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.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: