Here's why. Three reasons.
1. Guess what? This often heard and used phrase actually first came from a resolution to a controversy over proper observances in the Christian church. Yeah, really, it comes from the "worship wars" but hardly anyone even knows that.
2. It's only half of what was originally said, and once known, the other half puts a whole different meaning to both the first half and to the whole.
3. The whole matter leads nicely into the upcoming post on the commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession later this month, giving important lessons on confessing that confession now.
About "Saint" Ambrose, the Guy Who Said It.
Here's the deal. The guy who first said it was "Saint" Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Ambrose lived from about 337 AD or a little later until 4 April 397. He was born in Augusta Treverorum, Praefectura Praetorio Galliarum. What in the hell is that, and where?
OK, Augusta Treverorum is still around. That is its Roman name. These days it's called Trier, in Germany.
So what's a Praefectura Praetorio Galliarum? A prefecture (praefectura) was one of four large administrative areas set up in the Roman Empire on the death of Constantine the Great on 22 May in 337, the same year Ambrose was likely born. So a prefecture is the highest unit under the Empire itself, and it is governed by a prefect (praefectus). Galliarum means "of the Gauls", and the Praetorian Prefecture of Gaul included basically what is now England, France, the western part of Germany, Spain, and Mauritania in Africa. What's this Praetorio thing? A Praetorian Prefect (Praefectus praetorio) was originally the commander of the Praetorian Guard, an elite military special forces unit that guarded the Emperor, but Constantine disbanded the Guard, and the adjective "praetorian" was applied to the four prefects who as it were guarded the four prefectures of the Empire for the Emperor.
OK, takes care of Praefectura Praetorio Galliarum, it's the Praetorian Prefecture of Gaul. And Ambrose's father was the Praetorian Prefect of the Praetorian Prefecture of Gaul. One of the four top officers of the Empire. A major player. Which is also why Ambrose was born in Trier -- that was the capital of the prefecture, and also by that time an Imperial residence in the West and a functional capital of the Western Roman Empire rather than Rome itself.
I gotta digress here a minute. I've been to a hell of a lot of places, but Trier is absolutely the most captivating, enchanting and wonderful place of them all, and maybe one day again I will have dinner outside the Porta Nigra, the "Black Gate", the only surviving of the four gates the Romans built to guard each side of the city, against most likely some of my ancestors before we moved to England. I have never felt like I felt in Trier anywhere else, and that was forty seven years ago as of 2016.
The Governor Of The Imperial Diocese of Milan Becomes Its "Bishop".
Well back to the story. Ambrose's father was a Roman bigwig and Ambrose was sent to Rome for his education. He rose through the governmental and political ranks to become what we would call a Governor-general, but they called vicarius, vicar, meaning representative. A vicar represented the Praetorian Prefect who in turn represented the Emperor, in this case to the diocese of Milan. Hey, aren't diocese run by bishops? No they're not originally, and the church had nothing to do with them. A diocese is an administrative unit of the Roman Empire set up by Diocletian. Hey, diocese, Diocletian -- yeah, he named his new units "diocese" after himself. And Milan was also by then the official capital of the Empire.
The same Diocletian, ruling from Milan, in July 285 had split the unwieldy Empire in two, to try to hold it-together, and set up a system where each half would have its "Augustus" and its "Caesar", a system called the Tetrarchy. Diocletian was the last Emperor of an undivided Roman Empire. He designated Nicomedia, in modern Turkey, as the Eastern capitol in 286, and in 293 designated Milan, then called Mediolanum, which had been a functional capital as was Trier, the official Western capital.
Diocletian became the Augustus in the East with his fellow general officer Maximian as the Augustus in the West. The Romans themselves weren't real happy with the Empire no longer seated at Rome btw. (Short aside: I've been to Milan and Rome too and beautiful as they are, give me Trier any day.) Diocletian then became the only Roman Emperor ever to retire from office, on 1 May 305. Whereupon the Tetrarchy fell apart amid the schemes of Maximian's kid Maxentius and a guy named Constantine. Diocletian, racked with despair at this and illness, died on 3 December 311, possibly by suicide.
Ambrose was the Governor-general of the diocese of Milan for a couple years when in 374 the "bishop", the head religious figure of the diocese, a guy named Auxentius and an Arian Christian, died, and a great uproar ensued over whether the next "bishop" would be an Arian or a Trinitarian Christian. When Governor Ambrose intervened to calm things down, everybody said Hey, YOU be the bishop. He fled but the guy hiding him got a letter from the Emperor (Gratian) saying it was OK for Ambrose to be "bishop" so he was turned in.
Little problem here though. Ambrose was not only not clergy, not trained in the faith, he wasn't even baptised. But hey, not a problem when the Empire says OK. Within a week he was baptised, ordained, and made bishop. I'm not making this up! And we bitch about SMP being a fast track! Think that's wild, hell, six years later when the "Catholic Church" was defined by the co-Emperors (Gratian again, Valentinian II and Theodosius), and became the state religion for the whole Roman Empire on 27 February 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica, you got a state church so entrenched that it's still around over 1500 years after the state whose religion it was, the Roman empire, collapsed in the West (476) and over 500 years after it collapsed in the East (1453).
Yup, the RC and the EO. Who still maintain the name for their administrative units that they had when their "bishops" were the chief religious figures of the Imperial units the diocese.
So here's Ambrose, from an imperial residence and functional Roman capital in Trier, "bishop" in Milan, the official Western capital of the Roman Empire since Emperor Diocletian made it so in 293, and guess what, he gets the holder of the most prestigious professorship in the world of its time, guy named Augustine from Carthage who got the gig in Milan, as a convert and baptises him seven years on into the "Catholic Church" in 387!
I ain't getting into Augustine's career here, that's in another post in the Past Elder Blogoral Calendar, but he ends up in this new state religion, basically morphing the neoPlatonism dominant in philosophy at the time into Christianity, then goes back to North Africa and ends up as, you guessed it, "bishop" in Roman Imperial diocese of Hippo Regius (now Annaba, Algeria).
How the Phrase Came About.
So here it is. Amid all the turmoil of the age -- which again, I ain't getting into here, it's in that same post, "Eastern Church/Empire, Western Church Empire", revised and posted each year on 16 January, founding day of the Roman Empire -- there's a controversy about what are the correct days on which to fast. None, if you ask me. Anyway, fasting was done on different days in different places, so Augustine asks Ambrose for his advice on settling the matter.
Well, Ambrose was known to be, as we put it in SEPs for call candidates now, flexible in his worship preferences. So he writes to Augustine: "When I'm in Rome I fast on Saturdays (the local Roman custom) and when I'm in Milan I don't. Follow the custom where you are."
Anyway his advice eventually crystallised as a proverb in mediaeval Latin as si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi. OK OK, I'll translate -- if you are in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there. Which has come into English, though only the first half of it, as "When in Rome, do as the Romans do".
So there, now you can impress the hell out of people at your next cocktail party, fund raiser, reception, winkel, or whatever the case may be. But that was not my point in going through all this stuff. The reason I bother with, and bother you with, this kind of stuff at all, both in this post and all the others this blog, is what does it show us about things now.
Guess What? We Ain't In Rome!
So what does the advice of Ambrose to Augustine about the correct days to fast show us about things now?
As we saw, our modern English descendant of that advice leaves out half of it. It's not just when in Rome do as the Romans do, but also, when someplace else do as they do there. Which means, the Roman church way does not have to be imposed on anywhere else, and also, how they do it in other places is just as fine too and does not have to be imposed on Rome.
What does this mean? Or for our non-Lutheran readers, what does that mean? (If you're a non-Lutheran reader and don't get it, don't worry, just having fun with the usual English rendering of the phrase "Was ist das?" which Luther puts before each explanation of things in his Small Catechism.)
Several things to note. First: Ambrose is not telling Augustine to chose what seems right to him, but to stick with existing customs in the places they are found. Ambrose is also not telling him to come up with a new custom. He is not telling him to decide which is right and impose one place's custom on another. He is not telling him to come up with a new and better custom. And, he is not telling him hey, why not put a synthesis or pastiche to-gether from both customs thus presenting the wider rich heritage to everyone everywhere.
IOW, he is not telling him to act in any of the ways our "liturgical movement" scholars, or is it liturgical movement "scholars", do in coming up with liturgical service books, but quite the opposite.
Second: What are the right days to fast is not a question on the same level as what is the right way to celebrate the Divine Service. The controversy addressed by "when in Rome ..." was about when to have fasting days, not whether to have fasting days or what they are. Fasting days per se were not in question. just when to do them, so when in Rome do them when they are done there and when someplace else do them when they are done there.
IOW, "Christian Freedom" does not mean "Do What You Want" and "adiaphora" is not Greek for "whatever". Some differences in practice do not alter what is practiced, for example, fasting on this day or fasting on that day does not change what fasting is. But, some differences do reflect a difference in what is being practiced, for example, differences in what is said at and around the consecration of the bread and wine at communion services reflect differences as to what exactly is happening -- is it an action we do, an action Christ does, is this actually his body and blood or rather a symbol or memorial of it, etc. Ambrose is not referring to differences as to what is done, just those of how or when. Everything is not ok.
The validity of Lutheran liturgical reform included both kinds of difference, that Rome does not have to authorise and control liturgy and impose its way throughout the church and ceremonies may be different in different places, as well as difference with Rome as to the nature of what is happening. That was a major issue in the Reformation.
Yet now, having established that, and, our forefathers in LCMS having come to the US to escape a government imposed synthesis of Lutheran worship with other worship, what do we do? We turn around and impose Roman and other worship on ourselves, that's what. We escape the forced Prussian Union of Lutheran with other German Protestant worship, then here seek to combine Lutheran and other American Protestant worship ourselves. And when we are not doing that, we seek to combine Lutheran worship with Rome's latest, the novus ordo of Vatican II. All of it false to Ambrose's advice!
Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi.
Do as the Romans do when in Rome. We are not in Rome any more than we are in Willow Creek. Walther knew this, and in his day founded LCMS with like minded pastors to counter the efforts to recast Lutheran worship with what were called "new measures" drawn from churches with big attendance, supposedly taking forms that address people now better, as evidenced by bigger attendance, and endowing them with Lutheran content. Hey, that's just what they do now -- never mind that those forms are as they are precisely so as to not express the beliefs we have about worship.
Yet over a century later so many of us fall for the same siren call of the new measures of our day, trying to adopt them, in hopes of getting the numbers the churches from which they are taken, and imbue them with a Lutheran content. And so many others try to counter that with a tradition that is no tradition at all but simply taking another non-Lutheran new measure, the novus ordo of Vatican II, and making it our own, joining the bandwagon of liturgical heterodox churches whose common property such adaptations have become.
And in neither case remaining true to Ambrose's advice, not to mention to what our Confessions say -- "nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved", "we keep many traditions that are leading to good order (1Cor. 14:40) in the Church, such as the order of Scripture lessons in the Mass and the chief holy days." Not revised, not adapted, not recast as soon as Rome makes a move, not to locate ourselves within developments in the wider Christian community, but to PRESERVE, to KEEP, except only that which, not that is not found in the Gospel, but that contradicts the Gospel.
In these two equal but opposite departures from the basis of our liturgical reform we find the greatest challenge, which is not external but internal, to the presentation of the faith of the Augsburg Confession now.
This is a prolegomenon, an introduction, and after the post for the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, we shall take this up in more detail in the post for the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession.
Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi. We are not in Rome, we are elsewhere, let us live like where, and who, we are.