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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