When is a sacrament

not a sacrament?


I have always been a committed Christian and as far as I can see it does no harm at worst and is a blessing at best. Recently, I have observed some mixed messages at the church of St John the Divine in Sale.

The eucharist is the most sacred of the sacraments and I try never to miss it but I have been given cause to wonder what it all means. The belief in the transubstantiation requires a leap of faith but I can cope with that, what bothers me is when it becomes a bridge too far.

The eucharist is the most sacred of all the sacraments, being the re-enactment of the last supper. I honour it as I have honoured it all my life, but it is being taken too far when it is taken to encompass all manner of secular pastimes as an integral part of the sacrament. The proposition is that everything from the opening of the service at 10:30am to the withdrawal from the church of the clergy is the sacrament.

That would mean that for as long as the clergy stay in the church then the sacrament is ongoing. What a thought! One may imagine all sorts of worldly behaviour being carried on as the sacrament. I might be able to conjure up the thought of some of the Irish priests reading out the racing results before giving the dismissal. The dismissal has little to do with the sacrament - witness the fact that some visiting priests finished the post communion prayer, then gave the dismissal at the altar and made directly for the vestry without even glancing down the aisle. No final hymn, no gathering at the back of the church.

The truth is that parading down the aisle in a procession is just so much theatre and certainly nothing to do with walking in Christ's shoes.

We had better hope that the clergy never decide to stay there all day and all night!

If everything between those two points in time is to be classed as part of the sacrament then it would include the social notices, e.g. beer at the Belmore on Tuesday and bingo and curry on Friday. I don't doubt that Christ had something else in mind when he said "do this in rememberance of me".

He certainly did not demonstrate the recesion down the aisle of the church as something that should be done in rememberance. For one thing, for hundreds of years there were no churches, only upper rooms and lower rooms in dwelling houses. The Church was a secret society.

The clergy should become more careful of what they offer in the way of secular run of the mill stuff as being sacred and consecrated, lest they offer more than a Christian can swallow.

The dismissal is often taken as the end of the sacrament and takes the form of "go in peace to love and serve the lord", or in Latin, "ite missa est". But if those words mark the end of the sacrament why has man put it there after the hymn singing and the social notices and the fond farewells of the clergy. It looks like a rather crude ploy to prevent anyone leaving the church until the clergy have had their moment which is nothing to do with the sacrament.

The Roman Catholic faith actually makes it a sin to miss the mass on Sunday but it has the desireable consequence of knowing when the sacrament starts and finishes (otherwise one would not know if one had missed it), so one could know what the definition of the sacrament was. I can vouch for the fact that very sensibly it is reckoned as starting after the Gospel reading and the sermon and at the beginning of the of the consecration. Quite rationally, it is reckoned as finishing when the communion finishes. So, we all know where we stand.

There is further confusion from the mixed messages that are sent. On the one hand one may characterise the church as a place of worship and therefore only for Christian worship, but I have known a brass band to play around the altar in the Chancel, and twice a year it is turned into a bazaar with all sorts of very secular transactions being played out.

I have also witnessed rival supporters of football teams bantering with one another across the aisle. Is it really a place of worship? Churches used to be a place of sanctury for the oppressed by the oppressors, but not any more.

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