Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

Table of Content

Responding to Tuesday's post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I'll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I'll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I'm not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord's Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that's probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I've read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I'd think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King's Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn't. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn't let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn't agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don't get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn't agree, he (women weren't ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can "appoint or Ordain" a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not "administer Christian ordinances." Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted "to administer Christian ordinances" "with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship," a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it's worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there's not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.

3 Replies to “Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology”

  1. Thanks for writing this up!

    Your personal views seem clearly within the Reformed tradition (taken broadly – not as a synonym for TULIP, which annoys me 🙂 In particular your view of Communion seems Calvin if not Zwingli.

    Anyway, if I’m reading you right, you consider lay presidency a useful but less advisable approach for small churches, but you see the sacraments as bound up in the organisational structure of the church, which is why I sense a definite preference for locally ordained clergy/elders.

    I’m not explaining well! Let’s imaging two scenarios:

    (1) A small group of Christians gather together to form a self-conscious congregation. They don’t have access (for whatever reason) to an ordained minister, so they appoint/anoint some elders. These elders handle day to day finances, are a central point for organised charity and good works, handle non-sacramental rituals (funerals, marriages etc) and also the sacraments.

    (2) Me and a couple of friends meet up to pray, Bible study. We aren’t forming a self-conscious congregation. One evening we decide to have Communion.

    I’m guessing that you would feel less comfortable with scenario (2).

    By the way, I see the argument that ideally the presider would have some training, but I would be much more worried with a congregation doing a funeral without training than Communion – at least for Communion you can use a written liturgy without risking inflicting severe emotional damage on someone!

    The decision of the 1790 Convention delegates reminds me of the problem CS Lewis encountered when doing his Mere Christianity radio addresses – Christians don’t just fall out over difference in belief when they agree on essentials, they disagree on what those essentials are! For example I imagine that a universalist Christian in an Independent Sacramental Movement would disagree that the form of the Eucharist, and the ordination of the presider, was not an essential.

    Sorry for the rambling!

  2. You are correct. I’m a big Calvinist: the Universalism is a variant on the Reformed theme. (Also, the black gown and Geneva bands are a giveaway. Also the concern about good order.)

    But I don’t really mind either of your scenarios, to be honest. I do have a preference for elders, but that’s because it maintains the structures. It’s a less radical break, and the big unstated complaint — that it “degrades” the ministry — is less convincing. But here are some things I would thought of. (My verbs are a bit weasely because the choices depend on the other polity decisions.)

    1. The financial matters and works “should” be handled by deacons, who could be elected by the church and appointed or ordained by the elders. Not only is there a biblical mandate, but an opportunity for a division of labor and a check against fraud.

    2. I would have your elders also *elected* by the church, and receive the laying-on-of-hands by elders from another church. That to my mind is the proper connection between elders, and shows my congregationalism. The original all-lay ordination from King’s Chapel was something quite different, and fundamentally more radical.

    3. The “problem” with an adhoc group is assuming the ecclesiastic scruples of the members. But more likely there’s a leader — the host, perhaps — and the host’s wider church might come into play. If the leader is Roman Catholic, say, and not a priest, the communion has a different import than if the leader is a lay elder in a Disciples of Christ church.

    Either way, the adhoc group has certain mission qualities, unless the service is purely as an aesthetic or artistic experience. (And that raises more questions.) Is the authority of a church properly extended to the emerging (even if in a transient way) non-church?

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