The Use of the Means of Grace, adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America this past summer, is a document that probably could not have been written by Episcopalians, though not because we would disagree in large measure with anything in the paper. Almost all the particular ritual notes are familiar and unremarkable from an Anglican point of view. There is, however, a difference in how the task itself is approached. And the root of that difference is in the introduction to the document.
This statement seeks to root common sacramental practice in the Lutheran Confessions and within the context of our contemporary situation. It is not a comprehensive doctrine of the means of grace and is not intended to be. Preparing such theology for the Church is an important task appropriately done by the teaching theologians of this church in an academic context. (p.4)
The distinction made here, between liturgy on the one hand and theology on the other is one which would be impossible for Anglicans to make. For us theology is what we are doing when we pray, and how we pray forms what we believe. The dictum lex orandi, lex credendi (roughly, “the law of prayer is the law of belief”) is axiomatic. If we want to understand what we believe, we examine our liturgy, and by liturgy, I mean not only the words or required actions but, as Leonel Mitchell puts it, “the entire liturgical act in its multi-dimensional integrity” (Mitchell, 1985, p.3). Liturgy is a conversation which takes place between the community and God, between individuals and the community, and between the community and the world. It is symbolic and thus points to both conscious and unconscious realities simultaneously. It happens both within and outside the boundaries of space and time. It is the primal experience of God for us as worshiping believers. Thus, it is theology. With that assumption forming my perspective, I see this document as a theological one and would like to suggest some outlines of the theology I see present in it, both explicit and implicit.
First, it seems to be a heavily Christocentric theology, although a careful look at the ritual recommendations themselves suggests something more. The first principle says that “Jesus Christ is the living and abiding Word of God . . .The living heart of all these means is the presence of Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit as the gift of the Father.” (p.5) This emphasis is reiterated in each section. Jesus Christ is always pointed to as the source and reason of our rites. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that formulation, but I wonder if it is rich enough in itself to support all the material that is to follow.
Salvation is rooted in more than simply the “Christ-event.” While the death and resurrection of Christ do break the tyrannies of time and space, salvation takes place in the context of both past and future. The past begins with God’s act of creation, with a God who speaks forth the abundance of the universe. Baptism and Eucharist have as their most basic elements the gifts of creation: water, oil, bread and wine. The Use of the Means of Grace carefully names them as gifts of Jesus Christ, and while they are certainly that, they are also gifts of God the Creator. Salvation is also rooted in the interaction of God with human beings over history. God’s relationship with humanity reaches back into the first moment of human consciousness. It is true that in Jesus Christ, that relationship reaches salvific intimacy, but the sacraments take up the whole story into their celebration. As we baptize, we remember God’s Spirit moving over the face of the waters and we remember the children of Israel being led through the Red Sea into freedom. As we celebrate Eucharist, we remember all of God’s loving calls to a wandering people as well as the ultimate act of love that finally brings us back to the table. God the Father is as surely the source of Grace as God the Son.
Our rituals tell us who we are and where we come from. They also point to who we might become and where we might go. In other words, Baptism and Eucharist are gifts of the Spirit, inspiring, guiding and confirming God’s love in our souls. For example, there is a heavy emphasis throughout the document on the role of the community gathered in all our sacramental rituals. The creation of community, especially in the world that has elevated narcissism to an art form, is surely a mark of the Holy Spirit. The call of the Gospel to live in Christian community falls like a bizarre foreign language on many ears, and this document has captured the key to teaching people that “language”–by incorporating the realities of community into the ritual. This creates the conditions for the possibility of the movement of the Spirit. The essential role of the Spirit is implicit throughout the document but could bear being made clear and conscious. Sacraments have their source and reason in the Trinity. This seems more implied than stated in The Use of the Means of Grace.
I have a second observation about this document and it is one that I would make about many liturgical documents regardless of denominational source. That observation is that liturgy only makes sense if the worshiping community is sent out into the world to live in the world as it is, to love the world as it is and to be instruments of God’s power to change the world into what it might be. In other words, liturgy is only successful if it helps people to love God and one another better. It is only good liturgy if it is faithful to God, to the tradition and to the world in which we minister. Now that might sound like the beginning of a diatribe on “relevant” liturgies. Such is not the case. Being faithful to the world in which we live does not mean conforming to it. St. Paul dealt with that problem thoroughly. Having a better sound system than Smashing Pumpkins is not proof of good liturgy. Nor does taking the world into consideration mean agenda-driven liturgies that are thinly veiled advertisement for a particular point of view. It does mean taking seriously the realities of the world as people experience it, naming those realities in the liturgy, offering them on the altar and then going back out into the world with a Spirit-given perspective on ourselves and the world. The rituals with which we worship need to offer a way in which people can see their lives mirrored in the sacraments and transformed into something holy.
The Use of the Means of Grace does not make any particular reference to the conversation of the church and the world, though there is a good deal said implicitly. This is not unusual. Most Episcopal liturgical documents do not either. That seems to me to be a potentially serious difficulty. The 1662 Prayer Book managed to continue largely unchanged throughout the 1960’s partly because of the failure of the Church to pay attention to what was happening in the world and to bring those insights to the altar. The shock of the change when we did finally look around us and make the necessary changes was almost overwhelming. We need to be careful to include the context of the world in our liturgical theology, lest our liturgies become self-referent, inbred and useless.
Much of the content of The Use of the Means of Grace is completely familiar to an Episcopalian. There are one or two items that are surprising. The possibility that Eucharist could be celebrated by a lay person is fairly alarming to contemplate from our point of view, even with the safeguards that have obviously been included in the idea (p.28). Conversely, the stress put on a duly ordained person always being the preacher except under unusual circumstances is one to which we would probably be less attached (p.10). For Anglicans, an ordained person would more likely be sent in order to celebrate Eucharist than to preach. This is clearly a difference in emphasis which reflects the differences in development of our traditions.
We have a good deal to learn from one another and The Use of the Means of Grace will certainly be a useful piece of that learning.