethren liturgical? Yes, plainly liturgical and liturgically plain. The difference comes in where you place the adjective:
- We are plainly liturgical in that there is no great complexity or ceremony in our rituals. Plain here does not communicate boring (though some may accuse us of that). Instead, plain means simple. We only value that which helps us model the way of Jesus more clearly as a people.
- We are liturgically plain in that rather than starting from a transcedent mediation of grace through core practices, we approach liturgy from the perspective of an earthy discipleship. Rather than seeing these practices as a mediation of grace, Brethren observe the ordinances as tools of discipleship cultivation.
Liturgically plain or plainly liturgical…any way you slice it, the Brethren have a liturgy.