Revisiting Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s Liturgical Wisdom for Today’s Church
This post is part two of a three-part article “Three Theological Themes for Worship,” a condensation of a presentation given at the 2018 Symposium on Worship. This series explores Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s most generative insights and considers how they might shape the worship we prepare and lead today.
Worship as Manifestation of the Church: How the Church Becomes Itself
There is a whole branch of theological study—ecclesiology—dedicated to the question of what the church is. Von Allmen maintains that the church’s identity emerges when it gathers to worship: “by its worship the Church becomes itself, becomes conscious of itself, and confesses itself as a distinctive entity” (Worship, 42).
The church’s structure or polity, its teaching or catechesis, its history, and its service to the world—these are all important, and they all point to what the church might be. But they are all secondary to worship:
“The study of dogmatic texts, of confessions of faith, of ecclesiastical disciplines, of the history of Christianity, of personal piety, important and essential as this is if one is to know the Church, is something that comes later. It is in the sphere of worship, the sphere par excellence where the life of the Church comes into being, that the fact of the Church first emerges. It is there that it gives proof of itself, there where it is focused, and where we are led when we truly seek it, and it is from that point that it goes out into the world to exercise its mission.” — Worship, 43-44.
For von Allmen, the church is not fundamentally an institution or organism. It is fundamentally a liturgical assembly—emerging out of and living into a story—the story told in worship.
And if this is the case, that the “true character of the Church is revealed in and through its worship,” then when the church is in need of reform, it is its worship that must be reformed.
Historically, writes von Allmen, the renewal of the church has always been marked by liturgical renewal. The great reforms of Israel, he notes, are liturgical reforms (see 2 Chronicles 29-30 and 2 Kings 23). The transition from old covenant to new covenant is a liturgical one; the day and place of worship change, the sacraments change. Thus, for churches today hoping for renewal through improved vision statements or increased programming or youth-focused initiatives or a type of “re-branding,” von Allmen cautions:
“It is not a better catechesis, nor a reorganization of the Church, nor a new awareness of the appeal sounded in our ears by the weary and the heavy-laden—it is not these things which will justify the Church of our time: it is a liturgical reform because it is this which will justify in its repercussions in this catechesis, this reorganization, this diaconate inasmuch as it will prevent them from degenerating into a Biblicist intellectualism, an Erastian legalism, or a socialistic activism.” — Worship, 54.
One implication of this insight for preaching is this: preaching points to the sacraments.
Von Allmen distinguishes missionary preaching—the announcement of the Gospel, the kerygma, which, gathers together in all nations and in all ages that eschatological people which is the Church,” and parochial preaching, that is, preaching that nourishes and builds up the Church. The first type of preaching points to and naturally leads to conversion and its sacrament, baptism. The second type moves toward the place where the church finds itself fed by Christ: the Eucharistic table.
“The preaching of the Word has in fact always a sacramental purpose, it ever seeks as its end a sacrament which will confirm and seal it, or rather which will prove that—it has borne fruit. If it is non-liturgical missionary preaching, it aims at the sacrament of baptism; If It is parochial, liturgical preaching, it is orientated towards the Eucharist.” — Worship, 144.
If indeed preaching ‘aims’ at either baptism or the Lord’s Supper, in a theological way, then a sermon should actually conclude with a ‘move’—in both a rhetorical and physical way—toward the sacrament in view.
If a sermon concludes with a call to discipleship, or renunciation or admission of guilt, or commitment and accountability, a preacher could step to the font during the last paragraph, dip her hands in the water, and either remind the congregation of their own baptisms, or call those unbaptized to the new life offered in Christ.
Likewise, a sermon whose theme resonates with Eucharistic themes—remembrance, communion, and hope; or to the presence of Christ—might fittingly end with a short stroll from the pulpit to the table.
About von Allmen
Jean-Jacques von Allmen is among the most admired liturgical theologians of the 20th century. Yet his work is largely—and lamentably—unknown to most worship leaders.
Von Allmen was a parish pastor in the Swiss village of Lucerne for 17 years, and then professor of practical theology at the University of Neuchâtel from 1958 until his retiring in 1980 and his death in 1994. A friend of Karl Barth and Brother Roger of the Taizé community, he worked tirelessly within his own confessional circle for liturgical reform, but was broadly ecumenical in his sensibilities and appreciations.
His theological work was always grounded in his experience of the local congregation at church and as church. He is perhaps best known for influential books on biblical theology: A Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1958); liturgical theology: Worship: Its Theology and Practice (Oxford, 1965); as well as The Lord’s Supper (Lutterworth, 1969), and homiletics: Preaching & Congregation (John Knox, 1961).