Louis Weil, 86: Liturgist, Theologian, Professor, Ecumenist

Louis Weil, file photo published 2013

By William H. Petersen

With Louis Weil’s death on March 9 at age 86, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and indeed the ecumenical Church lost one of its premier liturgical theologians. His life and ministry affected so many people, both directly and indirectly.

Louis grew up in a non-observant Jewish family, but always treasured that heritage. In his youth he bore the sting of anti-Semitism, but in maturity he claimed that his heritage gave him a more profound appreciation of Christianity. How he came to that transformative understanding is a tale worth remembering.

A native of Texas, Louis completed his undergraduate degree in 1956 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and seemed destined for a career in the fine arts. An accomplished pianist, he continued an arts trajectory with an MA from Harvard (1956). During that time, however, a path with an unexpected difference presented itself. Walking by the monastery of the Cowley Fathers in Cambridge one late afternoon, he stepped into the chapel of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist just in time for Solemn Evensong. He later testified to a moment of conversion: “I entered as an agnostic and left as a Christian.”

From that turning point, Louis went on to achieve a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from the General Theological Seminary (1961) and then completed his doctorate in sacred liturgy at the prestigious Institut Catholique de Paris (1972). Meanwhile, he had been ordained to the priesthood in 1962 and served parishes in Puerto Rico — a time that included some teaching at El Seminario del Caribe.

From these beginnings, he was called in 1971 as Professor of Liturgy and Church Music at Nashotah House. In 1988 he became the Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgy at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Retiring in 2009, he continued in an adjunct capacity until 2015.

During the span of his seminary teaching career, Louis had a direct hand in the liturgical formation of nearly 30 years of Episcopal clergy. Through the GTU he educated doctoral students who now form a major part of the Episcopal Church’s corps of liturgical theologians, including the current Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer.

During the period of liturgical revision and trial use (1967-79), the church called upon Louis to bring his scholarship and pastoral sensitivities to that project. Louis was persistently clear that liturgical revision is not undertaken for its own sake, but always in service of renewal.

Specifically, he played a major part in the church’s recovery of Holy Baptism as a public liturgy in the context of Eucharist on the Lord’s Day, rather than an occasional private service for family and sponsors. This was foundational to his constant promotion of a baptismal ecclesiology as necessary to the renewal of Christianity in the contemporary world.

At a time when it was still unusual, due largely to liturgical issues, Louis collaborated as a Nashotah House professor with Virginia Theological Seminary’s theology professor, Charles P. Price, on a book in service of the church’s understanding of worship and the reception of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Liturgy for Living (1979), by its very title, made the point that we are not called to praise the prayer book, but to use it. After Price’s death, Louis updated the book and republished it in 2001.

Serving on Standing Liturgical Commission from 1987 to 1991 was a natural result of his liturgical expertise and service. But Louis’s many contributions were not limited solely to this area. From 1978 to 1982 he served on the second series of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue. At the conclusion of LED II, the Episcopal Church and three predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into a relationship of interim eucharistic fellowship. On this foundation, the third LED series moved the two churches ultimately to full communion by 2001.

Among the several professional bodies and agencies to which Louis greatly contributed, three stand out. He was a past president of the North American Academy of Liturgy, and after his retirement received its highest honor, the Berakah Award.

As a veteran of the International Anglican Liturgical Commission, an agency of the whole Communion, Louis was instrumental in setting forth the guidelines for revision of the eucharistic rites in member churches. The IALC’s Dublin Report, published as Our Thanksgiving and Praise in 1998, shows Louis’s hand when it stipulates that “In, through, and with Christ, the assembly is the celebrant of the Eucharist” (p. 261, emphasis added).

Such a baptismal ecclesiology, in which the clergy preside within the people’s celebration, is congruent with the extensive contributions Louis made over the years to the work of Societas Liturgica, the international and ecumenical academy of liturgical theologians. Overall, such involvements gave Louis opportunity to lecture and present workshops on five continents.

After his retirement, Louis brought much of his pastoral and liturgical experience to good effect with the 2013 publication of Liturgical Sense: The Logic of Rite. In that book he reiterated the corporate nature of worship. Furthermore, the book offered a critical reflection on what makes for edifying ceremonial by the clergy as planners, presiders, and evaluators of the church’s liturgy.

It is true that Louis was unfailingly kind, enjoyed a wide range of friendships, and was highly revered by students and colleagues, he nevertheless had a keen sensitivity to prejudice of any variety. He did not, however, suffer invincible ignorance gladly. If a Weil statement began with a somewhat strident “Friends,” an often devastating critique of some liturgical atrocity was sure to follow.

A bright spot in the long, dark Wisconsin winters at Nashotah House was the occasion of Mozart’s birthday on January 27. Louis often hosted a party, and a frequent feature was an instrumental performance by an ensemble of talented seminarians. Following this was a splendid time of conviviality when, as Tolkien would have observed, “It rained drink and snowed food.” Louis’s taste and hospitality were legendary.

On one such occasion, the conversation turned to a comparison of composers. The ensuing spirited exchange was brought to a penultimate conclusion when Bach was mentioned in the top rank. It remained, however, for Louis to deliver the definitive bon mot: “Certainly, the heavenly chorus sings Bach, but en famille the Trinity listen to Mozart.”

It is, of course, a venerable commonplace among Christians that our praises are perfected in heaven. In his published works, but especially in his rich legacy of the many clergy and doctoral students he inspired with a passion for renewal and the best practices of liturgy, Louis Weil did so much to perfect the church’s worship, both here and now, and for the future.

The Very Rev. William H. Petersen is Emeritus Dean of Bexley Hall Seminary

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