Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Griffiss' "The Anglican Vision," Ch. 8: The Church as Sacrament

I. A Sacramental Life
We have seen Griffiss’ high view of the sacraments as participation in the community of the divine persons; for Episcopalians the sacraments are to be features constantly forming a way of life. Despite the occasional furor in our church, “because of that [sacramental] life we remain Episcopalians” (117). This is not to call for a High Anglican style as the only valid practice—we cannot avoid the “fragility” and “ambiguity” of our sacramental signs: “water can become stagnant, wine can become sour, and bread stale” etc (118). Not that we should make that fragility a fetish, but neither should we obsess over the quality of sacramental material, for “it is in their fragility and ambiguity that they show us who God is and how God in Christ deals with us; they make God in Christ present to us in their particularity as ordinary, everyday things of this world” (118).

There is wisdom for our hard times there in Griffiss’ sentence worth pondering. God is really present in an outwardly fragile and ambiguous material sign, and that is how God chooses to be present. It does not offend God to take up the least, the broken, the lowly, the humble. One insisting on fine matter, even what seems to us the very best as a sine qua non for a valid sacrament mistakes the very nature of God for someone he ain’t—that’s not what worshipping this God is about.

For instance, provided ECUSA acts sincerely in pursuing the revelation of God in Christ here below (which I presume it has done), even if ECUSA was indeed wrong to ordain VG Robinson merely on account of his active homosexuality, that does not invalidate the sacrament of his ordination, or even the practice of ordination of which his is an instance; it merely renders him just the kind of fragile and ambiguous matter through which God has a history of working. Paradoxically, the very fragility of our sacraments is their strength, an occasion for the glory of God rather than the so-called glory of creatures to shine through. In other words, sincere errors in theology would not reach down to obstruct and occlude the sacramental presence of God. As Griffiss says, “it is not in the strength of the signs…that God is present, but rather that the Spirit of God takes the signs and makes them holy and powerful” (118) for “God uses the weak things of this world to make known by the Spirit the wisdom of God and our hope for glory” (120).

I would have gone further to say “God prefers using the weak things of this world” in order to emphasize the primary efficacy of the sacraments is in God’s act alone. The secondary causes in sacramental action here below (what some fancy to call its “form” and “matter”) are not merely contingent—they are that, of course—but also are chosen for our benefit, not as another obstacle and burden situated to come between us and God. How far does—or should—that contingency reach into our worship praxis? Think of Christ and his disciples on the Sabbath (the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath), or the catholic Church’s fast and loose dismissal of the Sabbath commandment in the Decalogue for something rather entirely new contrary to the Decalogue—the first day rather than the seventh (so much for the “plain text” huh?).

II. Taking the Church Seriously as sacramental
Griffiss suggests we conceive of the entire church as a sacrament, as an outward sign in the world of an inward grace: “so too the church, comprised as it is of ordinary, fragile, and ambiguous human beings, is the outward sign of God’s presence with us” 119), literally signifying “God with is,” or Christ, to the world in its worship praxis. Though we have the “essential components” of God’s presence through the church in the Bible, the tradition of creeds and councils, etc, (124) God remains transcendent and “beyond all human understanding” (123). These essential components in the church can only “all point us to a final truth which is God,” (123) a truth “deeper and richer than any of our beliefs about God” (124). These essential components (e.g. Scripture) are not God, but are instruments God has chosen (a) for his presence with us in our worship here below, a presence intended to direct us (b) to him beyond those essential components and his effective presence in them.

Do not confuse God’s presence in his material instruments here below for God or the final revelation of himself that he intends for us. Though our direction to (b), the final revelation, begins here and now through (a) the material instruments God has chosen, it is obviously not accomplished all at once. Thus “we pray that God will guide the church into truth” (121); “all we say and do in our weakness must be [ought to be] open to the direction of the Holy Spirit of God” (124)—and we have no choice about whether we should remain open; there is no other way to comport ourselves toward God. The deposit of the apostles can only be a point from which God may guide and chastise us into a more truthful relationship with him. Who are we to tell God to shut the hell up and be done with it? To the contrary, “we are the church as we struggle; we are being the church, indeed we are believing with the church, in the process of seeking God’s will for us” (125). Or: here we stand together in struggle, seeking God; we can do no other. We can do no other and faithfully remain the church. Griffiss has a very high theology of our struggles as Episcopalians. They are not only to be expected, but are marks of fidelity, wounds signifying the seriousness, indeed the ultimacy, of our life in Christ.

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