Sacramentals and Devotional Practice, Part 2

genuflecting.png

In an earlier post, I explained that sacramentals and kinetic worship, physical practices which prepare the worshiper for engagement with the Divine, were already present in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Sacramentals are beneficial to worship because they help participants to enter into a state of mental, spiritual, and physical preparedness by using imagery and physicality to consciously trigger worship.  Examples of Mormon sacramentals range from CTR rings, which remind their wearers to live worthily, to Temple Garments. Far from being idolatrous or ‘vain repetitions’ sacramentals are merely physical and outward manifestations of inner conversion and grace.  A CTR ring ceases to be a sacramental to the wearer the minute it becomes ‘just another item of jewelry’. Similarly, Temple Garments lose their importance when disconnected from Temple Worship. As Church leaders and members develop traditions of sacramentals for LDS worship, they should do so thoughtfully and prayerfully.  Furthermore, sacramentals should affirm LDS doctrines.

Sacramentals are physical symbols which recall intangible doctrines to the mind of the participant. Therefore, all sacramentals should be tied to the Gospel of Christ as set forth in LDS doctrine; pointing towards faith in Christ, repentance, Baptism, Confirmation, and continued participation in the Holy Sacraments of the Lords Supper and the Temple.  Furthermore, sacramentals specifically tied to a sacrament should affirm the LDS doctrines of Priesthood Authority and Apostolic Succession through the Prophet. Some sacramentals which could be added to LDS worship include:

  • Genuflecting or bowing to the Altar upon entry to the Chapel. The Sacrament of the Lords Supper, which takes place upon the Altar, represents the Atonement of Christ. Specifically, the bread and water represent Christ’s Body and Blood. As one would show reverence to an earthly king, one ought to show even greater deference and respect to the Heavenly King and His Representation in worship.
  • Bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus. In the Ten Commandments, we are prohibited from taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Out of respect for the Lord and for this commandment, we ought not to overuse His Name but instead use it in reverence and respect.  A slight bow of the head can help members to remember this commandment and strengthen their commitment to Christian reverence.

Of course, the above are just ideas and are not intended to be a manifesto.  Ultimately, it is the Church leadership, the Prophet, Apostles, and other General Authorities, which decide the official policies of the Church regarding sacramentals.  They alone can issue directives, binding upon the laity, which can formalise worship practices. However, in personal worship, members have more licence and freedom.  In personal worship, members ought to be guided by their conscience to use sacramentals in devotion where it is appropriate and where it can enhance their own commitment to Jesus Christ, His Church, and His anointed priesthood leaders.

 

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Sacramentals and Devotional Practice, Part 1

Hoc est coprus meum

Hoc est corpus meum

Imagine entering a crowded room, the congregation seated on benches facing a central podium, children wailing, a small altar surrounded by young men and boys tucked off to the side.  You sit down on an empty bench, you’ve been searching for spiritual nourishment, for God, and you pause to evaluate whether or not He could be here. You strain to hear the speaker over the sounds of children and adults fidgeting.  You listen as the microphone echoes that tired refrain: ‘The Bishop called me and asked me to speak and I didn’t want to but I accepted it and I hope you will bear with me because I only had time to write this last night and I don’t really know what I’m going to say’. You glance over the glazed-over congregation and see a few adults listening attentively. After twenty minutes, they sing a halfhearted hymn and the next speaker stands up to begin a twenty-minute-talk on the exact same subject, using the exact same scriptures. Is this what worship in God’s Church looks like? True, I may have conjured an image of the absolute worst Sacrament Meeting and perhaps this is not the normal experience but I am sure it sounded familiar to most of you.

What is the purpose of Sacrament Meeting? The name itself is both helpful and unhelpful.  A better name might be Communion as that single word contains, in both the abstract and literal senses, the purpose of that meeting and what it offers to those who attend.  At Communion, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is consecrated by His authorised priesthood. This Sacrament offers access to the Atonement to all those who worthily partake of it.  The bread and water come to represent the body and blood of Christ and in doing so His Spirit resides in them, that ‘those who eat of it may always have [His] Spirit to be with them’. After this Sacrament, the congregation reflects on Christian teachings through Spirit-led sermons and hymns.  This is the purpose of Sacrament Meeting: to provide access to God’s Grace and Communion with God.

Does our behaviour reflect the sanctity of Sacrament Meeting? Do we sufficiently recognise the power and majesty of God present in it? Are we engaged in meaningful worship of our Lord and Saviour who redeemed us and with His Broken Body, gained for us an eternal crown? For myself, I think that there are ways I can improve my worship and reverence so that I may be better prepared to participate in the Sacrament and better commune with God in Sacrament Meeting. One such way is to institutionalise kinetic elements into worship.

Kinetic worship is the involvement of physicality in worship. We are already familiar with some elements of this: the expectation that the priesthood offer the Sacrament to communicants with the right hand and the wearing of white-shirts and ties by the priesthood. Another example is folding our arms, bowing our heads, and closing our eyes in prayer.  These are physical actions and objects which, though of themselves offer nothing, enable us to enter an appropriate attitude of worship. In other words, they are sacramentals.

Historically, some radical-Protestants were uncomfortable with sacramentals because they believed them to be ‘dead works’ or worse–to be pagan sorcery masquerading as Christian worship.  During and after the Protestant Reformations, many Protestant groups eliminated genuflecting, altars, crucifixes, crosses, vestments, and other outward manifestations of inner grace.  However, sacramentals did not disappear–rather they were replaced with less-formalised patterns of kinetic worship.  Examples of kinetic worship and sacramentals in modern Protestantism include liturgical dancing, speaking in tongues, saying ‘amen’ or ‘Hallelujah’ during the service, and other elements of physical acts of worship.

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Protestant church, it had strong historical ties to some of the traditions present in English Non-Conformism and American Protestantism.  Many of the Church’s early members came from radical-Protestant backgrounds.  Examples of this heritage can be found in the language we use to describe Sacraments (ordinances) and the architectural layout of our churches (meetinghouses). This heritage occasionally collides with our doctrines–which are far-removed from the traditions we use in worship.  Ask a Mormon which is the most important part of Sunday Services and she will undoubtedly say ‘taking the Sacrament’. Ask a Mormon if Baptism is necessary for salvation and she will surely say ‘yes’. Ask a Mormon who can perform Sacraments and she will say ‘only an authorised priesthood holder’.  These answers are in perfect alignment with LDS doctrines but do not match our terminology nor do they easily map on to our ultra-Protestant cultural heritage. Despite the dissonance between ultra-Protestantism and Mormonism, LDS worship is steeped in a radical-Protestant cultural aversion for sacramentals; or is it?

If a sacramental is a physical tool by which the participant prepares for engagement with the Divine, Latter-day Saints already use Sacramentals–both officially sanctioned ones and unofficial ones. Some of the unofficial sacramentals members of the Church employ are CTR rings, pictures of temples, Church leadership, and the Family Proclamation in our homes, and folding arms and bowing the head in prayer. In addition to unofficial sacramentals, the Church officially sanctions and in some cases required the use of sacramentals.  Examples include raising the right hand to the square, using white tablecloths for the Sacrament Altar, using consecrate oil in anointing the sick, and wearing Temple Garments. Indeed, Latter-day Saints are quite comfortable with these elements of kinetic worship and sacramentals despite a residual cultural distrust for older forms.

As members and Church leaders determine which sacramentals and kinetic worship practices are appropriate for personal and public worship, they should be conscious in developing practices which conform to LDS doctrines, reinforce faith, and affirm the central importance of Christ and His Atonement in our lives and religious experience.

 

 

 

 

On Church Architecture

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to incorporate religious elements into their homes.  These include pictures of temples and printed copies of The Living Christ and The Family Proclamation. One reason members are encouraged to decorate their homes with LDS iconography is because the home is believed to be sacred space where the family gathers together to learn, pray, and worship God. The home is not the only sacred space in LDS doctrine.  Churches and temples also represent sacred space.  The temple is perhaps the most high profile example of sacred space within Mormonism.  Entry into temples requires preparation and endorsement from spiritual leaders.  The furnishings and artwork–even the clothing worn by the members–reflect LDS doctrines and attitudes towards the sacred.  On the outside, temples bear the inscription: House of the Lord, Holiness to the Lord.  While these elements do not define sacred space, they do help to inform behaviour, announce the sacred, and reinforce points of doctrine.  Based on our attention to temple architecture and furnishing, it might be time to revisit church architecture and furnishing.

The church is sacred space.  Inside the church members participate in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, council and confess to priesthood leaders, attend lessons and firesides, and engage in acts of worship.  Despite their status as sacred space and their central role in LDS worship, church architecture has largely reflected our ultra-Protestant cultural heritage instead of our Restored doctrine. Consequently, the architectural messages communicated by Mormon chapels do not always match our doctrines.

As chapels are involved in routine worship services, the worship services themselves ought to inform their design.  The most important events which occur in LDS chapels are the sacraments of  Baptism, Confirmation, and The Lord’s Supper. Accordingly, the doctrines and theologies around these events must be investigated and compared with current church architecture.  The first question which must be posed is ‘Do Latter-day Saints believe in saving sermons or Saving Sacraments’? Our doctrine is clear on this point; ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). Furthermore, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day’ (John 6:54). The LDS position, attested to in the Bible Dictionary and on the Church website is is that Baptism, Confirmation, and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are necessary to salvation. Nowhere, are Latter-day Saints encouraged to believe that Sacrament Meeting talks are of critical importance to their salvation.  Instead, these talks serve to edify and instruct.

Yet, despite this point of doctrine, the structure of an LDS ‘meetinghouse’ reflects the ultra-Protestant interpretation of ‘ordinances’ rather than ‘sacraments’ which do not convey grace and are not essential for salvation.  In ultra-Protestantism, the sermon and readings from the Bible hold transformative power.  Accordingly, Protestant churches typically place the pulpit in the centre of the worship space and, where there is an altar, it is discreetly relegated to the side.  Latter-day Saints are not Protestants. Why do our chapels reflect their doctrines instead of our own?

In accordance with our Restored and Revealed doctrines, we ought to restore the centrality of the Altar in our architectural layout to emphasise the importance of the Sacraments. Other architectural changes might also be useful.  We ought to revisit the layout of our baptistries, architectural style, and chapel buildings themselves.  This author would favour a Gothic design for its emphasis on Christian doctrine, beauty, and faith-inspiring atmosphere.

 

Re-thinking the Great Apostasy

The Great Apostasy

Ecclesiastical history, for a Latter-day Saint, must include the Great Apostasy—otherwise, there is no need for prophetic Restoration of the Christian Gospel through Joseph Smith. Apostasy, in Mormon ecclesiastical history, is a repeated phenomenon whereby the Church of God falls away from doctrinal purity and loses priesthood authority. Latter-day Saints see a scriptural pattern of apostasy and restoration in the Bible and interpret Abraham, Moses, Josiah and some other Old Testament prophets as men called of God to restore His truth to His people. In the Christian era, Latter-day Saints similarly read apostasy in to the New Testament narrative and Patristic period; typically asserting the loss of Apostolic authority and the resulting doctrinal impurity. Historically, Latter-day Saint theology surrounding the Great Apostasy, the apostasy which occurred between the death of the Apostles and the Restoration under Joseph Smith, has emphasised its roots in medieval Roman Catholic practices and celebrated Protestantism as a forerunner of the Reformation.[1] The Church has since distanced itself from Protestant narrative and accordingly it is time to re-interpret Mormon theologies of the Great Apostasy.

The theology of the Great Apostasy is deeply connected to Restoration, or the divine revelations to Joseph Smith, which resulted in doctrinal purity and Apostolic authority. Among the significant claims of the Restoration are: the correction of certain doctrinal errors, additional scripture, that Apostolic Succession is vital to the integrity of the Church and its Sacraments, that Apostolic authority had disappeared from all Christian Churches and required restoration, and the importance of continuous and direct revelation between God and the successors to the Apostles. Simply put, for these claims to have relevance, the Great Apostasy must have involved the loss of doctrinal purity, Apostolic authority, and direct revelation between God and His Church. Mormon theologians have routinely attempted to locate the historical instant where the apostasy overtook Christianity; however, interesting those these attempts have been, they are problematic because A) Latter-day Saints are not Donatists and do not believe that Sacraments are invalidated through the sin of a priesthood holder and B) Latter-day Saint claims of Apostolic Succession are mirrored by other Churches with historically demonstrable claims to Apostolic Succession—like the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Churches.

A possible solution to the above problems can be found in the Book of Mormon account of Alma the Elder, a priest who brought about a restoration to his people and reformed the ancient Nephite Church. According to this narrative, Alma was a Nephite priest—perhaps ordained during a period of apostasy or who had apostatised.  Upon hearing from the prophet Abinadi, Alma realised the extent of his own wickedness and the wickedness of the Nephite Church under King Noah. A political threat to the established Church, Alma went into exile and began preaching to his people and restoring them to doctrinal purity, received renewed authority from God, and offering legitimate Sacraments—like baptism.  The Nephite Church and its priests, in the days of Alma, had apostatised and did not conform to the necessary patterns ordained of God for His Church. The priests taught against the coming of the Messiah, they practised simony, did not keep nor teach God’s commandments, and denigrated scriptural authority.  However, these priests had ostensibly been ordained by legitimate priests and some of them may even have been taught the correct doctrines and practices.  Alma’s restoration, a restoration of people to doctrinal purity, apostolic authority, and authorised Sacraments was significant because it restored doctrinal and sacramental authority; but not priesthood authority which had never completely vanished.

If the Great Apostasy can be understood in a similar manner; or, in other words, if the Joseph Smith received the fullness of Apostolic authority from Peter—not because the priesthood was completely wiped from the Earth but in order to restore the prophetic and apostolic offices, doctrinal purity, and sacramental orthodoxy, then Mormon ecclesiastical historians can move beyond searching Christian history for the exact instant of apostasy; instead acknowledging the last two-thousand years of Christian heritage. Doctrine and Covenants Section 1 states that the apostasy was not about lost priesthood keys but because

“they [the other Christian Churches] have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.”[2]

This position does not diminish the Restoration, nor does it lessen the claims of the Church to complete and full Apostolic Succession, doctrinal purity, and sacramental authority.  Joseph Smith was still ordained by St Peter, by the laying-on of hands, as an Apostle.  He still restored legitimate doctrines and Sacraments which had been lost.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still the true, universal, and living Church of Christ. The benefits of this reading of the Great Apostasy are further opportunities for ecumenism and the eventual reconciliation of all churches with the Universal Church of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and increased reliance upon Apostolic authority as vested in the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve.

 

 

[1] Recently the LDS Church has distanced itself from the following texts, especially Mormon Doctrine, which was seen as problematic even at the time of its publication in 1958; however for a detailed dialogue on LDS theologies and ecclesiastical history of the Great Apostasy see: James E. Talmage, The Great Apostasy (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909); Brigham Henry Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1893); Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine: A Compendium of the Gospel (Bookcraft, 1958).

[2] Doctrine and Covenants, 1:15-16.