I start with a few cautions for us to consider.
- The "Prophetic" calling of The Salvation Army - Of late there has been a particular emphasis on our "Testimonial" role on the possibility of a Christian life lived "without sacramental ritual". The big questions for any prophet are (a) are you really saying what God wants you to say, and is that supported by Scripture, and (b) what evidence do you have to support such claims. In response to (a) there is probably more support for an observant position than a non-observant one, and for (b) there have not been any other denominations adopt a stance. Sure, they respect us and admire us, but no one's joining us. Our prophetic role is either ineffectual, or needs closer scrutiny.
- Who's decision was this? James Pedlar has closely compared Salvation Story (1998) with the latest Handbook of Doctrine through a couple of posts, including a very interesting table. All of these can be accessed through his blog here. One significant shift has been the change in language at one particular point. In Salvation Story it reads: “Early in our history, The Salvation Army chose not to observe specific sacraments as prescribed rituals.” In the Handbook of Doctrine it reads: "Early in our history, The Salvation Army was led of God not to observe specific sacraments, that is baptism and the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, as prescribed rituals." Again, is there support in Scripture for this claim? I join with James on this particular point and suggest that a little more reticence should be displayed here before jumping to such a conclusion.
- Let's be careful about our "sacramental songs" - Whenever this topic comes up in Salvation Army circles inevitably someone says "My life must be Christ's broken bread, my love his outpoured wine." I'm actually a little sick of it. For two reasons; (a) it normally stops the conversation and so stops people from actually "thinking" about what they're saying and (b) what have we done with Christ's words here? He was the one who said "this is my body" and we go and say "actually 'No' Lord, my life is your broken bread, thank you very much." Is there not just a tinge bit of arrogance in those words? I certainly respect General Albert Osborne and his genuine attempt to encourage Salvationists to live a life that demonstrates Christ's love for others, but when we use these lyrics as the crux of our sacramental theology, we have a significant exegetical problem. The astute might notice that I said "songs", too. I always wonder why "O Boundless Salvation" doesn't get more mileage when we discuss this? "My sins they are many, the stains are so deep... Thy waters can cleanse me, come roll over me." Sounds a little like baptism to me.
To conclude this series I would like to propose an alternative policy for The Salvation Army. I want to suggest that the intention behind the original decision was indeed the Gospel. This was William Booth's talent; the ability to focus all of his attention on the Gospel and getting it through to the people who needed it the most in whatever way that worked. He was a pragmatist, not a theologian. If it worked, he adopted it. But if it didn't he also was quite prepared to drop it. It concerns me that our present position seems more concerned with maintaining the position itself, rather than getting the gospel to those who need it the most by whatever means necessary.
The positive aspect of The Salvation Army's current position is it's emphasis upon the potentiality of every moment in life being sacramental. This we refer to as the "immediacy of grace" and was particularly well captured in Salvation Story appendix nine. The negative aspect is that our position now explicitly states that every moment in life can be sacramental, except for those two ceremonies. They are banned in Salvation Army worship. The problem is (and this is the "contradiction" highlighted in Post Four) is that most Salvationists read their Scriptures (Luke 22 and 1 Cor 11 in particular) and see Christ's words of institution - "Do this", but then are told by The Salvation Army, in no uncertain terms, "Actually, don't do this." This, I would argue, is a cause for significant angst in many quarters, and requires either editorial exegesis, or at the very least some exegetical gymnastics something we do almost nowhere else in the Scriptures.
My suggested policy is taken from Commissioner Phil Needham's Community in Mission (pg 8)
What the immediacy of grace does imply is that no ritual can be seen as somehow necessary in order for someone to receive grace and that any ritual which faithfully conveys the gospel and adequately allows for response is appropriate.This, I suggest, keeps the Gospel as our focal point, not the preservation of a position that was adopted for the purpose of the Gospel. In practical terms this means that if, for example, it serves our Gospel purposes to hand out bread and grape juice for someone to understand that God loves them, Christ died and rose again for them, and they can have life in his name, then we do it. Alternatively, if it's not going to work because that would communicate something completely different, then so be it - try something that works. The priority, though, is the Gospel.
Wouldn't it be better if, rather than worrying, for example, whether I have water too close to a dedication (which is explicitly stated in the dedication ceremony by the way) and refocussed our attention back onto the Gospel? What would that mean in countries that are crying out for the reintroduction of the sacraments for the sake of the Gospel? Would it mean more people actually hearing the gospel message? I think it would. Conversely, what would that mean in countries that are saying "please don't" reintroduce them? I think it would similarly mean that more people would actual hear the gospel, because those people know that our policy is "do whatever is necessary for the gospel to be received by those who need it the most." They would be given permission to do whatever it takes for the sake of the Gospel.
Isn't that what we're about?
Isn't that the core of The Salvation Army's mission? The Gospel of Jesus Christ for the whosever, in whatever means necessary?
I conclude with a length quote. It is my genuine hope that this series has been beneficial in at least generating discussion. I would certainly welcome feedback of all kinds. I don't profess to be the expert in these matters, but just hope that I may shed a little of that light that William Booth spoke of when he made his decision.
Where the life of the Church is exhausted in self-serving, it smacks of death; the decisive thing has been forgotten, that this whole life is lived only in the exercise of what we called the Church's service as ambassador, proclamation, kerygma. A Church that recognises its commission will neither desire nor be able to petrify in any of its functions, to be the Church for its own sake. There is the 'Christ-believing group'; but this group is sent out: 'Go and preach the Gospel!' It does not say, 'Go and celebrate services!' 'Go and edify yourselves with the sermon!' 'Go and celebrate the Sacraments!' 'Go and present yourselves in a liturgy, which perhaps repeats the heavenly liturgy!' 'Go and devise a theology which may gloriously unfold like the Summa of St Thomas!' Of course, there is nothing to forbid all this; there may exist very good cause to do it all; but nothing, nothing at all for its own sake! In it all the one thing must prevail: 'Proclaim the Gospel to every creature!' The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it, that only now and then it sticks out its feelers, and then thinks that the 'claim of publicity' has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald; it is la compagnie de Dieu (the company of God). Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself? If the second is the case, then as a rule it begins to smack of the 'sacred', to affect piety, to play the priest and to mumble. Anyone with a keen nose will smell it and find it dreadful! Christianity is not 'sacred'; rather there breathes in it the fresh air of the Spirit. Otherwise it is not Christianity. For it is an out-an-out 'wordly' thing open to all humanity: 'Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.' (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G.T. Thomson, (London: SCM Press, 1958), 146-147).