by the Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s “teaching sermon” explores what those of us in “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” believe and do in relation to the end of life and the rituals of burial.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it, but in this sermon series we’ve been making our way through the Book of Common Prayer: we looked at Baptism and Eucharist, the Church’s primary and central sacraments, and then at the sacramental rites – confirmation, marriage, ordination, confession and healing. In the Prayer Book, these additional services come in the order in which we’ve looked at them, grouped together as “Pastoral Offices”. (One exception is that ordination services come under “Episcopal Services”, since they require the ministry of a Bishop.)
The last of the pastoral offices, or ways in which the Church supports and ministers to its members through the transitions and challenges of life, are Ministration at the time of Death and the Burial Office.
Let’s start with acknowledging that death is a hard thing to think about and talk about, for a variety of reasons. We all to want to live as long as we can – our lives are, after all, a gift from God, to be cared for and preserved. It is painful to lose those we love, hard to face the ways in which aging involves the loss of capacity for all of us who manage to live into old age, and really hard to see the suffering that often accompanies serious illness - painful both for the sick person and for those who love them. Death is scary in that we just don’t really know what comes after. And some deaths are simply tragic, especially when death involves a young person who has not lived a full life, or if death is sudden and unexpected.
The reality of the many ways in which death is difficult exists in a tension with what our faith teaches us about it. As followers of Jesus, we believe that death is not the end of life, but is, rather, a transition to another part of life in which we return to God, entering into a larger life than we can know or imagine now. We believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us of this.
Secular culture has popularized images of a heavenly afterlife to a ridiculous degree. The Book of Revelation speaks about pearly gates and streets paved with gold (Rev. 21:21), but the ways in which this symbolic and mystical image has been taken literally and expanded – we’ve all heard plenty of jokes about Saint Peter as gatekeeper with clipboard in hand - are not biblical and definitely not helpful.
What scripture does promise us is that God’s love surrounds us even as we pass away out of this life, and that beyond life in this realm we are set free into a closer life with our God, with Love itself.
Here’s some of what scripture offers:
Jesus assured Martha of Bethany, at the time of her brother’s death, that “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-6)
Similarly, he assured the disciples, as he was preparing them for his own death, that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
Comfort is also found in Paul’s writings: he assures the Romans that “neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39), and in his wonderful dicussion Love, written to the Corinthians, Paul promises that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [we will see] face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (I Cor 13:12)
We believe these things, and yet, when death comes, we grieve. The Church, in its ministries, seeks to honor and balance both of these truths.
The Prayer Book actually offers a series of opportunities for prayer around the time of death. Ministration at the Time of Death (BCP 462-465), which is often referred to as Last Rites, is a brief service of prayers asking God to comfort the dying, to protect them from pain and evil, to pardon sin and grant them a “place of refreshment” and “give them joy and gladness”. It includes a brief litany to be prayed with loved ones who are present, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, and we anoint the person with the oil of chrism, the same scented oil that we use at baptism. The service includes what I think is one of the most beautiful prayers in our tradition, the prayer of commendation, which is also included in the burial service itself:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your
servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. (BCP p. 465)
Ministration at the time of death is a very precious, intimate, and privileged moment in ministry. The liturgy is ordinarily led by an ordained person, but it can also be offered by a lay person if a priest or deacon is not available. It is a tremendously powerful way to offer the concern of our hearts to God at the time of death. I have read it by myself when learning of a death I want to respond to but have not been present for, and have also read it together with family members who live far from a loved one who has passed away.
Following Ministration at the Time of Death in the Prayer Book are two additional short sets of prayers through which the Church can mark the processes of attending to death. “Prayers for a Vigil” (BCP 465-6) provides prayer for family and friends in the time between death and the funeral and, like Last Rites, expresses love and petition for God’s care for the one who has died. The Prayer Book also provides a brief liturgy for “Reception of the Body” (BCP 466-7), for use at the time the body is brought to the church.
In the Episcopal Church we now have a variety of funeral liturgies available. The Prayer Book offers two options for The Burial of the Dead – Rites I and II - and we also have an authorized alternative from the Enriching our Worship series; they all follow the same approximate format, but differ in the style of language. In a funeral service, hymns may or may not be sung, scripture is read, and prayers are offered both for the one who has died and for family and friends in their grief. The departed is often remembered with reminiscences by family members, and clergy may preach a homily. Holy Communion may be included. The service, if it is in in the church building, concludes with a Commendation of the individual to God’s care.
The final part of the service may follow directly after the first part of the burial rite, or it may be separated in time. During the Committal the body or ashes are placed in their permanent resting place – whether in the ground, at sea, in a columbarium, or otherwise – and again, prayers including the Lord’s Prayer are offered. It concludes with a dismissal based on the Easter affirmation:
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Funeral practices have changed in recent years, in large part because the pandemic has been a significant factor requiring families to adapt their expectations and their practices. For one thing, cremation has become much more accepted and commonplace, and it allows families to schedule services when it is convenient for those who need to travel. The limitations of safety protocols for indoor gatherings has resulted in many more families choosing graveside services, and those that Heather and I have presided over in the last couple of years have been lovely.
While restrictions on end-of-life rituals have made it difficult for some families to celebrate their loved ones as they might have wished, I think that the opening up of options has ultimately been a good thing. In comparison to other aspects of the Church’s life, our tradition allows broad leeway for personalizing the services that mark the end of a human life, and leeway is often called for as the individual needs, circumstances, and preferences of families can vary. As Heather and I work with families planning funerals, our focus is on helping the families move through and beyond their pain as they remember and celebrate the life of the one who has died.
I’m sure many of us have experienced the fact that the processes that follow death can be messy. While enduring a death can help us put things in perspective and bring out the best in us, deaths can also re-activate old family issues and conflicts. In our complex psyches, regrets, resentments and guilt can surface in unfortunate ways as we move through not only the religious rituals but also the other practical chores that accompany death, such as disposing of property. Whatever we can do to minimize the potential for additional hurt around times of death is something to strive for.
Which brings me to reflecting on implications for us here and now: (you know that Heather and I always try to offer things to think about and do as we leave our worship each week!) There ARE things we can do as we think about death.
It is not only a gift to those who love us but a personal responsibility for us to prepare for our own deaths, however little we may feel like doing so.
For one thing, it is really important to have a will that directs others in how we want our worldly assets used after our deaths. The process of making a will helps us to come to terms with our own mortality AND to think about what is important to us in the way we leave things behind. Making provision for distribution of our assets is not only an opportunity to provide for our families’ security, but also to be generous in charitable giving in the many places where there is need in the world.
Closely related to the importance of having a will is that of having advance health directives on record and having a health care proxy designated, a person who can make decisions for us if we are not able to express our wishes. Hopefully your health care provider has already had you complete these documents: if they haven’t, please take care of this soon.
I also urge each of us to do some funeral planning. It is not a morbid thing to do. It provides help to our family members who, after we pass away, will have plenty of things to take care of and decisions to make: providing them some guidance on how WE would like to be remembered in a funeral can make the process a little bit easier for them. Here at James and Andrew we have a form that reminds you of choices to be made for your funeral. You can take it home to think about, discuss it with your loved ones, and/or you can meet with one of us to talk about your wishes, and we can keep a copy of your completed form on file here for the day it is needed.
Our Faith Community Nurse, Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, has also introduced us to a form called Five Wishes. It can be used as an official document that outlines what we would like the last stage of our life to look like. Kathryn tells me that she has numerous copies. I have completed it, and I commend it to you.
Taking care of these acts of planning is, in its way, an act of faith. It says that while we value our lives, we know that they will end, and we want to do what we can, now, to help end our lives responsibly and with love.
Amen. May it be so.
Let’s begin by exploring confession.
There are really two forms of confession.
First, our tradition has a general confession that we say at nearly every worship; which in a service of Holy Eucharist would follow the Prayers of the People. I promise, the point of the general confession is not to make us feel small, inadequate, and guilt ridden. Honestly, most of us talk to, or about, ourselves in harsher ways than God or anyone else ever would. The point of the general confession is to recognize that we are beautiful, beloved, and broken children of God and that we each have a dual capacity to love and to commit sin.
Now, there are different ways to think about the ‘sin’ we are confessing. One definition is missing the mark. Another is making choices that separates us from God. Lately, I have been thinking about sin as selfishness - or rather our capacity to be more concerned with our own advantages, pleasures, and well being than our relationships with God, one another, our communities and creation.
We all have the capacity for great acts of generosity and compassion, as well as, the capacity for horrific acts of incomprehensible selfishness. It is a spectrum, and most of us tend to live somewhere in the middle. The general confession, and the subsequent absolution, help followers of Christ to recognize that we are always in need of God’s grace, love, and mercy if we are going to be our healthiest selves.
The second form of confession is one of our tradition’s five sacramental rites, and is known as, Reconciliation of the Penitent. Sometimes, we do things that have really harmed others or caused a fracture in a relationship. This kind of burden tends to stay with us long after the general confession and absolution because our souls are seeking to receive a deeper kind of forgiveness. Our tradition’s approach to this rite is that: all can, some should, none must.* In other words, it is not required.
Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe describe it this way in their book Walk in Love:
“...reconciliation is an opportunity, a chance to name before God and someone else the things for which we are sorry or ashamed or that burden our conscience. And then in return, we hear from God and from another person the truth that we are forgiven and loved and reconciled.”*
Someone who felt like they wanted to partake in this rite would most likely contact their parish priest - priests and bishops have been empowered to offer absolution - which is when we “declare on behalf of God that a person’s sins are forgiven”.* That said, a lay person may hear a confession, and in lieu of an absolution would offer a declaration of forgiveness.* While there are a few Episcopal Churches with confessional booths, this liturgy is more likely to happen in the church, over zoom, or in the clergy office.
At the heart of it all - the rite of reconciliation is a ritual conversation. It begins with prayer; then the penitent shares what they’re carrying - naming aloud the burdens. Simply naming these things aloud to another, has the capacity to release us from the sense of secrecy or shame we might be feeling. The priest offers counsel, and may even suggest an action as a next step. Not as a punishment, but as an act of gratitude for the reconciliation, or as Scott & Melody write, as an “...outward and visible sign of inward work of forgiveness and reconciliation that is being done by us and God.”* The priest then pronounces absolution on behalf of God, and all one's sins are put away.**
Now, should someone who has committed a crime seek this rite, it could begin, but the priest would withhold offering absolution until the individual had taken responsibility for their actions. It is important to note that the prayerbook says, “The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.”**
Historically, this rite grew out of the tradition that when a grievous sin brought scandal to the church, one would be excommunicated for a season of penance, and then would be welcomed back and absolved at the Easter Vigil.*** This rite did not become prevalent until the 16th century, and in the Episcopal Church, it has always been one of our lesser known and utilized rites.
Let’s shift gears to talk about healing. There are three primary ways we practice healing; all were modeled by Jesus in his ministry and embraced by the early Church up until today. First, is the practice of offering healing prayers. Second, is the sacramental rite of unction, which means to anoint by pouring or rubbing blessed oil on a person.* Third, is the practice of laying hands on the sick.
We incorporate these practices in a wide variety of ways:
-Each week in the Prayers of the People we pray for a list of people who we know are experiencing some sort of illness in body, mind, or spirit, and would like to be prayed for.
-Our parish, like many others, offers a special time for healing prayers one Sunday a month, where individuals come forward while an ordained or lay person offers prayers for them, and often lays hands on their shoulders, back or head. It is our custom to also offer unction at that time, where the priest will anoint those who are in need of healing with blessed oil.
-Members of our Pastoral Care Team make visitations to folks who are in the hospital, a nursing home, or are homebound and are facing illness or isolation. They will often make a eucharistic visit and offer healing prayers. Molly and I make similar visits, but also spend a fair amount of time meeting with folks who may appear ‘fine’ on the outside, but are facing some sort of emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, relational, or financial stress and are in need of a conversation and healing prayers. I would say that the bulk of my time spent in pastoral care is actually with our lay leaders who are running our mission and ministries. Ensuring they are being well cared for spiritually, so they can continue to be Christ’s hands and feet, leading the ministries of our parish.
-When someone is suddenly facing a serious illness or has been in an accident, they will often call and ask for a priest to come and see them. We tend to bring our oil stock, containing healing oil that has been blessed by the bishop in holy week, so we can offer them the sacramental rite of unction during this time of duress. We press our thumb into the stock, which usually has a piece of a cotton ball, with a bit of oil poured onto it, and then we make the sign of the cross on the individual's forehead.
All those instances aside, the prayer book also offers a special set of prescribed prayers, referred to as ‘Ministration of the Sick’ when a more formal route is appropriate. This includes three parts:
This section also contains a large collection of personal prayers focused on healing.
While we do not often talk about unction as a sacramental rite, it is one.
We often lump unction together with extreme unction or ‘last rites’, which are offered when a person is nearing death.* These brief and beautiful prayers can be said once or many times, as sometimes folks seem close to death and then rally for a while longer. The prayers offered during last rites include an absolution, in order to release an individual of the burdens they may be carrying so they can depart this life. During the prayers, the dying person is anointed with oil. Molly and I tend to use chrism oil for last rites, so as someone departs this life, it is with the smell of the oil from their baptism, marking them as Christ’s own forever.
The rituals of confession and healing are tools meant to help followers of the Way of Love to be healthy, whole, and well. If you are curious about learning more, I’d recommend you take home a Book of Common Prayer - we have some available in the cupboards in the hallway to the office. Take the time to read through the Rite of Reconciliation, Ministration of the Sick, and Ministration at the Time of Death. They each have their own way of communicating God’s desire for our health and wellbeing. If you have more questions - please do not hesitate to ask. I know this was a flyby version!
* Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices, pgs 81, 83, 83-84, 85, 85, 87, 89 (in order of reference)
** The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 448, 464 (in order of reference).
*** Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 449.
This month’s topic is ordination, the sacramental rite in which the Church lifts up leaders to assume particular responsibility in the community of the faithful. As Heather and I were divvying up teaching sermon topics, I got this one because I’m involved in this process at diocesan level: I participate in the admission of people into the ordination process, in mentoring those folks through their formation, and then certifying their qualifications when the time comes for ordination.
As we’ve usually done in these teaching sermons, this morning I’ll provide some historical background, and talk about what the process looks like today, including both the REALLY complicated sequence of things that take place in the selection and preparation of candidates for ordination and the things that happen in the rite itself. Finally and most interesting for me, I’ll reflect a bit on the theology of ordination and some of the issues involved.
I’m sure you’ll remember the apostle Paul’s discussion in his first letter to the Corinthians in which he develops the metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ. Like the physical body, he says, the Church has many parts, and they each have their own unique and important function - it’s up to the eyes to see and the ears to hear: the body needs all of its parts and they all work together. (I Cor 12:4-27)
As the young Church grew rapidly in the days, months, and eventually years after Jesus’ ascension, it became obvious that the apostles couldn’t handle all of the leadership needs of the growing community on their own. An incident in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles ( Acts 6:1-6) tells about a group of Hellenists getting cranky because the widows were not getting served the meals they needed. Their complaint was obviously justified, because the apostles put their heads together and figured out that they needed to appoint a group who could take charge of that important ministry. The apostles selected candidates who had the gifts to do well at the job, prayed, laid their hands on those members, and called them deacons. Really, this is ordination in a nutshell – the Church identifying the people we believe have the gifts to serve in needed functions, laying hands on, and then setting them at their tasks.
By sometime in the second century, the Church established three orders of ordained ministry that have not changed in the centuries since. First, however, I remind us that, in the catechism found in the Prayer Book, the answer to the question “Who are the ministers of the Church?”, is that “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” (BCP 855) All of the baptized are the primary ministers of the Body of Christ in terms of sharing the gospel and doing God’s work of caring for one another and for all of God’s creation.
Here's a quick review of the three orders of ordained ministry:
How does the Church know who to ordain, and how does it come about? It takes BOTH a personal sense of vocation AND the conviction of the Church that the person has “a call” to ordained ministry. The traditional notion is that God calls people as leaders, and the Bible of full of stories of folks who get such calls, many of them, in the Bible, are ready to go to great lengths in order to avoid the responsibility. In our own time, we look to the judgement of the Church to hear and confirm a call to ordained ministry, trusting that the Holy Spirit works through the prayerful processes the Church has developed for selecting its leaders. Although the canons (or laws) of the Church set out some requirements, the process varies from diocese to diocese and is pretty complex.
There are basically two phases a person goes through before they are ordained:
1.) The first is that of an extended period of discernment of a vocation or call to Holy Orders. Here in Western Massachusetts we require that a person thinking about ordained ministry does lots of things including being active in practicing their faith life, engaging in individual conversation about vocation (for at least a year) and participating in another year of diocesan-led groups aimed at helping with deep exploration.
If, after completing these requirements, they believe they are called to ordained ministry, they apply for postulancy, which requires documents of support from their rector, vestry and others in addition to their own written discussion of their sense of vocation. After a group session and an individual meeting with the Bishop, they are invited to a day of conversations with the Commission on Ministry, a group of lay and clergy representatives who have read their application materials. Based on the Commission’s reading and their interviews with the applicant, the Commission makes a recommendation to the Bishop, either that they be admitted as a postulant, be asked to wait while doing additional discernment – what we call the “not now” outcome – or that they not move forward as a postulant. Before the Bishop appoints them to postulancy, the applicant needs to undergo background checks and a psychological evaluation (to insure that there are no previously undiscovered obstacles.)
2.) Once a person is admitted as a postulant, there is a lot of preparation for ministry to be completed. Candidates for vocational diaconate take part in a two-year School for Deacons, meeting regularly both virtually and in person with candidates throughout New England. Priesthood candidates complete a Master of Divinity degree at a seminary or Divinity School approved by the Bishop: (if done full-time, an MDiv takes three years, but many candidates complete the program on a part-time basis while continuing to work.) In either case the formation includes worship in community, academic coursework, and an internship in a parish different from their sponsoring parish. Candidates are also required to complete Clinical Pastoral Education, a program of supervised self-reflection as one practices pastoral care, frequently in an institutional setting. Four times a year throughout the formation process, postulants write “Ember Day Letters” to the Bishop providing a check-in on what they are doing and thinking about.
As their training approaches its completion, Postulants apply to become Candidates, a final step toward approval for ordination. They complete more interviews at both parish and diocesan level and are required to demonstrate proficiency in a set of areas required by national church: scripture, theology, ethics, history, worship, and the practice of ministry. Deacon candidates do this through submission of a portfolio of materials produced during their training, and priesthood candidates sit for a nationally-administered three-day essay exam.
Candidates who successfully complete these many requirements (which they invariably experience as hoops to jump through,) may be ordained.
The ordination liturgy itself is, in many ways, like the baptismal liturgy that we have all experienced many times. As in a baptism, the candidate is presented by those who have sponsored them and is examined by the bishop, making a series of promises. Listen to the key exchange that takes place at ordination of both priests and deacons:
The Bishop asks:
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?
The ordinand replies:
I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church. (BCP 526)
Following this verbal exchange, the ordinand then SIGNS the declaration “in the sight of all present”. Somewhat later in the service, the ordinand reiterates their commitment to submit to the authority of the Bishop, promises to persevere in prayer and the reading of scripture, to be a faithful pastor to those they are called to serve and, perhaps most interestingly, to “pattern their [life] [and that of their family, or household or community] in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that [they] may be a wholesome example to [their] people”. (BCP 532) Heather and I puzzle over that one occasionally.
So it sounds good, doesn’t it, that the Church takes so very seriously the work of lifting up people to serve as leaders? As is always the case, there are issues – places where we have failed, places where there is disagreement and sometimes controversy.
For one thing, the Church has not always practiced a theology of full inclusiveness. The ordained ministers at the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the 18th century were exclusively white men. The first African American to be ordained a priest, Absolom Jones, was not admitted to holy orders until 1802, a full decade after he founded the first Black Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. John Johnson Enmegahbowh, Ojibwa Indian, was the first indigenous person to be ordained priest, in 1867.
During our own lifetimes two more barriers to full inclusion in the life of the Church have fallen, but are not yet fully accepted. The first women were “irregularly” ordained to the priesthood in 1974, and the Church voted to regularize and approve women’s ordination in 1976. Although the first openly queer individual, Ellen Barrett, was ordained in New York by Bishop Paul Moore in 1977, the action caused an uproar in the Church, causing the House of Bishops, several months later, to pass a resolution identifying “homosexuality as unbiblical”. The consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 was likewise unacceptable to many in the Church.
A point of theological disagreement feeds what I regard as another serious issue in relation to the sacrament of ordination. Here’s the question: Does ordination represent a change in function for the ordained, or does the movement of the Holy Spirit in ordination convey an essential change in the being of the ordained? Are bishops, priests and deacons, as a result of their ordination, closer to God than lay people? Does ordination make them better people?
Clericalism is the assumption – to one degree or another, whether conscious or unconscious – that the clergy are different and somehow spiritually superior to lay people. The official teaching of the Church is that ordination signifies a change in responsibility in the Church and is assisted by God’s grace. Clericalism runs deep in Christian culture, however. I cannot tell you how many times people have apologized for using a naughty word in front of me, or asked me to “put in a word” (in prayer, I presume) for better weather.
These examples are basically silly, but the insidious effects of clericalism have been the assumption on the part of the clergy that they are invariably right and the non-ordained are wrong, and the subsequent difficulty the Church has historically had in holding clergy accountable where they commit wrongdoing. We are all familiar with some of the most damaging examples of clergy misconduct that have come to light in recent decades, both in other denominations and in our own. I deeply appreciate the comments of Pope Francis on this topic, in 2018:
Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.
(Address to Synod Fathers, 2018; cited on Wikipedia, “clericalism”)
The assumption of moral rectitude in the ordained does not serve any of us well, either the clergy themselves or the Church. Let’s agree to do everything we can to end it.
Those are rather grim observations, aren’t they? I don’t want to end there, but these hard things needed acknowledging, and I have also tried your patience long enough.
For myself, ordained ministry has been an incredible gift and privilege, especially in the years that I have served in parish ministry. I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to serve and learn and grow in this work, and particularly in the good company of my colleague the Rector of James and Andrew.
One of the best prayers in the Prayer Book is prayed in the ordination service AS WELL AS in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, so it is appropriate to conclude with it here. Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 527)
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Have you ever wondered how many sacraments we have in the Episcopal Church? If so, this is your lucky day.
Our tradition affirms there are two sacraments and five sacramental rites. They have two key distinctions. First, sacraments were given by Christ to the Church, whereas sacramental rites were instituted by the Church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (1/ 2) Second, sacraments are understood as essential for all Christians, while sacramental rites are not. (1) In other words, some people will be called to partake in one or more of these rites, but it’s not imperative for all Christians.
Having covered the two sacraments in previous sermons, we’ll spend the next few teaching sermons getting better acquainted with the five sacramental rites. These are: confirmation; marriage; ordination; reconciliation of a penitent - a form of personal confession; and unction - better known as anointing. (1) Today our focus will be on confirmation and marriage. (2)
Our tradition affirms there are two important things happening in the sacramental rite of confirmation. First and foremost, “Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ…” (1) The rite of confirmation exists in several mainline denominations, primarily because these traditions practice infant baptism. Meaning, parents have chosen to proclaim to the child, themselves, and the universal Church that we want to raise our child to walk in love in the Christian tradition. However, this means the child does not get to choose that for themselves, making the ritual of confirmation an important rite of passage.
It is the opportunity for youth and adults to choose for themselves: I want to walk in love with Christ, and I affirm the values and beliefs of this particular tradition. All of this means, it is vitally important that confirmation be a choice, a calling, and not something young people are pressured into doing by parents or other adults.
In Lauren Winner’s book, Still, she describes how a minister responded to a young person who felt unsure whether they could go through with confirmation. (3)They said, “What you promise when you are confirmed…is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.” (3)
The second significance of confirmation is that in it we, “...receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.” (1). Confirmation is one of the two sacramental rites that require a bishop.
Our friends Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, describe why in their book, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices: “Bishops can trace their consecration back to the apostles of Jesus - something called ‘apostolic succession’. In this way, confirmation connects us to the worldwide church through the bishop, the symbol of our unity, and to the communion of saints, past, present and future. This reminds us of the way in which we are connected to the wider sphere of the church…” (2)
You may recall Bishop Doug made his annual visitation earlier this year, where three important things happened:
You may also recall that the liturgy of confirmation is pretty similar to that of baptism. (1). It begins the same way, and after the sermon the bishops asks the candidates:
Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil? (1)
Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? (1)
The bishop then asks the congregation if they will support the confirmands, and after affirming they will, the community reaffirms our baptismal promises together. (1) Then there are prayers for the candidates, emphasizing their renewed commitment, followed by the bishop laying hands on the confirmands. (1) The bishop will lay hands on top of the candidates’ head or maybe lay a hand on each shoulder, praying for the Holy Spirit to strengthen, empower, and sustain them. (1) There is a concluding prayer, and the liturgy transitions into the Peace. (1)
Under the umbrella of confirmation is reception and reaffirmation. One is received when they have already been confirmed in another tradition, but their spiritual journey brings them into the Episcopal Church. One is reaffirmed when they feel called to reaffirm their faith - maybe after a long time away from the Church or a season of spiritual growth. To be confirmed, received, or reaffirm one's commitment, candidates participate in a preparation period, usually by partaking in our Episcopal 101 course.
While most ministries in the church do not require confirmation, a few do. Confirmation is required to serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister distributing the common cup, to run for Vestry, to be ordained, or to hold certain church wide offices.
All right, shifting gears. Let’s talk about marriage. I want to start with two beautiful, and historic days that were decades in the making. First, on June 26, 2015 a Supreme Court ruling legalized same sex marriage for all Americans, or rather, finally made marriage available to all couples. Then, five days later on July 1, 2015 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church followed suit, by making canonical and liturgical changes to provide marriage equality within the Church.
In the years leading up to these two events, there began a series of important conversations within the Church about marriage, including:
When we look back to the 1549 Prayer Book, there was an exhortation listing three reasons for the institution of marriage:
When couples want to be married, they are required to sign a Declaration of Intention, which outlines the Church’s current thinking about marriage.
Here is how it reads:
“We understand the teaching of the church that God’s purpose for our marriage is for our mutual joy; for the help and comfort we will give to each other in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the gift and heritage of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of God. We also understand that our marriage is to be unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong; and we engage to make the utmost effort to accept these gifts and fulfill these duties, with the help of God and the support of our community.” (2)
This means that marriage is a covenant. Scott and Melody describe it as, “...a sacred promise that involves not only the two people being married but also God and the gathered community…” (2)
The new marriage liturgies from the 2015 General Convention affirm:
Here at Saints James and Andrew, we have a marriage customary to help couples navigate planning their ceremony. (6). Here are a few of the things we point out to couples:
When I meet with a couple, I let them know a few things:
Each clergy person has their own way of doing this. I spend:
This means we spend one session planning the wedding ceremony, and four preparing them for the commitment of marriage. We do that because the ceremony is one moment of one day, and the marriage will hopefully be a lifetime. Sometimes couples need more help sorting through difficult things; in which case, I’ll refer them to a trained professional.
The Episcopal Church has approved three different liturgies we can use for the marriage ceremony. As such, we do not permit folks to write their own vows. That said, we do find creative ways to include people’s intentions in the ceremony when asked.
The liturgy begins by the celebrant greeting the couple and the congregation, stating the intended reason for the gathering, and our desire to ask God’s blessing on this couple. (1) Then the couple declares they have consented to be here, and the congregation affirms they will do all they can to support this couple in their journey. (1)
Then there are readings from scripture, followed by the marriage, where the couple will make a vow that sounds something like this: “In the Name of God, I, take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” (1)
If there are rings, they will be blessed and then exchanged.(1) The couple is pronounced as married, and then the priest proclaims: Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder. (1) The priest then asks God’s blessing on this couple’s union, and I was formed with the tradition of wrapping my stole around the couples held hands as a sign and symbol of that prayer. (1) Then follows the Peace. (1) Believe it or not - there is no ‘kiss the bride’ business. But we do tend to work it in at the Peace if the couple would like. The service then continues with the eucharist or to the dismissal. (1)
While we are here to talk about the sacramental rite of marriage, I think I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn't talk about divorce. Something that touches nearly everyone in one way or another.
Here’s a brief history of the marriage canons in the Church:
While that is the history of what has been allowed, what the Church is still not very good at is supporting couples through this painful transition. Rev. Jennifer Philips reflects on this for the Episcopal Church.
“When a marriage comes apart, there is undoubtedly an aspect of sin involved. In some way, everyone has fallen short of the mark, including the supporting community. There is often more than sin involved, though. There may be lack of insight, unforeseeable changes in the people and circumstances, trauma or psychological disturbance, insurmountable incompatibility, mistaken understanding and more. There may be a shared sense of disappointment, grief, anger and brokenness in the congregation that once gathered so joyfully to launch the new marriage. These things are fitting subjects for common prayer and reconciliation, without which[,] one — and most often both — divorcing persons leave their church.” (8)
She goes on to say:
“...it is important to offer a divorcing couple (or even an individual, if the partner is unwilling) an opportunity to communicate the new status to the congregation, acknowledge the brokenness, ask for prayers, share sorrow or joy and begin life afresh. It is equally important for the congregation to be able to communicate its collective love, grief, sympathy, surprise or relief, ongoing support and prayer with its fellow members in the body of Christ. It’s not the divorce we thank God for in such rituals for the ending of a marriage, but the reality of forgiveness, mercy, kindness, communion and new life in Christ. For too long, despite the congregational pledge of support, we in the church have treated marriage as a private matter and its failure as a private shame.” (8)
When a marriage ends, it is our job not to perpetuate cultural shame on the couple, but instead, to stand by their side, and ask how we can support you?
I realize this has been a lot of information, and if you’d like to explore either of these topics in more detail, please see the resources posted with the sermon on our website or speak to Molly or myself. Amen!
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