Sacramental theology centers on the belief that God uses his creation to communicate his grace to his people. During the Reformation and what has come to be called the “Settlement,” the Church of England ended up retaining the notion of the Sacred and of the grace of God being communicated or given to people through elements of his own creation. Today sacramental theology permeates Anglican thought and practice.
The 39 Articles of Religion specify two Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, simply stating, “There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord” (Article XXV). The two sacraments are accepted as “ordained of Christ…” because Christ commanded his disciples to baptize and he instituted the Lord’s Supper on the night in which he was betrayed (Luke 22; Matthew 18:19). There are many other ways in which God communicates with us and witnesses his grace to us, but these are the two “certain” or “sure” signs because Christ promises us that he will be present with us in these sacraments.These two sacraments are the total and overarching rites of the entire Christian life and of the Church.
Baptism is the initiation into the Christian life, a one-time moment of promise in which the people of God stand on his new covenant of grace to freely welcome a new member into the Body of Christ. Communion is the on-going sacrament, the continually sustaining provision of God to nourish our faith and to regularly and constantly remind us of his mercy and to provide us his grace.
The other rites of the Church are sacramental in character, in that they involve elements of God’s creation. They are not independent and complete rites, but function to point us back to our baptism and to Eucharist at key points in our lives. In addition to sacramental rites, objects and persons are set apart, or made sacred for particular purposes. And in Anglican faith, time is even sanctified by setting apart seasons, feasts, and fasts as sacred time in a sacred calendar.
The two Sacraments are described in this article as “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.” Sacramental theology is visible in this statement, in that the ‘signs’ of the sacraments (water, bread, wine) are said to be the elements through which God works his good will in us. A ‘sign’ both points to the reality it represents, but also is used to provide the reality. So in this sense, the bread of communion both represents the body of Christ broken for us, but the bread is also used by God to bring life to us through the Body of Christ.
In the language of the Prayer Books and the theology that evolved over time, it was understood that God in no way says that he only works in “spiritual” ways. It was Jesus who picked up a piece of actual, physical bread and said “This is my body”. It was Jesus who said to baptize with water. It was Jesus who picked up the children and blessed them. He laid hands on people, he touched them. And we believe that God is still, literally, physically, touching people through the bread, the wine, the water, and yes, through his people “giving a cup of cold water” in his name. We believe that he sets apart people to become ministers, enduing them with grace to fulfill their call by the laying on of hands. We believe that he uses oil to make present the healing of Christ to the sick and the Holy Spirit to the baptized; he uses sacred buildings to humble us with his majesty. We envision the Body of Christ, the Church, as the making present of Christ to the world, a sacrament of his presence. We trust that the rings symbolize the union of marriage, but also strengthen it; that the visible Church is the Church, even while recognizing the invisible bonds of Christ; that vestments (robes) symbolize the clergy and lay officers, but also that God can use them to change us into godly bearers of those offices. We are, in the end, not afraid to receive God’s touch through these means.
And we believe that it is fundamentally necessary for human beings to use these means. Without them we are impoverished.
There is a great mystery as to exactly how God makes himself present in sacred moments through sacred elements and places. And we aren’t really sure when he will do so, except that he promises he shows up in the water of baptism and the sharing of Holy Communion. But it is that very mystery that stirs up the imagination toward Christ, that opens the soul to grace, that inspires humble reverence, and causes mouths to be stopped.
Why water, bread and wine? Each of these elements is universal to every human culture. All human beings bathe, eat and drink. The powerful symbolism of these basic components of all human life are transformed into sacramental vehicles. So the fact that we bathe and wash in water prepares us to understand baptism. The fact that we eat and drink together in ways which function socially to bring people together makes the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper a powerful vehicle of reconciliation, bringing people together with God and with each other. Being washed with water and sharing a meal are simple yet profound actions. And in this simplicity and profundity lies the work of God, assuring us in a language we understand with not only our souls, but our five senses.
Is it dangerous to believe that the physical is a vehicle of God’s grace? Yes! The Lord told Moses to craft a bronze serpent, as the way in which God would heal the people. They would look to the serpent and thereby be healed. They were healed by God, yes, but through the means of a bronze serpent. And what did they do within a few generations? They worshipped the bronze serpent as if it were the god. And we can still do so today. But the radical excision of the sacred and physical elements denies the basic and fundamental reality that human beings live in a physical world in which we constantly interact with, consume, and sense the elements of creation. If we remove this aspect of worship, do we not run the risk of a faith devoid of the very means God has given for our healing and salvation?
The Anglican answer is to set apart that which Christ gave us to set apart, namely the two sacraments, Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. Then we are called to prayerfully and carefully set apart people for ordained ministries, Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons; to set apart church buildings as sacred places of worship; to set apart days, seasons, and times as Sacred moments; to set apart a man and a woman as one in Holy Matrimony. We receive God’s grace through and not despite these set-apart objects, persons, times, and places. In doing so, we believe that we are doing what has been called “taking advantage of the means of grace.”