Ordination season is almost upon us, and we have good reasons to be cheerful. There is a very healthy crop of Society-related ordinations this year and full details can be found in this edition. Please offer the candidates your prayers, your presence at their ordinations wherever possible, and your support in their ministry.
Thought of ordinations has prompted our editorial team to explore the theme of the Church’s sacraments in this issue with more next month. We know them to be at the core of our faith and so I trust you will find much to enrich your sacramental life in what is written.
Reflecting on what is the essence of the sacraments has led me to the following three characteristics: firstly, that they are God-given; secondly, that they are lasting; and thirdly, they are sustaining.
This in turn brings reflection that in a world where we do not know where the next crisis is coming from or how imminent it is – recent history would lead us to fear the worst – sacraments do indeed speak of God and lead us to God with a directness which little else can. The sheer physicality of their application – laying on hands, anointing, immersion in water and so on – is incarnational in ways which can only be life-changing for the recipients.
We are not merely about the preservation of those sacraments as some sort of defensive gesture but their proclamation to a fallen world which desperately needs – and seeks – the healing they contain. In doing so, we are ever mindful that they are not ours as individuals or groups of individuals; they belong to the Church and only the Church as a whole can amend their functioning.
However, that statement of universality in no way seeks to imply that sacraments are purely conceptual or are some sort of theological device removed from the ordinary worshipper. As Professor Alison Milbank highlights so well this month, sacraments are local to people and bring with them a sense of place and belonging, marking life’s ebbs and flows from generation to generation.
We should also be open to the possibility of encountering the sacramental beyond the formal boundaries of the Church’s seven sacraments. In last month’s edition we focused on the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II which undoubtedly possesses sacral and sacramental element, going beyond the symbolism of the Coronation to encapsulate the Christian witness and fidelity which it has embodied.
Recent news stories have understandably picked up on another anniversary, 40 years since the conclusion of the Falklands War. That too highlighted issues around the relationship between Church and State and so, by way of reminder or by way of introduction for younger readers, Bishop Tim Thornton has generously shared some memories for us along with veteran Captain Malcom Farrow.
The juxtaposition of time and sacrament is an interesting one. In our liturgies we often hear of time and eternity and the sacraments are where they, and we, intersect; for here is the Lord coming to his people, meeting with them in profound encounter.
We stand in a Catholic tradition which has always been one of articulating and expressing the sacramental life in its fulness, even to become in Austin Farrer’s words a ‘walking sacrament.’ Further, it is the living out of what Rowan Williams has described as ‘joining in with what God is doing’.
And this is not an unattainable goal; not all of the sacraments are for regular use of course but through the discipline of regular confession and Mass attendance we can rejoice in a Christian witness which is attuned to the witness of the previous two millennia. That is exactly what the apostolic succession means to us in practical terms.
We know there to be a less positive dimension to this issue and that is, sadly, one of decline. As you may note, confirmation numbers have fallen sharply in recent years in the Church of England. There has of course been a pandemic in full swing but for much of the period confirmations were permitted and their decline is a painful reminder of the challenges we face.
Let us hope in these times of great uncertainty that the Church of England can regain a sense of its calling to evangelise the nation and to do this by offering the sacraments to those who wish to take up the call to be disciples. And may we play our full part with our newly ordained deacons and priests in doing exactly that, now and always.