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|Altar with Lectern in Foreground, Sacred Heart Chapel|
Saint Benedict's Monastery, St. Joseph, MN
There is a ring of truth to this. The Church long ago determined that Sacraments administered by scoundrels are still means of God's grace. Poor theology doesn't turn the Blood of Christ into poison, but poor theology can do great damage to the Body of Christ as expressed in the assembly of the faithful.
I deeply respect the emphasis on preaching. The pulpit should not be approached lightly. As important as sermons and homilies are, though, the Sacraments are infinitely more vital.
Let us consider more fully what we mean by ordination to Word and Sacrament. We go to seminary and take classes to learn and practice preaching. Preaching is an art upon which we can improve. We should be concerned with what is said in the Church's pulpits and exercise discretion when inviting guest and lay preachers. I'm not advocating for lowering the bar of preaching; on the contrary, I am completely convinced that we need a homiletical revival and a renewed emphasis on Scripture in our preaching. I've heard too many sermons in which well-meaning presbyters fail to consider the full implication of their words.
But we must recognize that ordained ministry is not defined by areas in which we risk doing harm. It's defined by the call of the Holy Spirit affirmed by the Church. And while we're on the topic of things in the ministry that can do great harm if done poorly: building management, pastoral care, faith formation, budgeting, and running a committee or staff meeting all carry with them the terrible truth that they can fracture the Church. We learn all of these things in seminary and "on the job." This is why we expect our clergy -- and indeed, most of our parish leadership, staff and non-staff -- to undertake some form of continuing education. Ministry involves quite a bit of risk, but that is not the threshold of ordination.
What sets the ordained presbyter apart is the Sacraments.* We cannot improve upon the Sacraments through classes or workshops. Sure, we might better be able to chant different sections, memorize specific prayers, grow more relaxed in the manual acts, and learn to think more carefully about the rubrics, but none of that makes the Sacrament itself better. Proclamation of the Gospel is the common vocation of all Christians, but presiding over the Sacraments is the specific domain of ordained pastors and bishops.
Everything else that we do -- be it preaching or pastoral care or even the budget -- flows from our authority as celebrants of the Sacraments. It is the Sacraments, those physical means of God's grace, that set us apart as the Body of Christ.
Yes, everything else we do has real-world consequences. Preaching and pastoral care and faith formation and budget work can all set a parish up to do well or ruin lives. But only the Sacraments bring God's grace to us. Only they have that sense of numinous awe, that weight of glory. It's not that these other aspects of ministry are unimportant; far from it. Rather, it's that the Sacraments are paramount.
*Again, I write this in recognition that deacons in other traditions are permitted to celebrate other Sacraments, especially Holy Baptism, and that UM deacons might even have the bishop's permission to preside at the Altar.