Saturday, August 19, 2006

"Communion for two, please": On the Sacrament(s) of Marriage

Whether or not marriage should be regarded as a sacrament is a matter of debate in the Protestant world. To my mind, the issue is not really about whether or not marriage should be considered a "means [medium, mediation] of grace," for undoubtedly marriage is the graced, redemptive work of God. Further, I agree with those who remind us that God is not constrained by His sacraments; while there are a limited number of particular rites which the Church recognizes as sacraments, any number of life's moments can be, as it were, "sacramental."

Still, some would prefer to describe marriage as a "vocation" rather than a sacrament, reserving the designation of sacrament only for those symbols in which all Christians are expected to participate: namely, baptism (and correlatively, confirmation) and the Eucharist. By this logic, rites like ordination and marriage, although sacramental in the sense of involving a transmission of God's grace, are not properly identified as sacraments because only certain ones are called (hence, "vocation") to the married or prophetic-priestly life.

So while most Protestants don't consider marriage itself an official sacrament, based upon my own experience, I would conjecture that many if not most wedding ceremonies in the COTN include the sharing of the bread and the cup. Sometimes this Communion is shared only between the bride and groom, although I have observed that couples seem to be becoming more inclined to invite the congregation to participate. I think this latter trend is wonderful, but it is not without its problems: does one announce to the congregation, or print in the order of service, that Communion is only for baptized Christians; or if not referring to baptism specifically, stating that Communion is only for "all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour," as is common practice? Or does one assume that most people know the protocol and so will abstain if they are not professing/baptized Christians? To use an example from my own life, communion wasn't offered to the congregation (only the couple) at a recent family wedding, because, it was explained to me, the couple knew that many in attendance were not Christians, and they didn't want to create a necessarily exclusive dynamic. But is this particular exclusivity to be avoided?

So, I simply ask: should Communion be included in a wedding ceremony? More pointedly, should it be included at all if not all (Christians) are going to be invited to receive? How should one handle situations like this, pastorally and liturgically? This leads into obvious questions about how the church is to minister in our day and age, with the myriad of people and circumstances with which pastors and churches have to deal. Do we need to play it hard-and-fast, or take things on more of a case-by-case, day-to-day basis?

It would do well to recall that Nazarenes beginning with Phineas Bresee have maintained agreement with St. Augustine: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." But how do we bear this out in our churches, locally, and in our denomination, globally? (And by all means, draw upon real-life scenarios in responding!)

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