Discerning the body?

thismybodyFrom time to time it can be a little hard to see exactly what point any particular one of the Church of England’s articles is making. As short statements, they are relatively free of a discourse context. This is to some extent the case with the twenty-ninth article. Is it directed against an antinomian position, and seeking to reinforce the importance of moral behaviour for worthy reception of the sacrament? Or is it directed against strongly realist views of the sacrament, by stressing the importance of faith for worthy reception? (The title makes me think it is this latter.) Whichever of these be the primary force of the article, it also needs to be asked whether it ends up putting too much stress on the worthiness of the one who receives, and not enough on the grace that transforms. Continue reading “Discerning the body?”

The least believed article of religion?

bevyofbishopsI’m almost certainly exaggerating when I call the Church of England’s twenty-sixth article its least believed. But there seem to be quite a few bishops around the world at the moment who clearly don’t believe it, what with X refusing to take communion with or from Y. But far more to the point, there are vast numbers of people who move from church to church, or away from (and sometimes back to) church entirely, purely based on their opinion of the parish priest. So it is at least interesting to think about what it is saying.

XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil then.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

This comes close to both an ex opere operato (just by doing it, it works) view of the sacraments, and an ontological character view of ordination, without actually committing to either view – in itself that makes it unusual. If the articles oscillate somewhat between objective and subjective views of the sacraments, here is where they swing nearest to the entirely objective pole.

Somehow all Christian views of the sacraments need to hold these two poles in tension. Is it fair to say that Protestants characteristically veer to subjective pole and Catholics to the objective pole? I think so, and that the former tends to inculcate an emphasis on faith as feeling, and the latter on faith as observance. But, I suggest, in the end the two poles need each other. If we take the phrase often used in the Eucharistic Prayers: what we do is both “our duty and our joy.” The observant celebration of the sacraments is a duty of obedience to Christ who commanded them, and it should lead us into the joyful celebration of the life of faith.

I must confess that I tend to the more objective pole by theological and psychological inclination. First, I think, because I’m an extravert (in Jungian / Myers-Briggs terms). I get my energy from things outside me, and the performance of the liturgy energizes me in ways that my own prayers do not. Second, I tend to suffer from (mainly mild) periods of depression. Having a rite to perform, whether as congregational or presidential celebrant of the liturgy, allows me to pray when I otherwise could not, and sometimes joy follows on the heels of depressed duty. Third, as a priest, there are times when I am particularly well aware of my own sinfulness, and if it were not for a sense of the grace of orders, and the place of Christ as true Priest at his table and on his altar, I doubt that I could lead people in worship.

None of that should take away from the sense that we should desire growth in faith for ourselves and others, expect to sense God’s presence among us, and enter our sacramental meeting with God in expectation of his power to renew and change. We are all meant to encourage one another in faith, and stir one another up to faith. I don’t, in the end, want to see the objective and subjective poles driven apart, but brought together.

Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling in today’s Anglican Communion, that we’ve rather lost sight of the fact that these are Christ’s sacraments and not ours, and it is not our table to disinvite people from, or our meal we refuse to share.  Yes, the article does end with a proper warning about discipline: trusting the grace of the sacraments is not about tolerating those who are evil. I don’t mean to minimise that. But that comes as a last resort, and at a time when there are some very hard arguments about precisely how sinful, if at all, certain sorts of gay relationship are, it’s also a little hard to see how a “just judgement” can be arrived at quickly or easily.

The article assumes a default position of trusting the God whose Church it is, whose ministers are assumed (if called and ordained legally) to have God’s authority for their work. Discipline is assumed to be the sometimes needed exception that proves the rule. This default position recognises duly observed sacraments as God’s work, ordained by Christ and vivified by the Spirit, and (significantly and importantly) a well-spring from which deeper faith and better obedience should flow. That may be a default position we need to recover.

Defining sacrament

bread-and-wineIn the previous post I noted problems with defining and classifying sacraments. In this second post on the twenty-fifth of the Anglican articles, I want to note some elements of the Eucharist. Simply through regular and central experience, this ritual act, for most worshippers, is most likely to colour the meaning of sacrament. It seems a good place to begin, and then move on to others.

The basic stuff of the Eucharist, bread and wine, are processed gifts of creation. Whether one is thinking about the created order in wheat and grapes, or the human culture that processes these gifts into food and drink, the Eucharist touches the everyday world of our existence. Moreover, the sacramental use of these gifts is appropriate to the human use of them: in worship as in daily life they are for eating and drinking. In sacraments, then divine or spiritual use is consonant with human or physical use.

The Eucharist is anchored in the story of God with his people, backgrounded against the character of the liberating God of Exodus, foregrounded in the story of the God who comes among us in Christ. Sacraments are not general rituals whose meaning derives primarily from the nature of the action, but are specific rituals whose meaning comes primarily from the narrative of God with his people, and represent that narrative as Christ-focussed.

The Eucharist, as a sign and symbol of the presence of Christ among his people, is grounded in the incarnation. God’s union with humanity is profoundly materialist in his taking of human flesh. So, at the least, the Eucharist testifies to how God continues to take the material things of the world in order to convey his spiritual presence among us.

The Eucharist is always an ecclesial act. Christians meet together, and what joins them as one Body is that they all receive the one Body. The sacramental action is directed as much at the sustenance of the church as the sustenance of the Christian. Discerning the Lord’s Body in the bread is inseparable from discerning it in the people, and vice versa.

A fully rounded picture would need to pay attention to other features, which are implicit here, not least a proper attention to the Holy Spirit, and the eschatological culmination of the narrative of God’s creation. (These two themes belong together, and remind us of the transformation to which we are called, and the astonishing nature of what is promised.) I think, however, these four are useful and central markers for exploring the question of sacraments, without tying the argument down into the specifics that divide Christians.

Of the range of actions that might be claimed as sacraments, some fit all of these criteria, others fit some of them. Baptism would seem to fit them all. (Confirmation is in all sorts of ways more problematic, partly because of its confused relationship with baptism.) The reconciliation of a penitent clearly fits (2) and (4) and it could be argued that by enacting the restoration of relationships with God through restoring human relationships goes some way towards fitting (1) and (3) as well. Anointing for healing seems to fit (2), (3) and (4) but it is less apparent that there is any natural fit between oil and healing so it doesn’t really fit (1). Holy Orders can be argued to fit (2) and (4) easily, with the story of God’s commissioning of individuals for the sake of the whole body running through the scriptures, and that probably also satisfies (3) and perhaps (1).

Ironically, perhaps, the one that fits least comfortably in many ways is marriage. I say ironically, because it is the only one to be described in Scripture as a “sacramentum / μυστήριον (mystērion)” (Eph 5:32). There are all sorts of marriages which take place as exchanges of human love which are not at all related (as far as their participants are aware) to the story of Christ, the divine use of human love, or any reference to the Church. Yet it is interesting that the author of Ephesians does a number of things to get to this point: he sees the human love of the couple as capable of reflecting the divine love of Christ (1,3), and he relates the actions of human family life to the narrative of Christ’s actions (2). So most of the features noted are present in the way he makes marriage parabolic of, even perhaps sacramental of, divine commitment.

To this point I have noted only those things which at one time or another have been put forward as sacraments. Among them some share all of these main characteristics, and others share some. But there are other actions which also participate in one or more of these characteristics, and I would suggest that the public reading of scripture is in fact a most significant one. Public reading is an act of the Church, in which the nature of scripture as addressing God’s people (rather than an individual is underlined, and the church discovers its identity as addressed by God. (4) Scripture both is a narrative, and locates God’s speaking within a narrative of how God is present with his people (2). The continuing presence of the Word of the Lord in the Church is attested by the reading of actual human words (3). Finally, the use of words is entirely appropriate to the self-communication of God (1). On this understanding it is easily possible to speak of scripture as sacrament.

What, therefore, I want to suggest, is that there is more benefit in thinking of a sacramental continuum, than there is of a neat and tidy classification designed to exclude some acts and include others. The means of grace supplied by a God who has chosen to enter his own creation will not only be many and varied, but they will not despise the many material gifts of that creation. Rather they will help us see how it remains charged with the grandeur and glory of God, and point us to an even more wonderful future.

Counting sacraments, tidying up grace

sacramentsThe first of the thirty-nine articles to deal with the sacraments is a long one, which offers a definition of sorts, then a listing of the sacraments (and a note on what are not to be so considered) and then a note on their use (aimed primarily at the Eucharist). I expect to have to carry these reflections over more than one post, since I see problems with this article at every stage. In this first post I note some general issues about the problem of defining and classifying sacraments.

XXV. Of the Sacraments
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

To this article one should probably also add the more famous definition in the Catechism.

Question
What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
Answer
I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
Question
How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
Answer
Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace

One of the features of this definition (shared by article and catechism) is determined by the desire to define and catalogue (and restrict) the number of sacraments, namely the idea that a sacrament must have been ordained by Christ. Even with this narrowing, the earlier Luther included penance, seeing the divine institution of it given in the command to bind and loose (Matt 16:19).

It would also not take too great a work of interpretation to move from Christ’s practice of healing, through his giving his disciples power and command to heal (Matt 10: 1,8), to the command of James to anoint (James 5:14) and argue, if not for unction, at least for a sacrament of healing (with variable outward sign).

Similarly, one could work from the calling of the apostles, the seventy and others, through the practice of apostolic laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 2 Tim 1:6) to a sacrament of orders. The connections are not entirely tenuous. I am not making the argument here, but suggesting rather that the definition is to some extent an imposition on the biblical material to organize it in a way that suits the Reformers’ polemic.

Despite the form of medieval arguments, one cannot help get the feeling with, for example St Thomas, that the whole point of the argument is to get to seven sacraments, as a number symbolic of perfection. In the same way, one can’t help but feel here that the whole point of the definition is to get the number down to two. The later debates and arguments of the Reformation are shaped by being a response to the medieval desire to count, classify and catalogue into one coherent system. It is unclear to me that this does justice to the biblical record, the experience of the church, or the manifold nature of grace.

It seems that either one starts with some general principle or definition, as the article appears to do, or one starts with the ritual acts generally held to be sacraments, as in the end, I feel the mediaeval writers do. Neither seem entirely satisfactory: to some extent the starting point presupposes and anticipates the conclusion. Perhaps the best starting point will lie in exploring the Eucharist. Not only is it generally agreed to be a sacrament, but, by being the most repeated and experienced of the sacraments, it is realistically the ritual act that simply by sheer familiarity colours our definitions and our understanding of other Christian rituals. In a subsequent post I will take up this exploration.