I’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.