11 January 2012

Sacraments as Signposts

I was having a little think the other day about what those of a high church persuasion refer to as “sacraments.” I wrote a little about these fairly recently. What got me thinking was a few instances where I had various people push the idea of the sacraments as being the main part of any church service. That is, they were more important than the worship or the sermon, even to the extent that anything else was marginal.

Also, I was recently described as being anti-anglican, though I think this is not really an accurate label. What I am opposed to is tradition for tradition’s sake and instances where a church has become an institution. There are strong aspects of these in both Catholicism and Anglicanism, though it would be unfair to apply such a specific charge universally against such large and diverse bodies.

Coming from an independent church background, looking as an impartial outside observer upon the public face of these two organisations, I cannot escape the idea that today’s anglican and catholic churches are the equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Key to this is the sermon on the mount as recorded by Matthew. Throughout this section, Jesus emphasises that there is a reason for the law. The law does not exist for it’s own sake, it is an application of more fundamental ideas. He gives something of a backhanded compliment in chapter 5:17-20 (Green):
“Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one tittle pass away from the law until all comes to pass. Whoever then shall break one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, if your righteousness shall not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way shall you go into the kingdom of heaven.”
His point, which is also made elsewhere in the gospels is that the law was being observed for its own sake. The scribes and the Pharisees come across as being more concerned about the letter of the law than the underlying reasons for it. So while law and tradition are important, they are not the end goal.

So when I look at the institutional churches, what I see are institutions that are more concerned about their self-preservation and keeping their own rules and traditions than they are about actually being a church; where I’m using the term church to mean a collection of people.

So coming back to the sacraments, they are important for christianity, but they are not the be all and end all. They are signposts and symbols for God and the gospel. To become “evangelical for the sacraments” is like a person who spends their time admiring and arguing for the preservation of a motorway sign. We may be used to seeing the signs in a particular form, and if this form is changed, then I don’t doubt a conservative element would protest at such a change. But if a new format of the sign is used, which still serves the function, then it is in no way false, misleading or heretical. It’s just a different way of doing things.

Of course, one can to the other extreme and try to rid christianity of any and all traditions, embracing everything new just because it is new. Here, I am thinking particularly of the use of technology within churches. If you have song books that work well, is it really justified to spend a lot of money of a projection system? Of course, some investment may be necessary, but upgrading one's PA system just for the sake it shows, in my opinion, questionable discernment; and I have seen instances of this is quite a lot of churches of varying stripes.

Returning to the signpost analogy, by concentrating on the sign, you never embark on the journey. This is probably my biggest concern for those whose energies are devoted to the preservation of tradition. Trying to stick to the precise methodologies by those who lived in vastly different time period and culture seems to against the instruction for each “to work out their own salvation.” By concentrating on treading in the footsteps of others, we may never look up and notice our surroundings or where we are headed. To this end, I love the maxim from Hebrews “Looking unto Jesus” which was, by the way, my old school motto.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting thoughts.

    Background: I am a relatively high church Anglican (although I dislike the use of terms like "high" and "low" and "evangelical" as most people are a far more complex less mixture of backgrounds. I know "high" people who love matins (morning prayer / lessons, prayers and teaching but without any sacramental worship as commonly understood) and equally "low" church people who love weekly Communion (in a way that is not perhaps commonly understood as being regularly celebrated in "Evangelical" churches).

    My personal view (at least as regards the two sacrements you mention of baptism and the Eucharist) is that in doing these we *are* being God-centred and biblically grounded. The Bible tells us the apostles were commissioned to go out and baptise the nations. By being baptised, we are not following the instructions of the Church, but of God.

    The same is true of the Eucharist - Luke 22 has Jesus telling us "do this to remember me". Not "If you're a high church Anglican or Catholic, do this."

    Where some "high" church types miss the point is when they forget that the Bible asks us to do many more things as well as just be baptised and celebrate the Eucharist. The greatest commandments were not "Baptise" and "Do this in rememberance of me" but "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.". Where some "low" church types miss the point is to see the sacraments (at least as regards Baptism and Eucharist) as being "papish supserstition" rather than fulfilment of God's commands to his people.

    What I believe we need is an ackowledgement that God has called us to do many things, and that we should try and do all of them - prayerfully, reverently, and honestly. Yes, some people believe the Eucharist *is* the body and blood of Jesus; others believe it is solely a memorial - but whichever it is, as long as we're approaching it prayerfully, it is important that we do as charged.

    I'm looking forward to reading more of what you have to say on the topic - apposite as I've a couple of books of Eucharistic theology sitting waiting to be read (!) and have been mulling and praying more on baptism as I prepare to be a Godfather (yes, I know not mentioned anywhere in the bible!) next week and in a month's time to have our son baptised.

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  2. Very good points.

    I'm not saying at all that they should be done away with. It's that there need not be an insistence on the manner in which they are done, provided their purpose is still met.

    So for example, I've been crticised for using the term "communion" instead of "eucharist." To me, it's just nomenclature and doesn't affect what actually goes on. I know eucharist is closer to the Greek term, but I prefer to use a more vernacular term (though even "communion" may be in need of updating) in order to make myself better understood.

    I think for the reason of "papish superstition" many (myself included) would avoid the use of the term "mass". There may well be times when, and I am speaking very generally here, connotations get added to words that they get stripped of their original meaning so that their usage only creates misunderstanding. Mass is one example, but the same also probably applies to words like meek and pious.

    I agree with you that there are multiple things which we are instructed to do in the bible, but more than that, we should at least make an effort to understand *why* we are instructed to do them. Most of this stems from, as you say, loving God and others.

    What sometimes worries me is that public image that the church (as a whole, and its many constituent parts) puts out. So I know that I don't see all that goes on in the anglican & catholic churches; I only see the public face. And what I observe is a frequent denial of the fact that society is increasingly secular, and that this is being fought against.

    Instead, I side with Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he said that the church should embrace secularism and try to preach the gospel in non-religious terms. If anything, this is a continuation of the idea of the gospel writers, Jerome of Stridon and William Tyndale, to communicate in as easily understood a manner as possible. If sacraments and other traditions are maintained in a form that is less and less understandable to the newcomer or outsider, then I think this puts people off church, which is the last thing I'd want.

    Of course, change can put people off too. I remember well there was a mixed reaction in my old church when the rule of women keeping their heads covered was relaxed. Some threw their hats off with glee while other left the church.

    So don't think I'm trying to get of traditions. It's just that I think they should be maintained for the 'right' reasons; "because this is the way we've always done it" isn't one of them.

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