Sacraments, Unitarians, and Universalists

From the substance of Matthew Gatheringwater’s comment:

You are trying to emphasize the sacramental nature of Unitarian Universalism? Since when did we start having sacraments again?

I’m not sure where the sacrament comment came from since I’ve already commented that the stole is the garment associated with the sacraments, not the bands, which is more of a meaning-enriched piece of haberdashery than a proper vestment. (In other words, there would be some, but not much, meaning lost if it were missing. Much like a male business professional who did or did not wear a tie.)

The meaning associated with the bands (and hood and gown) are that of a “learned clerk” (=clergy) and that role in worship is teaching, usually preaching. Since I preach and lead the sacraments in the same service, I’ll wear garb that refers to both, but out of convention will drop the hood if I wear the stole.

But let’s not miss the point here. There has never been a time in Unitarianism or Universalism when the sacraments have been absent. They may have not been observed in most churches in living memory (or only the annual Communion service, unobtrusively, say) but they never had to be revived, only extended. And from the continual full-house UUCF communion services at General Assembly, there is certainly interest.

But the sacraments are a Christian matter, not a Unitarian Universalist matter. Even the Christians in the UUA have to remember that we don’t own a version of the sacraments, only a usage in terms of the rite, ceremonies, and timing. We’re responsible to the rest of the Church Universal for our actions, especially in the sacraments.

Terri Schiavo received the sacrament

I just read on the wires that Terri Schiavo was given communion, and I’m glad to hear it.

This is from an Associated Press account, by Mike Schneider:

Schiavo’s husband, who a day earlier denied a request from his wife’s parents that she be given communion, granted permission Sunday to offer the sacrament.

The Rev. Thaddeus Malanowski said he gave Schiavo a drop of wine on her tongue but could not give her a fleck of bread because her tongue was dry.

We’ve heard a lot about Ms. Schaivo’s medical state, and I am convinced that she does not have what we would understand as consciousness. I wouldn’t want to be treated or nourished if I were in that state, and Mr. Schaivo is doing the right thing. He is taking terrible lumps from people, including her parents, who fear the tomb and its power. Ms. Schaivo is entombed in flesh: “trapped” is how I’ve heard people in daily conversation describe her state.

Today is Easter, and “Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon death and has given life to those who are in the tombs!”

We’ve considered Ms. Schaivo legally, but Christians need to remember her as one of the faithful, too. I don’t have a notion of her religious participation before her brain injury, and ideas of “good Christians” and “bad Christians” have always struck me as self-serving and moot, so enough to say she’s a member of the Body, which can be justly assumed from the context of the story. Christians ought to remember this when we pray: we bear the prayers of those who cannot pray for themselves, whether it be from injury, illness, extreme youth, persecution, or other incapacity. Someone will be praying for you too when you cannot.

Since the Body of Christ is not bound by death — indeed, we have no reason to believe that our ideas of consciousness extend past the grave — her injury is not an impediment to receiving appropriate pastoral care and the sacraments. Indeed, even in death her body will be regarded with care; so universal is this in human societies that it points to an indwelling religious impulse in human beings.

That we can care for one another spiritually, and that we have special repsonsibilities (spiritual and physical) for vulnerable and fragile persons has lead me back to accepting infant baptism and the communion of the unresponsive.

As for volition, well, the child may profess Christian faith or may not. Proper formation and a lively, sane witness come into play. But when I was waffling around and near Christianity, I always knew I had my Christian baptism (in toddlerhood; my brother was the infant and we were “done” together) to stand on.

As for Ms. Schaivo’s spiritual will, here we are left to trust that the right thing was done. We have no access to her opinions, or what they were moments before her heart stopped. But as much as I would not want to be nourished artificially, I also would want all the ministrations and preparations for a holy and peaceful death.

After that, all the care is God’s.

Faith? Order?

As I continue talk about starting a new church (indeed, what else of import have I really done since I started this blog?) I’ll be throwing out a lot of concepts, some of which make liberals and polity-congregationalists uneasy. Some are just unfamilar, and these are ideas that can be summed up as “faith and order.”

There is a Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, and I like their study documents. Definitions, from their website:

FAITH: What churches teach about God, about Jesus Christ, about creation, about the Church, about the human person and salvation. Matters of faith both unite and divide us.

ORDER: How churches are structured; the roles and functions they ascribe to laypersons, ministers and overseers; their structures of accountability to themselves and each other. Matters of order both unite and divide us.

They have a number of documents, which themselves spawn lots of very interesting debate. There’s nothing quite like (say) a Romanian Orthodox and Canadian Mennonite response to the nature of the ministry of oversight.

You should read them too, especially the 1983 Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. It is so widely used and known that it is known more simply as the BEM, but don’t neglect the others.

Since I'll be planting . . . II

A friend has asked me, in light of the de-Christianization of Unitarianism and Universalism over the last couple of generations, what would keep a new Christian church Christian?

As I’ve said before, the UUA bylaws are no help: they neither honor the theological accomplishments that would encouage a Christan church, nor seem to permit (depending on how you read them) a church to craft its own theological position for members. This latter point is the more radical shift from the tradition, since the Winchester Profession framers permitted churches and subordinate bodies (conventions, area associations) to make professions provided they included the Winchester Profession unaltered. In other words, a church could be more specific than the national denomination, but no less specific. That’s rather broad-minded, especially for 1803. (Or 2004.)

But it can rightly be argued that the Winchester Profession, being a profession, isn’t for the members: it is for the world. A way to distinguish “us” from “y’all” and doesn’t necessarily help those in the church. That may explain the lost (and forgotten) art of Universalist catechism, which dates back at least as far as Judith Murray.

And the classic goal of catechism, and indeed, the defining mark of admission to the universal Christian Church, is probably where a new Christian church within the UUA should begin: baptism. We were bidden by Christ to go into the world to make disciples and baptize. Or, if you prefer, transform and include. We are suppose to transform and include. Neither the Winchester Profession nor the ecumenical creeds can unbaptize someone, even as they help tell our tribe what’s acceptable and what isn’t. (I’ve grown to understand the wisdom of creeds and professions, even as I find some of their defenders to be arrogant and insufferable.)

A baptizing church is one that knows that it is in fellowship – however imperfect and partial – with the rest of the Christian church, and that’s what will keep us Christian.

Baptism II: the Letter

Today is an in-the-office day, and I’m trying to use this blog to make church administration easier by networking with others, thus proving that blogs are more than exercises in self-indulgence.

I’m thinking about the letter I’ll be sending out to church members and constituents who are parents of small children about dedications and baptism. Since this is hardly a private matter, I thought I’d rough-out a letter here, and open it for comments its substance.

A minor baby boom leads me to write the parents of small children about what ceremonial services are open to them, and at the same time introduce greater clarity and understanding in what we do.

This and other Universalist churches have a history of using ambiguous terms in its religious services with children, especially the term “christening.” Is this baptism, or something else? Inquiries in the last two years from a bride and Lutheran convert needing proof of baptism intensify this need for clarity. Hereafter, I will speak of baptism and dedication respectively, the later being roughly equal to a service of presentation, thanksgiving after birth or adoption, or blessing.

John Murray, the pioneering Universalist minister, is credited (justly or not) for developing the service of child dedication. He did not believe in baptism of any kind but was responding to sincere parents who felt a need to “do something” with their infant children. Some churches that practice adult baptism have a similar service for infants, and defer baptism to adolesence or later. The theological meaning of dedication is not clear, but it has been an emotionally-fulfilling gateway service for many. I will give parents interested in this service sample copies of the rite.

But as for baptism, I come from a different direction than John Murray. While there has been no unanimity among Universalists about baptism, some did have strong opinions that it should be given to infants, while others argued equally strong that it should be reserved for adults. As early as 1790, Universalist recognized that options should be provided that compromized neither the conscience of parents and baptisands nor the minister. This focus in personal belief should not be overlooked, but invites deeper exploration. Talking to church members and visitors, it is clear that the following inherited logic is present in most discussions about baptism: “Because baptism is a washing-away of original sin, and because I don’t believe in original sin, I don’t believe in baptism.” Without going into detail here, let it suffice that there are a number of ways that baptism is understood, both within and outside Universalism, that does not include the original sin dilemma. I welcome conversations with parents of infants and older persons interested in baptism about the details, theories, and practices.

Lastly, I would like to update the church on my pastoral views. When I arrived at UNMC, I was in favor of baptism but for adults only. Since then, my mind has changed and I am willing to baptize a person at any age, and also respect the wishes of parents who want a dedication ceremony only.

Do you wish to proceed? Has this sparked questions? Please contact me, and I would be happy to meet and speak with you.

Universalist Quotations

At the church website, there’s a bit of javascript that gives “a meditation from the Universalist tradition”. In fact, these are twenty-six quotations, and I would like to get fifty in all.

So, an appeal: if you have a quotation from a bona fide Universalist Christian source, please add it to the comments. (You can look at the javascript, and thus the current quotations, by saving the church index page to your desktop, and looking in the files that accompany the download.)

I’ll also post quotations as I find them.

Baptism I: Me or Us?

As I mentioned in the old “boy in the bands” blog, there’s been a little stir on UUMA-CHAT, but since that’s a confidential list for Unitarian Universalist ministers, I can’t go into detail. But I can share what I posted, with the understanding that any sense of urgency will be misplaced since you are reading this out of context. With that caveat, and with identifying information removed:

One of the reasons I put Blondie on my “Music to Meditate the Trinity By” list (on the [defunct] blog) was their hit, “Atomic.”

One of my biggest beefs (beeves?) with Unitarianism, both as a intradivine system and as an ecclesiological system is that is it consumed with atomistic thinking. Unitarianism, despite its covenantal basis (or perhaps, pretensions) is about “me,” and perhaps “you,” but rarely if ever about “us.” Perhaps, too, that’s why Unitarian historiography has for so long been captive to “great man” theory, or vice verse.

To prove the point: when was the last time you heard Principle 6, “The goal of world community” etc. lifted up?

Universalism is so much about the “us” (qua humanity, church, whatever) that it doesn’t even matter if you’re a Christian for salvation. Universalists are team-players. Christians have remembered Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, “that [we] might be one.” One of the realizations I had that led me down my present theological path is that my beliefs are neither unique nor the center of the universe, epitomized in the phrase “Get over yourself Wells!” God isn’t beholden to me.

When someone is baptized, it isn’t as Presbyterian, Catholic, or Universalist, but as a Christian. (I do wonder and worry if there’s an unsaid fear that we UUs are just playing at religion, and that other people have the real thing, so it is better to stay away.) This is why persons from the various divisions of Christianity have often based their ecumenical work on a common baptism. That’s why it is worth leaning into ecumenical norms in baptism — and then bring the Unitarian or Universalist distinctives to the table.