Colin Podmore considers the threats to the sacraments
Since 2015 the initials ‘DG’ and ‘FD’ on our coins have again become ‘DEI GRA’ and ‘FID DEF,’ giving the sense that these are words, not just initials. They are, of course, Christian words: Dei Gratia (‘By the grace of God’) and Fidei Defensatrix (‘Defender of the Faith’). The latter title has been borne by English and British sovereigns since Pope Leo X conferred it on King Henry VIII in 1521 in recognition of his theological treatise Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’), in which he defended the sacraments in the face of the attack on them by Martin Luther. Henry VIII began writing it in 1519—five hundred years ago this year. Imitating King Henry VIII is not generally part of Forward in Faith’s role, but in this one respect it is. Part of our calling in today’s Church of England is to be watchful and faithful in defending all seven of the sacraments of the Church.
The Seven Sacraments in the Articles, the Prayer Book and the Canons
Those who are eager to equate the Church of England with Continental Protestantism might imagine that the Reformation destroyed more of the Church’s sacramental life in England than was actually the case. Article XXV of the Thirty-Nine Articles did distinguish between baptism and holy communion, as the ‘two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel,’ and the other ‘five commonly called Sacraments,’ but most of them fared better in the Church of England than they did in many Protestant churches.
The Prayer Book retained confirmation by a bishop, with a rite based on the pre-Reformation Sarum (Salisbury) Rite, including the traditional prayer for the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit before the bishop lays his hand on the head of each candidate. (NB ‘hand’ is singular: one hand for confirmation, two hands for ordination.) And confirmation is explicitly linked with baptism: the last words of the baptism rite are the priest’s instruction to the godparents that they are to ‘take care that this Child be brought to the Bishop to be confirmed by him so soon as he can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.’ In Anglicanism, confirmation is part of Christian initiation.
In the Prayer Book, matrimony too is more conservative than in Continental Protestantism. As in baptism and holy communion, sacramental signs are to the fore: the preface speaks of marriage ‘signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church,’ and (to the distress of Puritans) a ring was still its effective sign: ‘with this ring I thee wed.’ Signs and ‘signifying’ are part of the language of sacraments.
The Church of England retained ordination to the threefold ministry by bishops in the historic succession, and the ministry of absolution is central to the Church of England’s understanding of priesthood as it is expressed in the 1662 Ordinal. When the bishop lays on hands (plural!) at the ordination of a priest, he says: ‘Receive the holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained…’ In the visitation of the sick, the sick person can make his or her confession, in response to which the priest speaks these powerful words: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins…’
Only the anointing of the sick finds no place in the Prayer Book. Retained in 1549, it was removed in 1552. In 1935–6 the Convocations (provincial synods) of Canterbury and York approved new rites for anointing the sick, now superseded by those in Common Worship. And anointing of the sick is back in the canons too (see Canon B 37). Of course, anointing did not disappear from the Church of England completely. Kings and queens continued to be anointed with the oil of chrism at their coronation. In this, as in so many other things, our church and state are more conservative than most: following the Queen Mother’s death, our present Queen is the only anointed queen left in the world.
The Seven Sacraments under Threat
So then, at the Reformation the Church of England retained six of the seven sacraments and in the 1930s it officially reintroduced the seventh. Now, however, each and every one of them is under threat, some in more ways than one, in some church of the Anglican Communion, if not in the Church of England.
Forward in Faith was founded back in 1992 in response to the threat to the sacrament of orders posed by the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. We rose to the challenge and have managed to preserve within the Church of England a Society of catholic Christians in full communion with catholic bishops, in which holy orders continue to be conferred and received in accordance with the traditional doctrines of the Church. But Forward in Faith is not a single-issue movement. As catholic Christians we are called upon to defend all of the sacraments, and we are committed to doing so. The sacrament of orders happened to be the first sacrament that needed to be defended, but it will not be the last. In what follows I want to lay out some of the threats that currently exist to each of the sacraments in turn. In doing so, I should stress that many of these threats are quite remote and seem likely to remain so at least for the foreseeable future. We should be aware of them none the less.
Many of these threats originate, or have at least been cultivated and flourished, in that hothouse of heresy, the United States of America. The view that everything that happens in America will eventually happen here is not one that I share. The Atlantic is wide: waves travel across it relatively slowly. The Episcopal Church in the USA decided back in 1976 that women could be bishops (with little or no debate that related specifically to the episcopate rather than the priesthood). In the Church of England that decision was finally taken 38 years later, after a debate that recognized the profound theological implications of such a move and therefore, in the end, with a settlement making permanent provision for those of us who were not prepared to kick over those particular traces. Not only do waves travel slowly across the Atlantic: what had the proportions of a tsunami on one side of the ocean may be little more than a ripple by the time it gets here; and though we may hear faint echoes of the earthquake, often we don’t feel the tremors.
Furthermore, even now the Church of England is a relatively large and therefore a relatively stable Christian body. Its processes are established in such a way that they often hinder change that is rapid and inadequately considered. It is difficult for someone—even an archbishop—to have a ‘bright’ idea and be able swiftly to put it into effect. Sadly, much of this is less true of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church in Wales. They are so small and now, sadly, also so weak, that they can much more easily be swayed. In a small church, a single individual can gain influence that no one person could gain in the Church of England. It may also be the case that some in the Celtic churches take such pleasure in marking out their difference from their much bigger sister in England that they are especially prone to follow instead in the slipstream of the American Episcopal Church. As we shall see, some of the threats to the sacraments that still seem quite remote in England have already been enacted in Scotland or Wales.
I begin with baptism, which marks the beginning of our initiation into the Christian life that is completed with episcopal confirmation and the reception of Holy Communion. It goes back, of course, to specific words spoken by Jesus to his disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28. 18–20):
‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
‘Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ What instruction could be simpler? How could anyone get it wrong? But wait, Jesus taught us to call God our ‘Father’ and referred to himself as the ‘Son.’ Some, who think they know better than Our Lord, refuse to use such masculine language about God. Instead they baptize people in the name of the ‘Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer’ (or ‘Sanctifier’). Those are not names of persons but descriptions of what God does: he is no longer three Persons in one God, but three activities or modes of being. There is nothing new under the sun: modalism is a heresy that goes back to the second and third centuries. Happily, I don’t think any Anglican church has authorized baptism with this formula, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Baptism in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer is, by definition, not baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: it isn’t Christian baptism, so someone baptized thus would have to be baptized again. (On the morning after I gave the talk on which this article was based, the morning service on Radio 4, broadcast from a Wiltshire parish church in the presence of the Bishop of Salisbury, opened with the words ‘In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer.’)
For holy communion, Our Lord’s instructions are again relatively simple—but not so simple that some don’t try to improve upon them. Our Lord told us to break and eat bread and drink wine: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the Holy Land, bread and wine were—after water—the most basic stuff of life: elsewhere they are not. From the earliest times Christianity has spread to countries where wine is a luxury, usually imported, and where rice is more commonly eaten than bread. Yet faithfulness to Our Lord’s command—‘Do this,’ not ‘Do something like this’—makes the use of bread and wine non-negotiable. Canon B 17 could not be clearer: ‘The bread, whether leavened or unleavened, shall be of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten, and the wine the fermented juice of the grape, good and wholesome.’ Without getting into the details of wine and wafer production, there are ways of meeting the needs of many who suffer from either gluten intolerance or alcoholism without the substances in question ceasing to be in any meaningful sense either bread or wine.1 What will not do is simply to pick up some gluten-free biscuits and a bottle of Ribena or a carton of grape juice from the supermarket—as some do—and think that you are fulfilling Our Lord’s command. Canon B 17 is unlikely to be amended in the foreseeable future, but how widely it is disregarded is another matter.
What is offered and received in the eucharist is not the only question: also important is who is doing the offering. At present the canons are still clear that if it is to be accounted a Church of England eucharist, a priest ordained by a bishop must preside. One reason why the ordination of women as bishops and priests is so serious is that it puts in doubt whether the person standing at the altar, female or male (now that we have male priests ordained by women), can be recognized—sacramentally—as a priest at all, and therefore whether we can be assured that we are indeed receiving Christ’s body and blood.
Sadly, that is not the last of the threats that we face in the Church of England with regard to eucharistic presidency. Proposals have been put forward to allow Methodist ministers who have not been ordained by a bishop to be recognized as Church of England priests. Again, sacramental assurance is threatened. Forward in Faith’s response is contained in a statement published on our website in February 2018. The crucial part reads:
‘To permit those who have not been ordained by a bishop to minister as Church of England priests, even for a “temporary” period (which might last for sixty or seventy years) is for us not a “bearable anomaly” but a fundamental breach of catholic order… As loyal Anglicans, we uphold the doctrine and discipline regarding Holy Orders that is enshrined in the historic formularies of the Church of England, and in the 1662 Ordinal in particular. We shall oppose any proposals that would effectively set that doctrine and discipline aside.’
In July 2019 the Synod kicked these proposals into the long grass (though no one relying solely on the Church House press release issued after the debate would realize that). The process had revealed a greater level of commitment, across the Church of England, to catholic principles in respect of the related issues of sacramental assurance, episcopal ministry, and full visible unity than we might have thought to exist. Perhaps the arguments that we have consistently advanced over many years have begun to have their effect on wider Church of England consciousness. Be that as it may, Forward in Faith will remain vigilant, and we shall uphold catholic faith and order as the Church of England has received it in this matter as vigorously as we have in respect of the ordination of women as priests and bishops.
The third threat with regard to eucharistic presidency is that of laypeople presiding. This was condemned by the House of Bishops in its theological statement Eucharistic Presidency (GS 1248, 1997), and I am not sure there is a head of steam to change the canons in order to allow it, but again that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. How widespread is it in evangelical parishes? Perhaps their apparent lack of interest now in celebrating the Lord’s service on the Lord’s day may make it rarer than it may have been a few years ago.
Communion of the Unbaptized
As if all of that weren’t enough, earlier this year a further threat to both baptism and the eucharist has reared its head. The Bishop of Liverpool, following rather belatedly a fashion that has taken hold in significant swathes of (guess which church: yes) The Episcopal Church (USA), has argued that those who have not been baptized should be allowed to receive communion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think a change to our canons and liturgy in that regard is likely in the foreseeable future. But the threat it poses to our understanding of baptism, as the gateway to the Christian life, and of the eucharist, as the sacrament in which those who have become part of the body of Christ receive the body of Christ, is clear.
After baptism and the eucharist, we come to confirmation. In 1979 a church in the Anglican Communion (yes, you’ve guessed: The Episcopal Church (USA)) replaced its prayer book with a new one in which confirmation was no longer part of Christian initiation but instead was listed as the first of the Pastoral Offices. In The Episcopal Church, confirmation is now simply a public reaffirmation of baptismal faith, which may be the first of many.2 By contrast, the liturgy and canons of the Church of England uphold the traditional western pattern of baptism followed by confirmation leading to communion. In Common Worship, confirmation appears in the Christian Initiation volume, not in Pastoral Services. Baptized members of other churches may receive communion on an occasional basis, and children may be admitted to communion before confirmation, but these are exceptions to the norm. The Faith and Order Commission upheld the place of confirmation as part of Christian initiation in P. Avis (ed.), The Journey of Christian Initiation: Theological and Pastoral Perspectives (London, 2011).
These issues have been fought over in the Church of England in the past, but I don’t now detect a head of steam for further changes to the liturgy and canons. Forty years on, there is no sign that the Church of England will follow The Episcopal Church in reducing confirmation to a pastoral pat on the head. In Wales, however, the picture is quite different. In 2016 the doctrine of the Church in Wales was changed by its bishops: all the baptized were to be permitted to receive communion without confirmation, and indeed without any preparation or formal admission to communicant status. In the eyes of the Welsh bishops, confirmation is no longer part of Christian initiation at all. Not the least shocking aspect of this development is that it was enacted by episcopal fiat, in the form of a ‘pastoral letter,’ without any amendment of the canons. Even if there were a widespread desire among the English bishops to go down the American path, such episcopal high-handedness would be impossible here: the liturgy and the canons would need to be amended with the approval of the representatives of the clergy and the laity in the General Synod.
The threat to confirmation in our church is not that it its status will be changed canonically or liturgically, but simply that it will fall into disuse as the modern evangelicals, who have even less interest in confirmation than they have in the Lord’s Supper, become increasingly dominant. In the Diocese of Gloucester there are 298 parishes. How many individuals were confirmed in that diocese in 2017? According to the Church of England’s official statistics, the answer, shockingly, is 70. It is The Society that is upholding the practice of confirmation. In 2016, the Bishops of Beverley, Ebbsfleet and Richborough confirmed 536 candidates from resolution parishes. Though they are responsible for only 3% of the parishes in the 35 dioceses in which they minister, they confirmed 5% of the candidates. In some dioceses the discrepancies are stark. In Bristol the Bishop of Ebbsfleet has 2% of the parishes but confirmed 17% of those confirmed. In Chelmsford the Bishop of Richborough has oversight of 3% of the parishes but confirmed 14%.
Anointing and Holy Orders
Of anointing of the sick, I will say very little. Canon B 37 is clear that this is a priestly ministry, and I see no likelihood of that being changed, but again, what happens on the ground may be very different. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in charismatic evangelical circles, oil were being used by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. Once again, the threat, if there is one, is not of a change to the liturgy and canons, but of a breakdown of order in which the liturgy and canons are increasingly disregarded and people do what is right in their own eyes.
We have already considered the threats to holy orders in the Church of England, and hence to the sacramental assurance in respect of the eucharist, through the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate and the proposals to recognize non-episcopally ordained Methodist ministers as Church of England priests.
Dr Podmore is to retire as Director of Forward in Faith in February. This article (to be concluded next month) is based on an address that he gave to the Guildford and Manchester branches of Forward in Faith in February and September 2019.
1 For the Roman Catholic ruling on the elements of the eucharist, see www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20170615_lettera-su-pane-vino-eucaristia_en.html
2 C. J. Podmore, ‘The Baptismal Revolution in the American Episcopal Church: Baptismal Ecclesiology and the Baptismal Covenant,’ Ecclesiology, 6 (2010), 8-38, at p. 11.