The Explorer’s Guide To Christianity by Marcus Braybrooke
Marcus Braybrooke is an Anglican Priest, a Peace Councillor and President of the World Congress of Faiths. Published by Hodder & Staughton, London, Sydney Aucland, 1998. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 7: Love God
Jesus told his followers, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27). These words from the Hebrew Bible sum up the disciple’s calling to grow in the love of God and the service of others. In a well-known prayer, St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253) asked, ‘May we know thee [Jesus] more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.’
Christian discipleship can be characterized as the desire to know and love Jesus better and to serve him in the world. In this chapter, we shall try to look at the ways in which the disciple comes closer to his or her Lord. In the next, we shall look at how faith in Jesus affects the way a disciple lives.
The devotional life of the Christian is so varied that only a few impressions can be given here. In fellowship with Christ, the disciple both senses more vividly the love of God in Christ and in response is deepened in his or her love for God. Prayer is perhaps the most obvious way of seeking fellowship with God, but some Christians value highly the devotional reading of the scriptures and for others their spiritual life centers on the sacrament of Holy Communion. Special occasions in a Christian’s life are usually marked by religious ceremonies, which are often called rites of passage.
Many Christians also celebrate festivals to mark the main events in the life of Jesus, thereby giving significance to the different seasons of the year, which in Catholic churches are indicated by the color of the altar frontal and the priest’s vestments. Christmas, which marks Jesus’ birth, and Easter which celebrates Christ’s resurrection, are times of joy. The liturgical color is white and gold. Both festivals are preceded by penitential seasons: Advent comes before Christmas and Lent, which recalls the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, comes before Easter. The color for both is mauve. For Pentecost or Whitsun, which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, the liturgical color is red. Other events in Jesus’ life, such as his circumcision or transfiguration are remembered on special days, as are the apostles and evangelists and other saints and martyrs.
Jesus himself was asked by his disciples to teach them how to pray. His reply, ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, has become a model and is used in almost all Christian services. The version in St Matthew’s gospel (cf. Luke 11:2-4) is:
Our Father in heaven,
Usually the doxology, which appears in some ancient manuscripts, is added: ‘For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever, Amen.’
Traditionally prayer is addressed to God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Lord, in the power of the Spirit. There are few hymns and prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit, but many which address Jesus directly.
Prayer at its simplest might be described as talking to God, or perhaps better being with God, because words are not always necessary. In one sense, a believer is always in the presence of God, but this may not at all times be consciously remembered. Lovers do not forget each other, but may not be the whole time consciously thinking of the other. This is why many Christians set aside time each day and especially on Sundays to concentrate on their awareness of God. A widespread custom or perhaps reasonable expectation for a Christian, would be to pray every morning and evening and to pray together with other Christians on every Sunday. Members of religious communities may pray together several times each day. The mother of small children may not have the time and quiet for formal prayers, but even as she cares for her family may remember God’s goodness. In Victorian Britain, many households, at least of a certain social standing, assembled together each day for prayer. There was also regular worship in church on Sunday. Today, even committed Christians may be less regular in their worship. Some shops are open on Sunday, many sporting events take place and people use the day to visit families or for recreational purposes.
There are many types of prayer. Children are sometimes taught the mnemonic ‘ACTS’. ‘A’ stands for ‘Adoration’ or praise or worship. It is easy even in prayer to be self-centered, either by spending all the time telling God what is wanted or by cultivating spiritual experiences. Praise and adoration center the believer on the glory of God. Christians hope that the ultimate destiny of the believer, perhaps of all people, is to see God and to be in the presence of the One who is Light and Love, Beauty and Holiness. The sense of God’s holiness carries with it for the worshipper an awareness of unworthiness and sin. Sin is often thought of as wrongdoing or bad thoughts and actions, but the Greek word comes from archery and originally meant a falling short of the target. Paul said that all people have fallen short of the glory of God. Sin can signify a person’s failure to reach their full potential. The letters to the Ephesians and Colossians (Eph. 4:13 and Col. 1:28) speak of the believer growing up into the full stature of Christ himself. Rather as an amateur sportsman or woman may go to watch a star and feel his or her own game is inferior, so the worshipper as she or he senses the glory of God and the holy sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, recognizes her or his own shortcomings.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet tells how, after worshiping in the Temple, he had a vision of the Lord, ‘seated on a throne, high and exalted’. He heard the seraphs calling, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’ -- words still used by many churches at the Communion service. Then the prophet cried out, ‘Woe to me . . . For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’ (Isa. 6:1-8). Isaiah’s lips were then touched by a live coal from the altar. Then, when the prophet heard the Lord asking, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us’, he replied, ‘Here am I. Send me.’
Sometimes, there has been such heavy emphasis on human sin and wrongdoing that it has produced too negative a view of human life. Indeed, it has sometimes been exaggerated so as to magnify the greatness of God’s pardon. God, at times, has been pictured as a mighty emperor and the worshipper as the most humble subject The traditional prayers of confession in many churches, often dating from the time of the Reformation, seem today to be too groveling. Jesus’ own picture was of God as the Father welcoming home the prodigal son.
The purpose of Confession (the ‘C’ of ACTS) is to be set free from the burden of sin. It leads into absolution, which is God’s assurance of pardon through Jesus Christ. In some churches people make a private confession of their sins to a priest, who claims the authority of God to pronounce pardon. Most Christians would expect to find the assurance of forgiveness through their own private prayers. The concept of forgiveness by God may seem alien to many people in the modern world and there are those who feel that guilt is an unhealthy reaction. Certainly some people may feel inappropriate guilt, but if a person is conscious of having done something wrong, a sense of guilt is natural. In part this can be taken away by saying sorry to the person who has been hurt and trying to make amends, and this is expected of the penitent, but the Christian gospel offers a promise of inner peace. Indeed, after a private confession, the priest having pronounced absolution may say, ‘Go in peace, your sins are done away.’ A person’s conscience, whatever he or she has done, can find forgiveness and peace. In the words of a much-loved hymn by Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871):
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
The experience of being forgiven leads into expressions of Thanksgiving (the ‘T’ of ACTS) to God, although there is much else for which to be grateful to God. Indeed, the central prayer of the church is often called the Prayer of Thanksgiving and one of the names for the Communion service is Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving. Thanks are offered to God for his being, for the creation and redemption of the world and for the guidance of the Spirit
One example from the early centuries of the church of the opening part of the Eucharistic prayer is that of St Chrysostom, which is still the normal Eucharistic prayer of the Orthodox church:
It is meet and right that we should laud thee, bless thee, praise thee, give thanks unto thee, and adore thee in all places of thy dominion: for thou art God ineffable, incomprehensible, inconceivable; thou art from everlasting and art changeless, thou, and thine Only-begotten Son, and thy Holy Spirit. Thou from nothingness hast called us into being; and when we had fallen away from thee, thou didst raise us up again; and thou hast not ceased to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven and hadst endowed us with thy kingdom which is to come. For all which things we give thanks unto thee, and thine Only-begotten Son and thy Holy Spirit; for all things whereof we know, and whereof we know not; for all thy benefits bestowed upon us, both manifest and unseen. And we render thanks unto thee for this ministry which thou dost deign to accept at our hands...2
The beautiful opening of the Third Eucharistic Prayer of the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book (1980) draws its inspiration from the Eucharistic prayer found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c.l70 -- t~236), which is thought to represent a tradition of the early third century.
Father, we give you thanks and praise
Thanksgiving leads into self-offering. The prophet Isaiah, as we have seen, having had his sin atoned for, offered himself to the Lord’s service, with the words, ‘Here am I. Send me.’ The classical expression of this is in the General Thanksgiving, which was included in the 1662 revision of the Prayer Book. It was written by Bishop Reynolds, a Presbyterian leader who was prepared to accept the bishopric of Norwich, to which he was consecrated in 1661 and where he served until 1676. After mentioning the many reasons to give thanks to God, the prayer continues:
And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.4
The ‘S’ in the mnemonic ACTS is usually taken to stand for ‘Supplication’, although it could stand for ‘service’. In either case, it suggests the movement from adoration, confession and absolution, and thanksgiving to the disciple’s concern for God’s world. Supplication is a word for asking humbly for something. Sometimes the word ‘intercession’ or ‘petition’ is used.
Jesus said, ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you’ (Matt. 7:7). Jesus also told the parables of the Unscrupulous Judge (Luke 18:1-8) and of the Importunate Friend (Luke 11:5-8) to encourage the disciples to be persistent in prayer.
Intercession is a central feature of Christian prayer and of prayer in many religious traditions. It is natural that in times of need and difficulty people who believe in God ask for divine help. But does prayer really change God’s mind? If God is indeed best pictured as a loving Father, does he not in any case seek the good of his children? Jesus said, ‘When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matt 6:7-8). Human parents encourage their children to say ‘please’ so that they learn not to take things for granted, but to appreciate others who provide for them. In the same way, prayer develops a sense of dependence on and gratitude to God. But does God hear prayer? At times the Psalmist wondered, and many in the concentration camps must have asked, if God listened to their cries. It has been said that every gravestone is a memorial to an unanswered prayer.
Sometimes it is pointed out that it should not be assumed that the only answer to a prayer is ‘Yes’. It may be that looking back a person can see the hand of God in what happened, even if at the time she had hoped for a different answer to her petitions. Sometimes a person who has an incurable illness, may find that his feelings of bitterness or resentment are changed, or that the concern of those who care is itself an answer. Indeed, prayer may change the attitude of the pray-er, and intercession for the suffering may inspire action to help them.
The universe, to the theist, operates according to divinely ordained laws. Does God at times suspend those laws? Does God sometimes overrule human freedom that seems to be so precious to God? Is it perhaps that whilst God always wills the best for people, God so respects human freedom that the divine will is not imposed on people? Prayer, however, may help to make available the divine reservoirs of grace and guidance. Certainly human lives are intertwined, and we know as yet little about the power of thought transference.
Probably most Christians through the ages have believed that God is able to answer prayer. If God does not, they blame their own unworthiness. In the past, a major disaster, such as flood or famine, might be met by a National Day of Prayer. Some Christians would still see this as an appropriate response, but others would have problems with it. Today, some Christians, because of difficulties with traditional concepts of prayer will, in practice, speak of its effect on the person who prays. There is an interesting passage in the hymn ‘Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways’ written by Clifford Bax (1886-1962) at the end of the First World War, which reads,
Yet thou, her child whose head is crowned with flame
Is ‘the inner God’ the voice of conscience? Is the appeal to peoples’ higher nature rather than to the divine being? As we have seen,6 some modern Christian thinkers believe God’s power in the world is exercised through the appeal to conscience.
The intellectual difficulties that some Christians have with intercessory prayer may partly explain the increased contemporary interest in contemplative prayer or the prayer of silence. Such a way of prayer was until recently adopted only by those who were well advanced in the spiritual life. Today, it may be suggested to those who are quite new in faith. Essentially, it is a learning to be quiet in the presence of God. It is a stilling of the body and the mind. Unlike other forms of prayer which are discursive and use words, contemplative prayer, which is also sometimes called centering prayer, tries to discover an inner silence. Such a form of prayer does not need to grapple with the intellectual difficulties that intercessory prayer presents for some people. It is also free of traditional religious language and images. For example, those whose father abused them in childhood will have real difficulties with the image of a Heavenly Father. Not everyone finds it easy to think of God as ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’. Those who enter into the prayer of silence may discover God’s presence or Spirit in the depth of their being, whereas much traditional worship pictures an external and transcendent God.
The attraction of this way of prayer may be similar to the appeal of Taizé devotional worship. Taizé is an ecumenical monastic community founded in 1940 by Roger Schutz. The worship includes many simple repetitive chants, such as ‘Lord hear my prayer and let my cry come unto you’, or ‘Laudate omnes gentes’ (Praise, all you people), which are reminiscent of an Eastern mantra or indeed, in terms of the repetitive simplicity of the words, of some of the entries for the European Song Contest! Like the prayer of silence, the Taizé chants help to still the mind and open the worshipper to the presence of God.
In the Orthodox church, the practice of the Jesus Prayer has been taught since the seventh century. It is an attempt to fulfil St Paul’s injunction to ‘Pray continually’ (1 Thess. 5:17). The words of the prayer are usually ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.’ They should be repeated so regularly that they become part of the rhythm of breathing.
Reading the Bible
For some disciples, it is in devotional study of the word of God that they sense most vividly the divine presence. The scriptures are read by Christians both in public worship and privately. The Bible used by many of the first Christians was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which is known as the Septuagint (sometimes abbreviated as Lxx) because tradition says that it was translated by seventy-two people.
Following the practice of the synagogue, passages from the Septuagint were read out in Christian worship, along with a sermon. This often formed the first part of the Eucharist and was sometimes known as the mass of the catechumens, who were people preparing for baptism. In the early years of the church, teaching about Jesus was by word of mouth. The work of the twelve apostles was prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2). From the sixties of the first century, accounts of Jesus’ life began to be written down (Luke 1:1) and presumably the letters of St Paul were collected. Christians started to add to their services readings from these writings. There are quotations from them in the writings of Clement of Rome (flc.96) and St. Polycarp (c.69-c.155). Eventually those writings which were thought to be by apostles were collected in the authoritative canon of scripture, although for several centuries the gospels or letters appeared in separate volumes. Even when printing made the production of whole Bibles much easier, many churches continued to include a selection of set readings in their mass or prayer books.
In the Church of England, it is customary for the Bible to be left permanently on the lectern. In the French Reformed church it lies open continually on the holy table, and in the Church of Scotland the Bible is carried in at the beginning of the service. In Catholic churches, it is carried in procession for the reading of the gospel, for which it is customary to stand. Respect is shown to the Bible as a holy book. Some Christians would make sure that no other book is placed on top of it
During the Middle Ages, readings from the Bible were often very brief. A concern of the Reformers was to make scripture widely available to the people and the Bible was translated into the vernacular tongues. Many people, however, were illiterate and depended upon hearing the scripture read aloud.
In recent years, the Catholic church has given renewed emphasis to reading the Bible and to preaching. Other churches, such as the Anglican church, have increased the variety of readings at the Eucharist and now include regular lections from the Hebrew Bible. There have also, especially over the last fifty years or so, been a number of new translations of the Bible.
The faithful have, in most centuries, had the opportunity to hear scripture read in public worship. Traditionally, Christian schools would also have given time to the reading of the Bible. Protestants especially have also been encouraged to read the Bible privately. Some have read it without notes or commentary, but others have made use of the various aids for Bible study which are available. Some of these concentrate on helping to place a passage in its original context so that the reader can be aware of the concerns of the author; others apply the passage to contemporary life; others, following the teaching of St Ignatius Loyola, encourage the reader to use her imagination to picture the scene described and thereby come close to Jesus. The believer trusts that through reading the Word of God, he or she may hope to hear God speak.
The Holy Communion
‘ "Do this in remembrance of me." Was ever another command so obeyed?’ asked Gregory Dix (1901-52), a great liturgical scholar. ‘People have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the wisdom of a Parliament or for a sick old woman afraid to die . . . tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp; gorgeously for the canonization of St Joan of Arc.’7
In most Christian traditions, the Eucharist, known perhaps as the Communion, the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper, is central to Christian worship. Here the worshipper believes he or she is in the presence of God.
H. Bonar (1806-89) expressed it like this in one of his hymns:
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
The Communion service includes readings from scripture, the saying of the creed, often a sermon and prayers, including confession, absolution and intercession. It may include the ‘peace’, when worshippers greet each other and wish each other ‘the peace of the Lord’. This is an ancient practice which has been revived in recent years in several churches. I first encountered it in the Church of South India, where it affirmed the Christian rejection of caste barriers.
The Eucharistic Prayer will, as we have seen above, include thanksgiving and also remembrance of Jesus’ words and actions on the night he was betrayed. At his last supper with his disciples, Jesus took bread and broke it and said to them, ‘Take, eat, this is my body given for you.’ He also took wine and gave that to them, saying, ‘This is my blood which is shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me’ (Mark 14:22-5). As we have noted, the exact meaning of these words has been a matter of dispute, but worshippers believe that in making a memorial of what Jesus said and did, they share in his death and resurrection.
Four Eucharistic actions may be distinguished: the taking of the bread and wine; the giving thanks; the breaking of the bread and, fourth, the sharing of the bread and cup. These actions repeat what Jesus himself did at the Last Supper.
Jesus who is remembered is both Man and God. There are those who emphasize that he was the perfect man who made the one complete offering of himself in obedience to the Father. The worshipper seeks to unite his weak offering with Christ’s. To quote from another Eucharistic hymn, written by William Bright (1824-1901):
We here present, we here spread forth to thee
For others, Jesus as God assures the believer of God’s pardon and peace. This can be seen in the beautiful poem ‘Love’, written by the seventeenth century English poet and country parson George Herbert (1593-1633):
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey‘d Love, observing me grow slack
‘A guest’, I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here’
‘Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
The Communion not only binds the believer to the Lord, but to other worshippers. This is expressed in the chorus of a modern hymn by Bob Gillman (b.1946):
Bind us together, Lord,
It is this that makes so tragic the divisions of the church which stop Christians of different churches sharing in Eucharistic fellowship. A number of churches now practice intercommunion with other churches, which means that a member of one church, say, the Church of England, can receive Communion at a Swedish Lutheran church, but the Roman Catholic church does not allow its members to receive Communion at churches which are not in communion with the Pope, nor, except in very special circumstances, does it invite others to receive at Catholic altars.
The Communion service should strengthen the disciple for witness and service to the world and it may end with the dismissal, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ This self-dedication is beautifully expressed in a hymn based on the Liturgy of Malabar in South India:
Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
Lord, may the tongues which ‘Holy’ sang
The feet that tread thy hallowed courts
There are many differences in Eucharistic practice from church to church. Some Protestant churches still only have Communion quite infrequently, whilst others encourage the faithful to share in the Lord’s Supper on every Lord’s Day. Many priests and some lay people will receive the sacrament daily.
Some churches use special unleavened wafers, which recall the manna or ‘bread from heaven’ which God provided for the children of Israel as they wandered in the desert. Others prefer ordinary bread, which suggests that God redeems and transforms our everyday life. Some Protestant churches use unfermented grape juice instead of wine and may have individual little cups rather than a common chalice.
Besides the celebration of the Eucharist, many churches hold services which concentrate on the reading of scripture, preaching, prayer and singing psalms and hymns. In some churches, such as the Anglican, there is a set structure for Matins and Evensong, whereas in other churches the services will be more dependent on the minister who is leading them.
Music, both vocal and instrumental, plays an important part in church worship. Hymns continue to be popular, as is shown by the large audience in Britain for the television programme Songs of Praise. This is why I have quoted from a number of hymns, as they convey the devotion of the worshipper. Ideally, there would have been a tape cassette to accompany this book, so that one could listen to the hymns being sung!
Luther encouraged hymn singing, but there are Greek and Latin hymns dating from the early centuries of the church. Methodism is known especially for its hymn singing, and as we have seen Charles Wesley wrote some six thousand hymns. Whilst they invite personal trust in the forgiveness offered in Christ, they are rich in doctrinal teaching. A good example is the second verse of the well-loved Christmas hymn, ‘Hark! The herald-angels sing’:
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Classical hymns are a medium of teaching and they usually speak of God. Many hymns of the American revivals say more about the worshipper’s spiritual experience. An enormous number of hymns continue to be written and some recent hymns have focused on Christian social responsibility, such as ‘When I needed a neighbor’ by Sydney Carter (b.1915). In India, some of the churches have adapted bhajans or devotional songs to Christian use and some African churches now use African traditional music in worship.
At a High Mass, besides the chanted readings and the celebrant’s prayers, the music of the Mass falls into two categories known as the ‘proper’ and the ‘ordinary’. The proper denotes those parts of the service which vary according to the day or the season, such as the introit or gradual. The ordinary or invariable parts of the service include the Gloria, Sanctus or Agnus Dei. There are many settings, especially for the ordinary -- some of the finest of which were composed by the great European musicians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685- 1750), who wrote the noble Mass in B Minor.
The Missale Romanum contains music dating back to the time of Pope Innocent II and even the seventh-century Gregory the Great The modern Missa Normativa of Pope Paul VI is now the official Mass of the Catholic church and is usually celebrated in the vernacular of each country.
The particular contribution of the Church of England has been its chanting of the Psalms, known as Anglican chant, heard at its best in a cathedral Choral Evensong. This consists of a time in barred music, harmonized, in which the first part of each half-verse is sung on a reciting note and the concluding words fitted to a tune in metrical rhythm. At the Reformation, French and Swiss Reformed churches introduced metrical psalmody, although it was in Scotland that the metrical Psalter became a characteristic feature of national worship.
Besides the wealth of choral music, there is an enormous repertoire of church organ music, although quartets used to be more common, and today the guitar and other instruments are sometimes used in worship. Campanology, the ringing of church bells, is also associated with Christian worship. Most often bells are used to call the faithful to worship, but they may be rung to celebrate a great festival, a wedding or major national occasion. For example, the bells of many churches will be rung to welcome the new millennium.
Art and Architecture
There is not room to write adequately of the contribution of other arts to Christian worship. Architecture provides the buildings in which that worship takes place and churches and cathedrals have been spoken of as ‘sermons in stone’ . The various styles each in their own way point to God, and the consecrated building or sacred space even today challenges the secular assumptions of society.
Churches have been richly adorned with stained glass, great paintings, sculptures and other decoration. Some of the plate used for the Holy Communion is exquisite work in gold and silver. Medieval manuscripts were often written in beautiful calligraphy and richly decorated. Many of the vestments of priests and bishops are splendid. Week by week new flower arrangements are placed in churches across the world and at special seasons, such as harvest, the decoration will be more elaborate, with sheaves of corn, fruit and vegetables.
Nothing less than the best is good enough for God. Through the centuries Christians have offered the best of their artistic skills to God. Some Christians today, as in every generation, question this extravagance and think the money would have been better used for the poor. Yet the artistic and cultural wealth of Europe and some other areas of the world is part of the Christian heritage.
Rites of Passage
So far, we have considered the regular pattern of Christian devotion which includes, prayer, Bible reading and sharing in the Communion. Most churches also provide for the special occasions in a person’s life, such as birth or marriage.
The term ‘sacrament’ may be used of the ceremonies to mark these occasions, although there is some dispute between churches on the number of sacraments. The word ‘sacrament’ is Latin in origin and meant an ‘oath’. It was used to translate the Greek word mysterion. Augustine defined a sacrament as a ‘visible form of invisible grace’. According to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer a sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself; as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof’. Protestant churches recognize two sacraments which they claim were ordained by Christ himself: baptism and Holy Communion. Catholics, since at least the time of Peter Lombard (c. 1100-60) have recognized seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders and marriage. In Catholic theology a valid sacrament requires the right matter, for example bread and wine at the Eucharist, and the right intention. Further, the recipient needs to be in a state of faith.
Baptism is the rite of admission to the church, practiced by almost all denominations, most of which recognize the validity of baptism by whichever church it is performed. Its origin is probably to be found in the Jewish practice of baptizing gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and in John the Baptist’s baptism ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). Jesus himself was baptized by John (Mark 1:9) and the church claimed that the Risen Christ had commanded the apostles ‘to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Malt. 28: l9).14 Various themes were linked with baptism, such as the washing away of sins, dying with Christ, rebirth or the gift of the Spirit.
The first Christians were adults, although Acts 16 says that a jailer ‘and all his family’ were baptized. Did the family include infants? We do not know, but it seems that quite early parents wanted to have their children baptized with them. This is understandable at a time of intense persecution, especially when baptism was seen as removing the stain of original sin and as guaranteeing entry to heaven. Thus by the early Middle Ages, infant baptism became the norm.
The difficulty was that baptism was originally administered to those who had declared their faith in Jesus. Could the faith of the parents or godparents or of the church suffice? The issue was re-opened at the Reformation and the radical Anabaptists saw baptism only as the response of faith, not as a means of grace, and rejected infant baptism. This is still the position of the Baptist churches and of some Pentecostals and Brethren, who practice ‘adult or believer’s baptism’, insisting that candidates must themselves confess their faith in Christ. The Salvation Army has no sacraments and has a service of dedication for children.
In the early church, a person would be baptized, perhaps in a river, by immersion, and Baptists continue to dip the whole body under water. In other churches water is poured or sprinkled over the infant. The child is named at the ceremony, signed with the sign of the cross, welcomed as a member of the church, which is the family of God, and his or her parents are perhaps given a lighted candle, which symbolizes Christ, who is the Light of the world.
Churches which administer baptism to infants have a ceremony, often confirmation, at which, when old enough, the child makes his or her own confession of faith, although in the Orthodox church confirmation is administered as part of the baptism ritual. In the Catholic church, confirmation today is normally conferred shortly after the seventh birthday. In the Church of England, the candidate is more likely to be in the teens. Confirmation is administered by the bishop laying hands on the candidate. Candidates used to be expected to wear white, and as confirmations often took place at Pentecost, that festival acquired the name ‘Whitsun’. In the Church of England and some other churches, it is expected that a person will have been confirmed before receiving communion, although in the Roman Catholic church ‘first Communion’ may precede confirmation. In the American Episcopal church quite young children may be welcomed to receive the bread and the wine. There is considerable discussion today about rites of admission. It is widely agreed that baptism is the full rite of initiation and should be all that is required before a person receives Holy Communion. Yet, it is also said that a person should understand the meaning of the sacrament before partaking of it. There are also questions about the most appropriate age. The view taken depends in part whether the emphasis is put upon God’s grace given in baptism and confirmation or whether the stress is on the individual’s expression of personal faith and commitment to Christ.
Christians have a high doctrine of marriage. They are expected to practice monogamy. Marriage is believed to be a gift of God in creation, which means that it is God’s will for all people, not just Christians. Jesus blessed marriage by his presence at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2).
The reasons for marriage are the procreation of children and their nurture, sexual relations in a context of love and security, and the couple’s mutual help and support for each other. Many Anglican and Protestant churches have recently reversed the order of the reasons for marriage, although Catholics, in their opposition to artificial means of contraception, insist that intercourse should always be open to the possibility of procreation. At times the church, with an emphasis on the virtues of celibacy, has seemed to have a negative view of human sexuality. Indeed, the 1662 Prayer Book spoke of marriage as ‘a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication’. Today the emphasis is on the physical union as expressing and strengthening the, as it were, sacramental union of two whole persons. This is why, besides being forbidden in scripture, the church has opposed premarital and extra-marital sexual intercourse. Casual relationships separate the physical from the giving of the whole person to the other. In Western society today, however, many people, including Christians, live together before marriage. Some Christians would now put the emphasis on the quality of the relationship rather than its legal status.
In Catholic theology, the sacrament of marriage creates an unbreakable metaphysical bond. This, therefore, means that divorce is not possible, although it may be possible to annul a marriage on specific grounds which mean that it was never a true marriage.
The discipline of different churches on divorce varies, partly because according to Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 19:3 and 9),Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery, whereas according to Mark’s gospel (Mark 10:2-12), he did not allow it in any circumstances. Some Christians recognize that the marriage relationship, as well as one or other partner, may die. It is also acknowledged that while lifelong union is God’s intention for marriage, not everyone lives up to the ideal. The gospel speaks of forgiveness and a new start. As a result, a growing number of Protestant and Anglican churches allow those who have been divorced to receive Communion and will bless a second marriage or perhaps celebrate it in church. A recent question is whether, if the couple request it, a marriage should be celebrated in church if one partner belongs to a religion other than Christianity.
A wedding is often a great family day of celebration and the preparations and cost will be considerable. Traditionally the bride wears white and is given away by her father. The couple’s promises to each other make a valid marriage. The priest is there to bless, and in some countries also acts in a legal capacity. The couple have to declare their willingness to marry and their lifelong commitment to the other. A ring or rings are exchanged as a sign of the union. There will be prayers, perhaps a mass is celebrated and there will be hymns and music and a reception.
Today in a very few churches there may be a celebration of gay marriage, but even the blessing of homosexuals and lesbians who enter into a long-term relationship is rare. Traditionally, following Leviticus 18:22 and some passages in the Pauline epistles (e.g. Rom. 1:26-7) the church has condemned homosexuality. The Roman Catholic church maintains this position, recently describing the homosexual orientation as an ‘objective disorder’.15 In Protestant and Anglican churches, a distinction is now often made between a homosexual orientation and homosexual genital acts; the orientation is part of some people’s God-given make-up and not something for which they should be condemned. The churches, however, tend to counsel chastity, especially for the clergy. There is, in my view, some inconsistency in the position of some churches. If homosexuality is part of people’s God-given nature, it seems hard to deny them the physical expression of their love. Further, if something is wrong for clergy, it should be wrong for laity, otherwise a false separation is introduced into the people of God.
For centuries the church discriminated against those who were illegitimate, for example in not allowing them to be ordained, thus punishing children for the sins of their parents. This is no longer the case.
A Matter of Debate
Attitudes to sexuality have changed so much in the so-called ‘permissive West’ in recent years, that it is difficult to have a clear picture of Christian teaching on the subject. Some churches, especially the Roman Catholic church and Conservative Evangelical churches, maintain the traditional teaching that sexual intercourse should take place only between a married couple. They condemn pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relations, as well as homosexuality, lesbianism and masturbation. More liberal churches acknowledge many of the insights into human sexuality resulting from scientific research in this century. They also recognize that Christian teaching has often taken a negative view of human sexuality, thus reflecting Greek and Gnostic views that salvation consisted in the soul escaping from the body, rather than the Hebrew picture of the human being as a psychosomatic whole. It is also admitted that Christian teaching on the subject has mostly been propounded by men, many of whom seemed afraid of women. At last, feminist insights are helping the church to a more balanced view. Further, if the emphasis is put on the loving quality of the relationship, rather than the status of those involved, the church can be more welcoming to people of different lifestyles.
The church has always recognized the importance of family life and stressed the responsibilities of parents in the physical, mental, moral and spiritual upbringing of children. In many countries, churches have provided care for orphaned children. They have also established schools and made a significant contribution to the development of the educational system, although in several countries in recent years church schools have been taken over by the state. In some countries, Christian schools and colleges, which offer a high standard of education, seem to minister to the privileged classes.
In the nineteenth century, some churches established Sunday schools to offer children who were working in factories or on the land the chance to learn to read and be instructed in the Christian faith. Today, Christian charities continue to express a similar concern by opposing unfair trading practices which condemn young children in parts of Asia to spend hours weaving carpets or making toys and sports equipment for the developed world. Churches are active too in the campaign against sex tourism and the sexual exploitation of children.
Most churches encourage responsible parenthood and today, apart from the Roman Catholic church, regard the use of artificial contraceptives as a matter for the couple to decide. The Roman Catholic church seemed to be moving in this direction, until Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, in which he went against the advice of the majority of those on the commission which he had set up to examine the issue. The encyclical reaffirmed the Catholic church’s condemnation of artificial measures to prevent contraception.
The Catholic church is also resolutely opposed to abortion. Since 1869, the Catholic church has regarded the embryo as having the status of a human being from the moment of conception. Abortion is therefore tantamount to deliberate killing or murder. It is recognized that efforts to save a mother’s life, as in the removal of a cancerous but pregnant uterus, which may result in an abortion, are morally acceptable if that was not the intention. Other churches are not clear about the stage at which an embryo becomes a human being. St Thomas Aquinas held that ensoulment occurred in a male after forty days and in a woman after ninety days. Many churches, while recognizing that abortion and the taking of life is an evil, accept that there are circumstances in which it may be a lesser evil, for example if a mother’s physical or mental health is put in jeopardy. Few Christians endorse ‘abortion on demand’.
Among the seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic church are penance and holy unction. Catholics, as we have seen, have traditionally been encouraged to make private confession to a priest, who offers them absolution. Laying on of hands and anointing with holy oil are part of the ministry to the sick, bringing special assurance of God’s blessing. In some churches, the laying on of hands is part of a ministry of faith-healing and claims are made for miraculous healings. In almost all churches, there will be regular prayers for those who are ill and ministers or members of the congregation will visit those who are sick at home or in hospital. Regular communicants will also be offered the chance to share in the sacrament. In some churches, some of the bread and wine is ‘reserved’ or kept after a Communion service and taken at a later time to those who are ill. The aumbry in which the reserved sacrament is kept in a church may be marked by a nearby light and be a focus of devotion. In other traditions, the minister will celebrate Holy Communion at the bedside. Prayers, confession and absolution, holy unction and Holy Communion may all be part of the ministry offered to those who are dying.
Funeral customs vary from church to church and country to country. Traditionally, Christians have practiced burial, although cremation has become common in the twentieth century. The Roman Catholic ban on cremation was not lifted until 1963.
Some Protestant churches object to prayers for the dead. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer funeral service, for example, has no prayers for the soul of the departed and focuses attention on those who have been bereaved. The objection to praying for the departed derives from Reformation objections to Catholic teaching about purgatory. According to Catholic teaching, as defined at the Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439), those who die in the grace of God expiate their unforgiven venial or pardonable sins by undergoing due punishment before being admitted to the beatific vision. Some late medieval preachers claimed that prayers and masses offered for their souls, for which the priests expected a fee, could speed up the process. Luther, as we have seen,16 regarded this sale of indulgences as an abuse. Further, Protestants with their emphasis on God’ s justifying grace held that the believer was assured of entry into heaven at death.
Today prayers for the souls of the departed are quite common. Indeed, the focus of a funeral or memorial service seems to be becoming a remembrance of the departed’s life rather than a proclamation of the gospel of the resurrection. Churches offer pastoral sympathy and support to the bereaved, but there seem now in the West to be no agreed rituals of mourning, as for example in most Orthodox Jewish families.
Catholics regard ordination as one of the seven sacraments and it is held to impart an indelible character. The ministry of the church traces its origins to Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-5) and of the seventy (Luke 10:1), although critical New Testament scholars question whether either occasion goes back to Jesus himself, who may not have had plans for the founding of the church. According to Acts 13:1-3, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned for their missionary journey by prayer and the laying on of hands.
In the early church there seems to have been a distinction between the apostolic or itinerant ministry and the local ministry. The three major orders of bishop, priest and deacon emerged quite early, although in the Middle Ages other minor orders were recognized. At the Reformation, some churches rejected the idea of priesthood and moved the emphasis of ministry from the offering of the sacrifice of the mass to the preaching of the word of God. In the Church of England at the Reformation, the priest at his ordination was given a Bible instead of a paten and chalice. Some churches, such as the Church of England, retained the traditional three-fold pattern of ministry, but this was abandoned by the Lutheran church in Germany and by Calvinists. The Quakers have abandoned the idea of an ordained ministry.
In episcopal churches, ordination is by a bishop and usually takes place at a Eucharist. A new bishop is consecrated, which makes him (or now very occasionally her) a bishop. He is then enthroned when he takes charge of a diocese. In the same way there is in many churches a ceremony when a new clergyman takes charge of a church or parish. In the Church of England, this is called an ‘induction’ and ‘installation’. It is perhaps worth adding that the terms ‘priest’ or ‘deacon’ or ‘minister’ refer to a clergyman or clergywoman’s status, whereas terms such as ‘rector’, ‘vicar’, ‘curate’ or ‘chaplain’ refer to the actual job. Rectors and vicars have exactly the same spiritual status. The difference harks back to the days when clergy received tithes or offerings from the laity. A vicar did not receive tithes directly. Instead they were paid to a monastery and he received a payment or stipend. A ‘dean’ is the senior priest in charge of a cathedral, sharing responsibility with the other members, who are usually called ‘canons’. The term ‘reverend’ is an epithet of respect applied to clergy since the fifteenth century, and from the seventeenth century it was used as a tide. Archbishops are styled ‘Most Reverend’. Catholic priests are commonly called ‘Father’. Clergy in some traditions wear distinctive everyday dress, of which the clerical collar, popularly known as a ‘dog-collar’ is the most common. Catholic and Orthodox priests wear special clothes -- vestments -- when they celebrate Mass.
For some, these traditions add to the dignity of church life and enhance the sense of worship. For others, they are a deterrent, setting the clergy apart and appearing to make the church irrelevant to contemporary life. It is unhelpful to make generalizations, as the traditions of different churches and countries are so varied. It is also important not to allow the external, which in unfamiliar traditions may seem strange and even comic, to obscure the life-giving mystery which can never be contained in human words or artifacts. As Sydney Carter wrote:
Catch the bird of heaven,
Ah the bird of heaven!
Lock him in religion,
Temple made of marble,
Bell and book and candle
Of the many books on prayer. H. E. Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer (1915, Fontana, 1960), and Evelyn Underhill’s Worship (1936, Fontana, 1962), are classics; and Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (Libra Books, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966), is helpful.
Olive Wyon, The Altar Fire, is a devotional introduction to the Eucharist which has considerable theological content Liturgy and Worship eds. W K. Lowther Clarke and Charles Harris (SPCK, 1959), is a thorough introduction to the worship of the Church, with special reference to the Anglican Communion.
1. Hymns and Praise, 697.
2. Quoted in Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer. p. 231
3. The Alternative Service Book (1980), p. 136.
4. Book of Common Prayer 1662.
5. Songs of Praise (Oxford University Press, 1931). p. 329.
6. See p. 108.
7. Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Dacre Press, 1945).
8. Hymns and Praise, 608.
9. Hymns and Praise, 593.
10. New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed. Donald Davie (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 81.
11. Songs of God’s People (Oxford University Press, 1988), 13.
12. Hymns and Praise, 626.
13. Hymns and Praise, 106.
14. The Trinitarian formula, in the opinion of many scholars, suggests that these are not the actual words of Jesus. but reflect the practice of the Church.
15. In The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986
16. See page 147.
17. New Life (Galliard, 1971), 85.