Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Sacramental Worship Is Not Magic

Sacramental worship is not magic. Few would think it is, at least explicitly, although its more subtle presence needs to be avoided. Magic is about control: the person who has the knowledge and power, the elements, and the incantation, and what is desired occurs. God cannot be so corralled. Whatever we do in the sacraments, it is not control God. A sacramental theology that sees God self-bound to the sacraments must not become a subtle control mechanism on our part. How such a sacramental theology I leave to someone more able.

Sacramental theology that has become a subtle form of control is analogous to legalism. Legalism says, basically, I do my part then God must do God's part. This is ordinary religion and is believed by many on the edge of the church or outside it. But it also has its purveyors amongst the moralists well inside the circle of faith. It is a control mechanism antithetical to grace. Interestingly, part of the discomfort we feel about sacramental worship that has become legalistic (by which I mean pedantic to an extreme) is that it seems a bit 'magical' with its priest/magician, elements of bread and wine and efficacious incantations.

And it is not just sacramental worship that is open to the magical interpretations. Intercessory prayer is similarly fraught with the possibility. Who hasn't heard someone say, 'I prayed for ...., but it didn't make any difference, therefore i no longer believe." I understand it, indeed sympathise, but it's magic at root.

A theological foundation in all this to keep in mind is that God doesn't need us to worship God. This is exactly the same theological insight discussed in a Christian theology of transcendence. Remembering that in the Christian schema of things God is an absolute and complete fullness ensures that we can never manipulate God through our worship. It also means that whatever we receive from God through worship is without any benefit for God, that is, is for our benefit only and entirely.

Which leads me to a worthy spiritual exercise. For a period of time attend the Eucharist with no intention of receiving from God; go only to give thanks. It is the end of any possibility of magic, and deeply humbling. And, bereft of our own desires, full of thanksgiving for what God in Christ has and is doing, the sheer grace of the sacrament can be received in a new and refreshing manner.


  1. Good and true as always.
    I think the Eucharistic exercise is an interesting one, and as I go off to transubstantiate this morning I will take it on board.
    Though my steadfast experience of Eucharist is that -the disciples knew Jesus in the breaking of the bread I don't care what your churchmanship is I think that is the steadfast experience of Anglicans.
    With regard to control...nowhere is this more evident than in the sacrament of Penance. I wonder how many people actually pass from the legalism to the freedom that sacrament is meant to impart

  2. Do a post on your blog on penance and control; it'd be good to follow the thread.

  3. Warren this is an interesting piece especially as you like to use the phrase "I'm off to say the magic words" and you are referring to the Eucharist when you say this.

  4. You can see now what I am mocking when I say it.