Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

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.

Infection and the common cup

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum, and churches abhor ordinary practices that can't be justified in ways that theological standards are. I sigh when certain Unitarian Universalist ministers (whom I otherwise admire) make outlandish claims about the symbolic -- I've even heard the word sacramental -- importance of taking the Sunday offering. Does this mean direct deposit would be a liturgical reform? A crisis of faith?

I bring this up because of the plain division in communion practices seen in Protestant churches. I've only served (and now attend) churches that use small glasses in trays, derisively (if descriptively) called "shot glasses" by the uninformed or dismissive.

I don't particularly like them. They're messy, hard to handle, and noisy. If new, they're expensive or cheaply made. In small churches, they're overkill. (Though I've seen versions that work for very small churches which appeal to the gadget-freak in me. In particular, I've seen a rectangular tray with cut-outs for, say, twelve small glasses with a handle that reaches lenghtwise over the top. Imagine if a traditional milkman was doubling as a parson. The ones I've seen hearken back to hobbiest woodshops, and I love them the more for it. A smaller version of the one on the left of this image.)

While associated with Protestantism, it isn't a particularly old use. Look to all that antique communion silver auctioned out of New England Unitarian churches: you find common cups. The common cup is a livelier symbol of the Great Thanksgiving, a more precious emblem for the church, and heck of a lot easier to carry and keep clean. It is -- as they say in the software world -- a scalable solution. (A flagon helps; indeed, certain Unitarian rites carry over an almost medieval importance to the pouring that I appreciate. Why some Episcopalians make such a deal of the fraction but do nothing with the pouring is beyond me.)

But the reason for the small cups being introduced continues to haunt churches: the fear of contagen. While it may take some convincing, and some basic hygenic steps, the common cup is safe. You probably are at more risk of catching some illnesses by shaking hands or breathing the same air. Receiving an HIV infection isn't in the cards. (Cholera was probably the disease that first prompted the individual cups.)

While there should be extra precautions for immune-suppressed individuals and for communion in a hospital setting, there's no reason to paint the common cup with unfounded charges.

Here's a good briefing paper.

Eucharistic practice and the risk of infection (Anglican Church of Canada)