A prime example

Of the point behind my Masters thesis that is.

My mate Bryan at Greyfriars Parish Church, Lanark, has recently started streaming the Sunday morning services. No bad thing and on, Sunday’s snowy morning, an ideal opportunity for those unable to get to church to do more than just listen in, but to get to see what was going on. Undoubtedly, using video technology allows people to feel more part of something than simply listening to the audio.

Sunday had a slight twist to it – it was communion. A short flurry of discussion on Facebook certainly gave the impression that some who were tuned in from home shared in communion using what they had in the house. I somewhat cheekily wondered if epiclesis worked through cyberspace and that comment triggered a little bit of a (gentle) bashing.

But it’s a serious question (even though it makes something that ought to be simple, more complicated) and, in my opinion, impacts on our understanding of sacramental ministry. Bryan suggested that it was sufficient to rely on Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered in His name, He will be with them. Which begs the question, “Why do you need an ordained minister to pronounce an invocation, when it’s God who does all the work?” This was the core of my thesis – the Church of Scotland needs to get its brain round sacramental ministry if it is going to encourage more innovative forms of worship – and video-streaming services isn’t exactly at the extreme end of the innovation spectrum.

Someone else wondered whether it would therefore be possible to perform a baptism over the airways, so to speak. It’s exactly the same issue. Is there some sort of ‘essential presence’ that a minister, and only a minister, brings to these sacramental acts? Or is it simply a case of the practical consideration that it gets done ‘properly’, with no under-the-table jiggery-pokery?

The point I made in my thesis was that conversations around these issues really need to be happening right now, otherwise we end up with a free-for-all which will, ultimately, cause further argument within an organisations which could well do without further cause for dissension in the ranks. And these conversations need to be focused on what is happening in churches now and not just at some academic, ivory-tower, theological level.

9 responses to “A prime example”

  1. We joined in from home… and I have to say it was one of the most emotional communions of my whole life.  Make of that what you will… But then I’m a heretic anyway! 😉

  2. I’m not denying your involvement in a service of communion or the experience. I’m using it as example of why the CofS needs to think seriously about its view on sacramental ministry in the light of such a changing worship landscape.

  3. My ‘beef’ with the priesthood of all believers is that people interpret it to mean that everyone is capable of being a ‘priest’ – i.e. they are all able to lead others in worship. That is not what it means. It means that each of us is responsible for bringing our worship to God and cannot delegate responsibility to another (as was done in the Jewish sacrificial system).

    Do I believe that ministers are ontologically different on ordination and are therefore the only ones able and permitted to perform sacramental duties? No

    Do I believe that everyone and anyone can and should perform sacramental duties? Again, no.

    The very fact that they are dominical commands means that we must treat them seriously and must be aware of the abuse of them. The fact that they are sacraments must also be respected. Neither of these things requires a ‘special’ person, but they do require to have someone who acknowledges those aspects of sacramental functions and understands that they are not a trivial event.

    Maybe I have a higher view of the sacraments than others, but that, once again, is my point – these are serious theological issues which must be worked through by a denomination which allows a broad range of understanding of them. When left to change and be reinterpreted as anyone sees fit there is a strong possibility of causing division and strife. Only by having conversations around these very real scenarios can progress be made.

  4. Priesthood of all believers….
    I understand this to be more of a missional statement rather than a worship one. We are all expected to take the Gospel message out to those who haven’t (or won’t) hear/heard it. I wouldn’t have expected the sacramentl aspect of the statement.
    I don’t see why elders/readers can’t do the leading of the sacrament thing. The way things are heading it’s something that the Kirk will have to face up to sooner rather than later. With the Free Kirk lining themselves up for the influx of new members after the 2011 GA (with the allowing of organs and hymns) this is something of a lesser order of debate.
    Sacraments have to be observed with proper order. We can see that from Paul’s injunctions to the Corinthian church which was in sacramental disarray. But does it need the clergy ? Probably not.
    What are the clergy there for then ? Preaching, teaching, pastoral, all of which can be done by others, of course, but when you invest four and more years of study in things like this, that must count for something ?

  5. My problem with ordained ministry is simple… control.
    I am still very uncomfortable with the idea that we need ‘special’ people to ‘mediate’ between us and God.  In the Gospels I read the story of a Jewish Rabbi who railed against the powers of the day because they wanted to control and administer and interpret.  They killed him to keep their power.  And when He died the veil of the temple was torn in two.  God was let out of the box once and for all.
    Control isn’t the same as accountability but I think we have confused the two.  God works in amazing and mysterious ways and our concern is whether or not epiclesis works via broadband?
    I think training people to support and enable and even lead is a good thing.  A really good thing.  But not to be in charge and certainly not to mediate our contact with God.

  6. Stewart,

    I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said and I’d want to question it. You say that your issue with ordained ministry is control – but the two are not synonymous. Control can happen in any position of ‘power’, ordained or otherwise. So is your issue with ordination or with personalities who like to dominate and control?

    You also don’t like the idea of ‘special’ people who ‘mediate’ between us and God. That’s not the Reformed Protestant understanding of ministry. If that’s how people come across, then their understanding of it is flawed – just as the idea of being ordained means being ‘in control’ is flawed.

    I agree that control is not the same as accountability and yet accountability would be perceived as control by those who may be getting called to account. It’s a matter of perspective. When Paul called the early Christian churches to account for some of their flawed theology I’m sure there would have been some who saw it as Paul attempting to control them. And when the religiosity of the Jews was questioned by Jesus, some indeed saw that as very threatening with the result you note. [A question though – was God ever in the box?]

    But I’m still not convinced that ordained ministry = control, at least for many in ordained ministry. Or at least not in the sense I think you mean it.

    Maybe concern over whether epiclesis works via broadband is in the same category as angels dancing on pinheads, but the conversations it prompts are very relevant to a denomination which, I believe, needs to start questioning whether its sacramental theology helps or hinders the new models of ministry it claims to be encouraging. And if you want to argue that such a discussion is irrelevant in the face of an amazing and mysterious God, then you might as well say, let’s throw away our entire church history and start from scratch with every generation. But by Paul’s example, we can see how, even within a generation, we can get it badly wrong. Theological issues are not some dry, academic irrelevance, but the very stuff that stops us abusing control and power and that mystery of God. But it never ‘boxes in’ God (or at least, it shouldn’t). Rather it enables us to move ever outwards, expanding our understanding of God. But to do that it needs to question what we do.

    So, who does the questioning and the pushing? Ordained ministry ‘ought’ to have the training to do that, so long as it is done in a spirit of humility and servitude, rather that one of control.

    Ordination, at its core, is about ‘setting apart’ – not so that those who are are somehow ‘special’, but so that they may lead, not control and guide, not mediate. The early Christian church may not have called it ordination, but it nevertheless placed people in such leadership positions. And Jesus’ own instructions were pretty clear about leading and feeding the lambs and sheep.

  7. Thanks John. I’m not sure we disagree much.  Power, as you said, is as much about perception as reality.  In this case my point was more about ministers ‘mediating’ the sacraments.  I think that the idea that only a minister can preside is plain crazy.  That gives a perception of power which I think is unhelpful, whether that is the intention or not.  It creates a hierarchy and a dependancy and that hinders new developments.

  8. You’re probably right – we don’t disagree much. It’s helpful for me to ‘think out loud’ at times as I work through an issue.

    And, ultimately, I’d lean towards a more open acceptance of who presides at sacraments – so long as the proper control accountability was there. 😉

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