Infinite Sacraments


Unprogrammed Quakers reject sacraments, for two reasons. First, all is holy, so separating profane from holy creates false distinctions. Second, the Light needs no external vehicles to be effective. It is internal, already within every person. To act according to it requires only willing cooperation, and willing cooperation does not require ritual.

-- Patricia Williams, from her article "Quakerism and the Jesus Seminar", in the July-August 2007 issue of The Fourth R.
There is a difference in my mind between rituals and sacraments. Rituals can be interesting, meaningful, cathartic, serious, funny, perhaps even vulgar. Sacraments can be many of those things as well, but with a difference: they are also precious. And it is the preciousness of sacraments that I don't care for.

Christians cannot even agree among themselves how many sacraments there are, or what is and isn't a sacrament. Some say foot washing is a sacrament, others say confession. Eastern Orthodoxy views sacraments differently from the Western churches. The Roman Catholic Church says there are seven. Most Protestants say there are two. Quakers say there are zero, which is actually a way of saying that there are an infinite number, because the holy is found everywhere.

A sacrament that has immense significance in many Christian churches is communion, also known in some circles as the Eucharist, also known in some circles as the Lord's Supper. Last Sunday I attended a small progressive church, which celebrated communion as part of its service. I stayed seated during that portion of the service. I did not, however, begrudge those who lined up for the bread and the wine. On the contrary--I appreciated the fact that what they were doing had meaning for them, and it was even rather moving to watch them do it. But it just wasn't for me.

I believe that once acts, rituals, and practices are divided into categories of sacramental and non-sacramental, then those that fall on the sacramental side of the divide take on so much meaning that too much just ends up being at stake. We know that a lot must be at stake, because so much time is spent among Christians debating who is even allowed to participate in communion. Do you have to belong to the denomination and believe all that the church teaches (the most restrictive requirement), do you have to be baptized (thus bringing a second sacrament into the picture), or is it available to all who wish to participate? This matter has great significance to many Christians. Even for those churches that practice open communion, there is frequently an expectation that the participant approach the altar with all due self-reflection and seriousness.

I'm all for self-reflection and seriousness, but when push comes to shove, I think we all need to just relax. It is my belief that nothing is actually at stake in any of this. I think we need to stop making things so damned precious. I would argue that God's grace isn't dependent on following certain rules about who can do what ritual. Rituals are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. I would like to suggest that there is value in finding the holy, in all its myriad forms, throughout our lives, instead of trying to box it in to a fixed set of practices and then giving those practices an elevated level of importance.


Cynthia said...

The same could be said of ordination. We make it so precious. On one hand it should be, because we don't want put harmful folks in charge of others' spiritual well-being. On the other hand, we've made ordination so precious that we've elevated clergy to a point that can make many ineffective and burnt out and water down the ministry of laypeople.