Monday, 22 October 2012

On an evangelical understanding of the sacraments

I must admit to having been genuinely disturbed when I heard someone quoted as actually saying in a baptism service, “We’re not doing anything here — just making the baby wet.”
Apart from probably making everyone wonder why they’d turned up, it is not just distinctly un-Anglican but dangerously un-theological, in the sense that infant baptism is reduced to a gesture without a justification.
However, I suspect that behind this comment lies a problem for many Anglicans generally, namely what the sacraments actually do and how they are supposed to do it.
Those at the ‘catholic’ end of the Anglican spectrum may of course deny that this applies to them. Here, it may be claimed, there is absolute clarity about the sacraments — all seven of them. But I venture to suggest it is achieved by stepping outside the Anglican framework. Indeed the history of Anglo-Catholicism surely demonstrates that this is the case.
If we stick within the framework provided by the formularies that still hold sway in England — the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-nine Articles and the Ordinal — I find it hard to see how it is possible to maintain many of the assumptions of post-Tractarian Anglo-Catholicism. I understand that the Church of England accepts them as part of its ‘diversity’. I just don’t understand how you square them with the formularies.
But that tends to leave other Anglicans a bit lost, not least because our liturgy does not make things as clear as they might be. For example, it is clear in the service of the Lord’s Supper what is not going on, rather less clear what is actually happening, apart from “a perpetual memory of that his precious death”.
The epiclesis of 1549 has been removed. We no longer pray for any work of the Holy Spirit with regard to the elements. Instead, the prayer is that“we may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood”. But exactly how is not, I suggest, clear to the average worshipper. The communicant is encouraged to “feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”. But what has this to do with the elements?
I am not the first to suggest that Cranmer’s liturgy expresses a ‘doctrine of the real absence’, especially when you realize that manual acts, supplementary ‘consecration’ and consumption of any remaining bread and wine are all additions to his 1552 liturgy. Even the ‘Amen’ at the end of the narrative of institution but before reception was introduced later.
And as if these realizations were not enough, the so-called ‘Black Rubric’ is abundantly clear:
... no Adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.
We are tempted to conclude our clergyman quoted at the beginning may be on the right track. There really does seem to be nothing to see here! Thus when the Catechism famously defines a sacrament as “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”, the puzzle for many Anglicans is how the ‘outward sign’ conveys the ‘inward grace’. Do we need the sign at all?
Some time ago, however, my reading of Martin Luther suggested an elegant solution, which is in fact reflected in Cranmer’s own writings about the Lord’s Supper, namely that sermons and sacraments should be regarded as different versions of essentially the same thing.
The concept is clearer in Luther, I think because his doctrine of the word was central to his theology in a way that it was perhaps not for Cranmer. Nevertheless, when we read Cranmer and the Anglican Formularies in the light of what Luther says, his doctrine of the word certainly fits with our practice of the sacraments.
For Luther, the word of God was the ultimate way in which God acted in the world through the Church. All Christian ministry was therefore ‘word’ ministry. Thus he wrote in 1523,
Mostly the functions of a priest are these: to teach, to preach and proclaim the Word of God, to baptize, to consecrate or administer the Eucharist, to bind and loose sins, to pray for others, to sacrifice, and to judge of all doctrine and spirits. Certainly these are splendid and royal duties. But the first and foremost of all on which everything else depends, is the teaching of the Word of God. For we teach with the Word, we consecrate with the Word, we bind and absolve sins by the Word, we baptize with the Word, we sacrifice with the Word, we judge all things by the Word. (LW 40:21)
And it is the word of God which makes the elements of the sacraments ‘sacramental’. Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper, however, is often misunderstood at this point, partly because he retained the use of the word ‘Mass’, but more because he insisted on a doctrine of ‘real presence’.
It would be a major mistake, however, to imagine that Luther thereby retained a ‘Romish’ view of things. On the contrary, he emphatically denied the notion that the Mass was in any sense ‘sacrificial’. His doctrine of the bodily presence of Christ, meanwhile, was born partly out of stubbornness, partly out of conviction, but mostly, in my view, out of a real fear of ‘mysticism’.
Luther had grown up in a spiritual tradition which laid a great emphasis on the inward journey of the soul as the means to an encounter with God. It was precisely this, however, which led to his fearfulness of divine judgement, for at the ground of his own soul, he found only sinfulness. For Luther, the external righteousness of Christ was the assurance of salvation from this inward sin. Therefore in the sacrament of the Mass, Christ had to be located externally, rather than found “in your heart”.
Added to this, Luther maintained that God “is everywhere at the same time, and essentially and personally fills heaven and earth and everything with his own nature and majesty, in accordance with the Scriptures” (LW 37:62). Therefore (contra Cranmer), it is perfectly possible for Christ to be both ‘in heaven’ and simultaneously ‘in the bread and wine’.
Thus Luther had a different doctrine from the ‘Reformed’, and different from that held by Cranmer. Nevertheless, for him the word remained central:
In the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed, God’s Word is the chief thing. Therefore, do not look only upon the water, the bread and wine, but rather connect with them the words, “Take, eat”; “Do this in remembrance of me,” and “Drink of it, all of you.” Learn these words; in them the sacrament is summed up; if you have lost these words, you have lost the sacrament. (LW 51:188)
And it is here, despite the Anglican difference from Luther, that we can find help in understanding the sacraments and the way in which they benefit us, for the Word is the same in the sacraments as in the sermon. The difference is not that one is a ‘ministry of the sacraments’ and the other a ‘ministry of the word’, but that whilst in the latter the word is ‘broadcast’, in the former it is delivered individually:
When I preach his death, it is in a public sermon in the congregation, in which I am addressing myself to no one individually; whoever grasps it, grasps it. But when I distribute the sacrament, I designate it for the individual who is receiving it; I give him Christ’s body and blood that he may have forgiveness of sins, obtained through his death and preached in the congregation. This is something more than the congregational sermon; for although the same thing is present in the sermon as in the sacrament, here there is the advantage that it is directed at definite individuals. In the sermon one does not point out or portray any particular person, but in the sacrament it is given to you and to me in particular, so that the sermon comes to be our own. For when I say: “This is the body, which is given for you, this is the blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins,” I am there commemorating him; I proclaim and announce his death. Only it is not done publicly in the congregation but is directed at you alone. (LW 36:348)
Once I grasp this, I see that I do not have to don a ‘Catholic’ hat to have a strong view of the sacraments. Rather there is one, evangelical, understanding of both ‘word’ and ‘sacrament’.
The elements of the sacrament make clear their ‘personal’ targetting, by identifying both who receives them and that they have indeed been delivered. But it is the word which conveys the benefit of the sacrament, just as it does in a sermon, by holding out to the individual something of which faith can then take hold.
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  1. John, I do believe that the Word of Scripture, and the subsequent words of the preacher, are only a foretaste of the IUncarnate Word, whom we receive, by Christ's provenance, in the sacrament of his body and blood in the Eucharist. Only in this way does Christ truly 'come alive' in us. and as we receive Him in this way, whether singly or in the midst of a great congregation, we are joined by the Holy Spirit to Jesus and to one another.

    If we rely on the written word only - or even words spoken by the preacher, it is akin to the seed spoken of by Jesus, that may, or may not, become effectively planted in the ground. This is why Jesus provided the sacramental means of our bodily reception of His divine life, in the Eucharist. We are then equipped, by Him, for the mission He has in mind for us: Which is to love God, and our neighbour as ourselves (knowing,intimately, God's indwelling love for us). With Paul we can then say: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who is living in me!"

  2. This Anglo-Catholic would probably want to say more than you have said about the Sacraments, but certainly not less. They are indeed intimately connected with the proclamation of the Word. Indeed, one thing that makes me (and lots of ACs I know) annoyed on the subject is the assumtion of (in my experience) some MOTR people that there is a separate "Magic" bit of Christianity.

    Two anecdotes:

    1. An AC priest friend was asked by a MOTR neighbour how to consecrate extra elements for a service of distribution of HC when the neighbour was away, with no other priest to cover. Incidentally, my friend's view, as an AC, was that such a service was inappropriate and they should have a plain preaching service instead. However, he told her to over-consecrate at the previous mass and reserve the elements. The MOTR neighbour's response was "aren't there just some magic words I can say?" No, my AC friend replied. Because the unity of the proclamation of the word shouldn't be broken.

    2. We use white wine for communion in my church. A MOTR ordinand on placement asked why we didn't use red, because that would be a plainer sign of blood. Was mystified at the thought that the operative principle of the sacrament was the power of the Word. But tthat is bread and butter (well, not butter!) to me.

    Fr Simon Fisher

  3. MOTR? (did I miss something).

    I think lots of Evangelicals (not just Anglicans) have a low view of 1 or both sacraments. If they read, bot just Luther, but most Reformers they would be I think surprised or even horrified by what they said. Take a look at the Westminster Confession of faith chapters 27 & 28 and corresponding bits in the 2 catechisms to see.

    2 really useful very short popular level books by Bob Letham are really helpful. "Baptism: The waters that unite" & "The Lord's supper: eternal word in bread & wine".

    In the later he looks at John 6 and shows how Jesus rules out a Roman understanding (elements changing), but by faith in the meal we do feed on Christ's body, by faith. If we did not do that we would still be Christians but the weaker for it.

    Darren Moore

  4. "I think lots of Evangelicals (not just Anglicans) have a low view of 1 or both sacraments. If they read, bot just Luther, but most Reformers they would be I think surprised or even horrified by what they said. Take a look at the Westminster Confession of faith chapters 27 & 28 and corresponding bits in the 2 catechisms to see."

    This is also true of the few confessional reformed churches in this country - even if they start off with the divine elevator view of Calvin, they end up in Zwingli's memorialism.

  5. MOTR is presumably Middle Of The Road.

    I was taught in training never to break bread without also breaking the word (i.e. no Communion service without at least a brief homily). Both depend on the Word.

  6. "Then they are very naughty"

    I think it's partly rationalism, partly scriptural (calvin's basic view relies on filling in a lot of gaps), and mainly down to spending more time explaining the ways in which Christ is not present than spending time on the ways in which He is.

    1. Calvin fills in gaps!! wash your mouth out!!

      To be fair I used to find that. BUT, look up every NT ref to baptism and we see that it "does" something. Evangelicals are afraid if we say that we become "Catholic", but there is a reason why they think as they do and although I think they are wrong (in quite a serious way) they aren't daft and I get it.

      Baptism does all the things that circumcision did and like it doesn't do the good that it can without being joined with faith. Same with Communion. There aren't so many direct texts there, but there are 2 references in 1 Cor, I think John 6 applies to it and I think there are other allusions to. I think take all that together, Calvin doesn't go beyond that.

      I don't say that because I believe in the infallibility of Calvin (although I do often sound like that, just as John & Ro do about Luther), but because I think anything less than the full-blown Reformed doctrine of the sacraments leads us either to mysticism, or doing things for no apparent reason.

    2. Oh, I fully believe it does something, I just have an Evangelical rather than evangelical understanding of it.

    3. Does Evangelical mean Reformed, evangelical mean Zwinglian?

  7. "whilst in [the sermon] the word is ‘broadcast’, in [the sacrament] it is delivered individually"

    As much as I hesitate to split hairs with the great Reformer, this distinction holds true only as far as the actions of the minister are concerned. Surely the word I preach is dead until the Spirit brings it to life in the soul of the hearer and makes it theirs; looking at it that way, the sermon is as much an individual ministry as the Lord's Supper is. "For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit" - Institutes (1559), VII.4.

  8. MOTR… I’m glad someone explained that. I thought it was something to do with Tolkien or role-playing games.

    Calvin and the other Reformed wouldn’t have disagreed with Luther that God’s nature is ubiquitous- the so-called “extra-calvinisticum” made exactly that point. Their disagreement was over Christology: Luther held that there was a direct communication of attributes between the 2 natures of Christ, so that the human nature could be everywhere, including in the element. Calvin et al saw this as compromising the humanity of Christ, and thus his willingness to save as a sympathetic mediator.

    It is very important to see that Cranmer wasn’t working in isolation: he was part of a broad Reformed network. Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli were in England advising him, and he was in regular touch with Calvin, and Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, among others. The Anglican doctrine of the sacraments fits into this very well as an example of the Reformed consensus on the sacraments.

    A vital part in this consensus, which we haven’t mentioned yet, is the work of the Holy Spirit. For the Reformed, he was the link between the human receivers of the sacraments on earth, and Christ’s humanity at the right hand of God. This prevents both the over-realised eschatology of the Catholic and Lutherans, and the under-realised eschatology of the Zwinglians. Maybe one criticism of Catholic and Lutheran accounts of the Lord’s Supper is that they are insufficiently Trinitarian, because they give little place to the Spirit? The Spirit is received by hearing with faith, Galatians 3:2- hence the word is necessary. So as Bernard said, there should be no communion service without opening up the word (I wish my chapter means would grasp that).

    I think that all Anglicans, evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, or whatever, tend to devalue the sacraments by giving them indiscriminately. I mean by baptising whatever babies are brought to us- using baptism as an “evangelistic opportunity” and getting parents to do Christianity Explored is no excuse. Or by giving communion to anyone who comes forward for it. Whatever we say, by doing that we give the impression that the sacraments don’t really matter. Maybe this is unavoidable while the church is viewed as “belonging” to everyone who lives in a parish, whether they believe and gather, or not. This is where confessionally Reformed churches like Darren’s have got it right.

    Stephen Walton

    1. Amen & Amen!
      We're not as "strict" as some, but there is some framework for fencing the table, when need be. As has been said about time management, and it fits so many other things, "our nos, give value to our yes-s"

      basically - what Steve said

  9. (This is a repost of a comment I have made on another blog.)

    Thanks for picking this up.

    As you have indicated, the crucial difference between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals regarding the Lord's Supper, as with the Lutherans and the Reformed, is, I think, over the manner in which Christ is present. Lutherans and Anglo-Catholics take one view, Anglican evangelicals and the Reformed take another. (though not necessarily a shared view).

    Thus Article XIX steers a careful path, asserting an 'Augustinian' view that the 'wicked' "do carnally and visibly press with their teeth ... the Sacrament ", but it does not go as far as Luther, who is happy to say that "the true body of Christ is crushed and ground with the teeth" (LW 37:300). The Article, however, adds regarding the wicked, "yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ".

    Anglican evangelicals can live with this last statement, but, as I say, are often left with no effective 'sacramental' doctrine, in that they are unclear how the benefits of Christ are received in the sacraments.

    This is where I have tried to steer the discussion, and here, Lutherans, Anglican evangelicals and the Reformed are all in agreement. The benefits of the sacraments - both of them - are received in the same way that the benefits of the gospel are received more generally, namely through faith; indeed 'faith alone'.

    It is this agreement which made me refer to Luther's stubbornness. One gets the distinct impression he did not want to agree with the Reformed, and that was a great shame.

    In the present, however, my hope it that evangelicals can gain an appreciation for the two 'sacraments of the gospel' once they understand them as being in essence no different from the wider ministry of the word that draws us to the Word of God.

    What remains to be explored is whether Anglo-Catholics could meet on the same ground, now that some of the sharpness has gone out of some of our disputes.

  10. I might be wrong, but didn't someone try that at the Diet of Ragensberg? A meeting of Roman Catholic, Lutheran & Reformed. They managed to achieve high levels of agreement, Calvin was positive about it but Luther, the Pople and senior Cardinals were not. All sides having a high view of catholicity.

    There was also some debate in Northern France, I think around the 8th C, where 1 side took a view that looks remarkably Roman and the other pretty similar to what we might now call Reformed.

    So, we could have another go. BUT the problem with things like ARCIC, is that they go for wordings that give maximum agreement, but everyone walks away with exactly the same understanding, often mutually exclusive to the other. We might be using the same words but different dictionaries!

    It was quite a while ago when I read the Martyr, John Bradford's "The Hurt of hearing the Mass". But it really struck me then, these issues are not "secondary", but go to the heart of the gospel. His 3 concerns were;

    1st those were "series" lacked assurance from the Mass
    2nd those who weren't got false assurance, thinking that the Priest got rid of their sins, so they could live as they pleased (I still come across this)
    3rd that in proclaiming a real presence in on the "altar", identify themselves as themselves as false teachers, according to Jesus' warnings about people who say, "there he is"

    Now, that might have put a bit of sharpness back (sorry). But I think going over common ground is of some value (assuring catholics that communion isn't just like tea & coffee after church). But what is useful is working out what/where differences are, not just perceived. Rather than just wording things, where we all agree with the words, but all disagree with each others understandings. That's the big contrast between church statements now and in the past. But I'd argue that in the past, differing sides actually had a BETTER grasp of what each other thought.

    John Ball, the Puritan once said the point of these debates etc. as well is not to identify our differences (although we have to start with that), but ultimately to bring greater understanding and therefore unity.

  11. Have people read the BCP Baptism service lately? I wonder how many evangelical Anglicans would be happy to use it?

    Marc Lloyd
    East Sussex