All the rules and conditions and exceptions and moronicity of organized religion reminds me very much of a blind man, searching in a dark room for a black cat that isn't there. I've been listening to variants on this nonsense since I was old enough to understand English, and it makes less and less sense with each passing day.
I'm not sure when this particular bit on spiritual indigestion started. One piece started at an AA meeting last Monday - a guy brought up the fact that he's been sober a while, and a girlfriend sounds like a good idea. Actually, a night of even lukewarm sex sounded like a good idea, but that was a sin. Actually, he's an inactive Catholic who's divorced, so now we've got issues of companionship, love, sex, religious rules, confession and reconciliation, and salvation on the table. And fifty untrained theologians and psychologists realize they probably aren't going to resolve this before the hour's up...
Then there was a section in Sara Miles' wonderful book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, where she is praying with people who are coming to their church's food pantry. A church Pharisee sees her laying hands on one of the customers, and starts into a rave about whether the pastors have duly authorized Sara to pray or anoint "these people," and whether the bishop should be involved, and what does she think she's doing?
That kind of nonsense makes me crazy.
And then, a Lutheran discussion thread on the GCN discussion boards talked about apostolic succession. For you non-theology-junkies, apostolic succession is a concept that says
- The doctrine of apostolic succession is the belief that the 12 apostles passed on their authority to successors, who then passed the apostolic authority on to their successors, continuing throughout the centuries, even unto today.
- The Roman Catholic Church sees Peter as the leader of the apostles, with the greatest authority, and therefore his successors carry on the greatest authority.
- Other churches who want to get in on this "line of succession" try to see where their branch of Christendom (not Christianity - there is a difference) split off from "the main line," and claim authority based on this "line of succession."
- I find very little evidence that Peter was the pre-eminent apostle, and that all authority comes sliding down from his hands. (Saying "you are petros (rock), and upon this 'rock' I will build my church" doesn't mean "you are the rock of ages, and since you were here first, all authority and power devolves from your hands.")
- In fact, there are strong arguments that Paul should be seen as the numero uno guy in the church, because he is the one who has authored so much of the New Testament. But he wasn't one of "the first twelve," so he's not one of the cool kids. Hence, no il Papa, baby. Even if he did write a whole bunch of the book we call God's word....
- At a couple different points in the church history timeline, there were multiple Popes and/or anti-Popes, in different cities, fighting to the death to remain Pope. So, any pretense that the "line" remained intact during the various sunderings of the Papacy would have easily shattered in those places (and there were several).
- It doesn't take a great mind to see that there is a big, big difference between spiritual authority and temporal, political authority. Thanks to Emperor Constantine and his conversion in 312 AD, however, the Church and State became one in his person, and people who are in power rarely choose to relinquish it. So there was a large justification for retaining the temporal authority of the Popes, and it worked that way for a long time.
Now, please, please understand this - this is not another anti-Catholic polemic. I am so past that, boys'n'girls. Just because the Catholic curia says stupid things, that is not any reason to discount the faith (and good works) of millions of observant Catholics. I hang around with a good number of Catholics these days, and I honor their faith in Christ and their service to the world.
When they bring up doctrines like apostolic succession, my eyes glaze over, and I simply agree to disagree with them. Though The Church doesn't see it this way, I see it as adiaphora - it may well be important to some, but this concept is not central to my Christian identity.
I bring this up because the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) bought into the whole apostolic-succession concept as part of their agreement with the Episcopal Church in the sunnily-titled agreement Called To Common Mission. And while I am all for "may we all be one," I thought this was one of the stupidest agreements ever forged between two denominations. The key features of the agreement seem to be:
- We Episcopal folk agree that you Lutherans can be part of the "cool kids."
- You Lutherans can't have a valid and legal ordination to the priesthood unless one of our Episcopal bishops lay hands on him/her, so they are included in this "unbroken chain of apostlery."
- None of the other kids, who still won't agree to this, get to be in our club.
Martin Luther (himself an ordained, then defrocked, member of the apostolic succession) would tell me that if I'm on a desert island (or a youth retreat in the Rockies) and there's no ordained priest around, that if I sat on a log, took a box of Ritz Crackers and a glass of Dr. Pepper, and said the words of institution over them in the presence of believers and the Word of God, then what I did would result in as valid and efficacious Eucharist as if we were at Rosary Cathedral with the robes and linen and the gold-plated tableware. I don't need to have anything else - no holy orders, no robes, no nuthin'. (Especially no stinkin' succession....)
It's a lot of the reason I became a Lutheran. It seemed like Outback Steakhouse - "no rules...just right." (Of course, I was later disabused of that notion, but the rulebook seemed less bulky, somehow. The fact that the Lutheran church didn't seem to have a position titled canon lawyer seemed a good sign...)
I guess what this boils down to are issues of rights, authority and power. Do I, as a non-ordained lay person, have the right or authority to pray with people, let alone anoint them with oil? Do I have the right or authority to speak the Words of Institution - or are those words only legitimate of they are spoken by someone who's had good Catholic or Episcopal hands laid on them in ordination?
I keep coming back to Communion - Eucharist - because it's what I have most experience with. As a seminarian, I was leading worship on a Saturday night at Faith Lutheran in Prairie Village, KS. I'd been hired on as a lay preacher while we were searching for a new pastor, and the interim pastor would show up to bless the Communion elements on the every-other-Saturday service. But here it was, time to start the service, and no Pastor. "What are we going to DO?" cried one of the church-ladies.
"Well, dearie, what we're going to do is I'm going to go in and lead worship. And when we get to the Words of Institution, if the Pastor's not there, then I'll say them. And I'll trust that if God wants these people communed, then His Spirit will descend on the bread and the wine, despite the fact that I'm an untrained, unordained sinner. If God could forgive me all the rest of the things that I've done, I'm sure He will find it in His heart to forgive me this, too." (Because I'd been sober 7 or 8 years at the time, I chose not to add, "At least I'll be sober, and will keep my clothes on, for this particular sin...")
Once, after I'd started seminary, one of my AA sponsees wanted me to marry him to his fiancee'. Neither one had use for a church; neither one believed in Christ - but both of them were absolutely sure that God had let the two of them together, and wanted someone who knew their story, and knew their understanding of God, to bless their union. I told them I had no legal ability to marry them - but if they went to the Justice of the Peace on Friday afternoon, I would be able to craft for them a celebration of their marriage which would incorporate every aspect of their life.
And it was great. I believe with all my heart that God was no less present, and God blessed those two no less, than if it had happened in a church by a pastor with all the requisite pomp and circumstance.
For my own mind, there is no action by another human being that is going to determine my suitability as a member of the body of Christ. As I wrote about a few days ago, I am not interested in rituals of flame-proofing; I have already been to Hell, and choose not to go back over the rules of men (none of THESE were ever agreed on by women!). I happen to believe that Roman 8:38-39 happens to be true - that no one gets to stand between me and the love of God.
I have no quarrel with ordination; I believe it fulfills a necessary requirement in the orderly way of the world for churches. Just don't tell me that an ordained priest or minister is the only one who - spiritually (not legally) - can perform the rites of priesthood. Because it just ain't so.
I don't need to be a trained minister or pastoral counselor to pray with those who are hurting. My Ritz-n-Dr.-Pepper Eucharist will not condemn anyone to burn. And it doesn't matter who's laid hands on who - because the authority and the Spirit comes from God, not from the hands of man. I've seen many instances where the man was duly consecrated and anointed - yet destroyed a congregation. And I've seen many instances where the person who I'd have bet was closest to God was the person least-qualified in the eyes of the world to speak for the Almighty.
Even looking back on what I've written, I know that folks can and will argue about differing standards of what is holy or sacred or whatever, and how certain practices make things "right" for them. And they, of course, are welcome to it. For me, my "holiness" or "sacredness" has nothing to do with what I've done - because my "garments of white" were rather soiled from my prior and current life. It is only "Jesus' love and righteousness" that gives me a hope of escaping hell. Nothing I do is gonna influence that one iota.
So my friends can argue about this or that theological tidbit, concept or nuance. I'm gonna leave 'em to it, and try to go be about my Master's business.