Breaking the Glass

About five years ago, I attended a day conference on the ecclesiology of “emerging church”.  I won’t name where it was, or the speakers involved, I will simply say that it was perhaps the worst-organized supposedly-scholarly gathering I have ever witnessed.  When I arrived, I was asked, “are you offering a paper?” No, I was not–I had heard about the conference (and was duly commanded by my line manager to go) about two days after registration closed, and about a week before it actually occurred.  Because so few people had offered papers in advance, every attendee was asked this as they entered the room, and as a result, only two speakers actually presented anything for what was meant to be a six hour meeting.  The meeting lasted four hours, including lunch, coffee breaks, and inept setup of audio-visual equipment, and a 45 minute delayed start while the organizers desperately hoped a few more than the 15 people present might arrive. To put it in some kind of perspective, I will say that I spent about nine hours on the train to get there and back, involving a 5:00 a.m. departure from my home.  Although it hardly needs to be said, I found this an exceptionally good use of a working day, given that the job I held was only meant to be half-time.  (As far as my pay-stub said, it was half time, anyway.  The clock seemed to have a different view.)

There was one–and only one–thing said by a speaker that really remained with me even as long as it took to walk to the train station for the journey home.  And it wasn’t something I could ever agree with.  The speaker, an ordained Methodist minister, said she had been present at a public service of “sacramental confession”, and watching the confessor with the penitent was like seeing something hidden under a bell jar.  She waxed prosaic about how beautiful it was to see this “set aside” moment, and how all sacrament should serve to separate the sacred from the profane.

My first problem is the nature of “sacramental confession” would not be amenable to a witness, let alone a public service.  In the traditions where confession is a canonically required sacrament for all the faithful, it is observed in a fair amount of privacy–the confessional box, the sanctity of which requires that the confessor refrain from further discussion of the transgressions under consideration.  Even in those traditions where auricular, individual confession is not a sacrament but something that falls under the great Anglican guidance of “all may, none must, some should”, it is not done in a “public” setting.  The general confession in the Eucharistic service is not itself a separate sacrament.

My second difficulty is the idea that the purpose of sacrament is to separate the sacred and the secular, to put the sacred “under a glass”, as if it needs protecting.  (If it’s sacred, it is powerful.  Perhaps it might be more accurate to say we to be protected from the sacred.) As someone who has read, and allowed myself to be influenced by, the works of William Temple, my immediate visceral response to this can be expressed in a single word: 


Worship, perhaps most specifically sacrament, should do exactly the opposite.  I think Temple’s sacramental theology (dispersed throughout his work, concentrated in his 1933-34 Gifford Lectures, Nature, Man And God) needs to be revived.  In one of his earlier works, Christus Veritas, Temple writes of the nature of worship as follows:

For all worship is representative, not exclusive.  We set apart certain places as sacred, not to mark other places as profane, but to represent and remind us of the sanctity of all places.  We set apart certain times as sacred, not to mark other times as secular, but to represent and remind us of the sanctity of all Time.  We consecrate certain food and drink, not to mark other meals as non-religious, but to represent and remind us of the fact that all our food should build us up as members of the Body of Christ.  The energy which I acquire from food and drink I may use for selfishness or for love, for gain or for service; let there be some food–common in its own type–which by association with the self-sacrifice of Christ reminds me of the only right I have to eat at all, which is that I may live for God. (William Temple, Christus Veritas [1924], pp. 242-243)

Temple, being long dead when I heard the speaker at this conference, was unable to respond.  So I am doing it for him.  Sacraments should break the glass. I don’t think the future of the church is well-served by putting its rituals, sacraments, habits of mind and heart under glass, as if in a museum where they must not be touched, handled, damaged by the world around them.

Sacraments aren’t artifacts of a past age, they aren’t dioramas in museums that portray what life was like in a time long ago.  They are more an osmotic membrane, allowing flow across in both directions–not the glass that keeps the shark safely in the aquarium tank. It allows an interplay between sacred and secular.  And that interplay is healthy for both sides.  It shows the redeemability (if that is not a word, it is now) of that which has not previously been declared holy; it tells the holy that its work is not yet completed.

Participation in sacramental worship should increase the permeability of that membrane–not harden it and make it impossible for things to pass from one side to the other.  It is a basic teaching of most standard Christianities that God took earthly form in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, becoming perfectly human without losing perfect divinity.  The most sacred person to walk the earth lived without fear of being contaminated by contact with the secular.

That’s the basis for sacrament.  Breaking the glass.  Not seeing through a protective but distorting glass, but through clear air with our own eyes and ears, discerning the meeting and mingling of what is redeemably mundane and the holiness whose work is not quite finished. And celebrating that the two can meet and mingle at all.

There are reminders of this every day, often outside the church.  For me, music has always been a spiritual experience, even though I bumped up against the limits of my talent for making music long ago.  Augustine of Hippo is frequently quoted as saying, “he who sings, prays twice.”  Song–not just churchy pious song–is prayer.  My favorite non-churchy prayer song is Sting’s Whenever I Say Your Name.  Take a few minutes to think about how this beautiful love song is not just about erotic desire and longing, but sacramental celebration and divine union. It breaks the glass between classical and popular music, between sacred and secular love.

Let’s break a couple of glasses today.




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