Monday, April 03, 2006

April 2, 2006 - The View from the Pew

Today I am feeling well enough to lead worship, but I don't have to, because our church's Presbyterian Women group is conducting the services. This is something we scheduled many months ago, before I even got sick. The group wanted a special women's emphasis for a Sunday in the spring, and this is the date we came up with.

The women do a wonderful job. Six of them have dressed up in biblical costume, taking the roles of Elizabeth, Lydia, Miriam, Naomi, Rachel and Tabitha. (These also happen to be the names of some of our Presbyterian Women circles – the small Bible-study and support groups that make up the larger organization.)

This morning they divide the sermon into six segments. In each segment, one of the costumed women reads a scripture passage about her character, then presents a brief, first-person monologue describing who she was, as a woman of faith. Then, it being the first Sunday of the month, we move into the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, with two women ministers – Robin and Claire – presiding. Except for Bill, our choir director, and some of the choir members, the worship leadership today is 100% female.

In my fifteen years here as pastor, there have been only rare occasions when I've been seated in a pew on a Sunday morning. Even on days such as Youth Sunday, when others are leading the service, I've still been called upon to give a greeting at the beginning and perhaps make a few announcements. I think this is the first time in all those years when I've received communion in the pew.

It feels strange. But it also feels good, in a way, to know that worship is in such capable hands. We speak a lot, in Protestant churches, about "the priesthood of all believers," and today our church is living out that doctrine.

There's a common misconception that, when Martin Luther coined that phrase, he was saying something like "all church members are ministers." In fact, he has a narrower meaning. He's speaking, in particular, about the practice of absolution – the spoken declaration, following a confession of sin, that the person making the confession is forgiven. In Luther's time – and in the Roman Catholic church, even today – only a priest has the authority to make that declaration. Through tight control of the power of absolution (which, in the worst cases, corrupt church officials marketed for cash, through the sale of indulgences), the church was able to insure the loyalty even of kings. In one memorable scene in 1077, the excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV journeyed as a pilgrim all the way to Italy, to kneel in the snow outside the papal retreat at Canossa, to beg Pope Gregory VII's declaration of absolution for his sins.

By Luther's time, centuries of brazen efforts by corrupt popes to exploit the power of absolution had led to a general desire for change. Luther gave a shove to what had by then become a rickety scaffolding. The whole corrupt system – at least in the lands that would become Protestant – came crashing down. In its place, Luther declared the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: according to which any Christian, upon hearing another Christian's confession of sin, is able to say, "In the name of Jesus, your sins are forgiven."

We usually have a layperson make that declaration in our Sunday services, anyway, but today the entire service (except for the communion liturgy) is in the hands of church members. As I sit in my unaccustomed place in the pew, I'm led to reflect on the church as much larger than anything I do, personally, as pastor. That's a good thing – and good to know, as my illness causes me to rely on others to make sure the mission and ministry of the church continues.

No comments: