Sacramental Ecclesiology

If you haven’t read this piece on Children and the Eucharist, you should.

The writer has accurately identified the next big theological crisis facing the Episcopal Church. All of the questions around communing children, the place of Confirmation, if/whether/how “First Communion” is “a thing,” and the communing of the unbaptized are simply different ways of entering a larger complicated inter-related question.

The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer placed recovery of a baptismal ecclesiology at its center. This was a good and correct move. The problem, however, is that a baptismal ecclesiology functions properly within a broader sacramental ecclesiology. What I mean by that is this:

Church is fundamentally about a sacramental path to discipleship.

Everything from how we comprehend the coherence between the local church and the mystical Church, how we enter the church, how the church frames and provides its rites and sacraments, how the church frames and understands its saints must proceed from an understanding of the church as a mystical vehicle for the grace of God given, received, and expressed normatively in her sacraments.

Baptismal ecclesiology is a very important piece of this complete vision—necessary but not sufficient!

What we need to do now is to flesh out the rest of our sacramental ecclesiology in a clear and coherent way that reflects deep continuity with the Scriptures and the Apostolic faith and is true to our current experience and context. Until this has occurred, we will find ourselves running around with incoherent band-aid fixes…

4 Replies to “Sacramental Ecclesiology”

  1. I think you’re absolutely right on the mark here, Derek. But good luck getting that conversation to happen, my friend. You have my prayers. In my (admittedly limited) experience, nobody in leadership wants to talk through or write about theology before or even alongside the making of policy. I hope I’m proven wrong on this.

  2. Derek,
    Isn’t really the problem with confirmation is that we’ve inherited an incorrect solution from Lateran IV in 1215? The church incorrectly categorized sacraments as a countable set with a cardinality of seven, instead of continuing the patristic notion that sacraments are a bounded but non-countable set. For example, Augustine named at least 325 different {things|actions|processes|events} as sacramentum or mysterium.
    The problem is that the one thing “confirmation” (along with “marriage”, by the way) has no valid justification for being in the “magic set of seven”, because “confirmation” isn’t a unitary sacrament; it’s several, if not dozens, of sacrament-s-. One of these sacraments is, as Paul De Clerck titled his essay in Louis Weil’s festschrift, “The Gateway to Communion”. Another is an affirmation of adult commitment, and yet a third is the post-baptismal anointing. Until we recognize that, as a basic principle, we can’t “count” sacraments, we won’t have the freedom to recognize that God’s grace doesn’t fit into seven little (or big) boxes, but rather that we are explorers in a tradition that sees God active and moving in large patterns (that constellate as baptism, eucharist, unction, and even confirmation).

  3. Among the most difficult issues we face on a practical level is a liturgy which assumes a community of baptized Christians in a context of an increasing number of people new to the faith and as yet unbaptized. Were we a very large church, we might offer a service of morning or evening prayer each Sunday with this population in mind, but as we stand, two Eucharistic services are all our 90 ASA congregation can justify. I have seen some congregations respond to this with “instant” baptism, but that seems to cheapen this central sacrament. It does not sound at all like the extended and intensive catechumenate that is so revered by our sacramental theologians. Other congregations have decentralized the Eucharist to make more of their worship inclusive of the growing ranks of unbaptized who are seeking a spiritual place in the church.

    For a little time yet, it will be possible to believe that those who come to our worship for the first time will be baptized Christians returning to the faith of their parents and grand parents. But there will come a season where will be incumbent upon is to preach the Gospel to those who have never had even the slightest connection Sacramental Christianity. As this becomes our lived reality, it will put ever greater pressure on liturgical churches to adapt their forms of worship and doctrine to enable both baptized and unbaptized to join walk the journey of faith within the same service.

  4. I unconvinced that we need to star accepting the status of “unbaptized but still a part of the community” as a legitimately theological idea. The early Church certainly didn’t have that, outside of the catacuminate. It may not be “nice” to tell people that entrance to the Church is through the waters of Baptism, but it is true. Embracing cheep grace isn’t a solution.

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