Note to readers: Liturgical entries on this blog are based on the traditional calendar of the Books of Common Prayer and the traditional one-year Eucharistic lectionary. If you follow a newer calendar or three-year lectionary, there are variations in names for some Sundays and in the readings.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Anglican Catechism- Exposition Pt. 4

We now come to the forth and final section of the traditional Anglican Catechism included in the Prayer Books. This section on the Sacraments was added in 1604 on the basis of work by an Elizabethan Dean of St. Paul's, Alexander Nowell, and the Jacobean Dean of St. Paul's, John Overall.

Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Comment. The number of sacraments has been a subject of discussion for centuries. Sometimes the disagreements have just been a matter of word use or definition; sometimes the disagreements have been part of a more general difference in theology. Part of the problem is that the word "sacrament" is not a biblical word; so simplistic proof-texting does not work. Another complication is that a person's view of the sacraments is tied to other issues such as one's theology of the church and of worship, as well as to individual religious experience.

As in many areas, the Anglican perspective embodied in the Catechism seems to reflect a middle way. It rejects the Roman Catholic Profession of Faith from the Council of Trent (1564) which states clearly that there are seven sacraments. The Anglican Thirty-nine Articles and Prayer Book Catechism say that there are only two sacraments generally necessary for salvation. The other five commonly called sacraments are not like Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Some of these rites follow apostolic practice, and they have some value as states of life. However, they had been corrupted in the medieval church and should not be exalted too highly. Most of them are referred to by traditional Books of Common Prayer (except that anointing of the sick was removed in 1552). These rites are not accorded the same status as Baptism and the Supper of the Lord/Eucharist. The two dominical sacraments have a significance for all believers and are explicitly commanded in the New Testament.

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.

Comment. The definition of a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" is ancient, going back to St. Augustine of Hippo. Sacraments are both means of grace and pledges of grace; that is, they actually bring grace into our lives, and in a visible way, they promise the continued working of God in our lives. Sacraments are not magical spells which cause an automatic result, but they do confront recipients with God's call and divine grace, and they do require a response.

Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?
Answer. Water; wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?
Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.
Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?
Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin; and Faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.

Comment. At the beginning of the Catechism, Baptism is mentioned briefly from the viewpoint of Christian identity. Here the doctrinal basics are considered. Christian Baptism is unique; it is different from all other rites of initiation, acts of repentance, washings, blessings, dedications, etc. - whether in other religions or in Christianity. The outward and visible sign was instituted by Christ and can not be changed. There are two essential parts of administering the sacrament- the water and the words "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit." The inward and spiritual grace is death to sin and rebirth to righteousness through grace (Rom. 6).

Question. Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?
Answer. Because they promise them both by their Sureties; which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.

Comment. In infants, the capacity for response is limited and must be postponed. Nevertheless, the promise of grace is extended to the children of believers as St. Peter indicates in Acts 2:39 . As children in a family of believers, they will automatically be confronted by the necessity of responding to the Gospel. So it is also fitting that baptismal grace be offered to them at a tender age.

Question. Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?
Answer. For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.

Question. What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer. Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.

Question. What is the inward part, or thing signified?
Answer. The Body and Blood of Christ, which are spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper.

Question. What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?
Answer. The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.

Question. What is required of those who come to the Lord's Supper?
Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, stedfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.

Comment. The Catechism explanation of the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion or Eucharist is fairly short, but it does include a great deal. The externals include bread and wine consecrated by a bishop or presbyter using Christ's words instituting the sacrament. There is an act of remembrance of Christ, but the sacrament is a living memory, not a superficial memorial. The inward part is the Body and Blood of Christ. The 1662 English BCP says "verily and indeed taken"; the American BCP from 1789 through 1928 says "spiritually taken." Although the emphasis is different, both views are true: in some sense, Christ is truly present with the sacramental elements; His true or real Presence is also spiritual, not grossly carnal. Most Anglicans have avoided detailed speculation about how Christ is present; they have simply accepted the comfort that our Lord comes to us in a unique way in this holy meal which He commanded. His Presence nourishes our souls as bread and wine can nourish our bodies. To receive these great benefits, we should prepare ourselves: repentance, intent for renewal, a living faith in Christ, thanksgiving for His sacrifice and love for others. We can never be worthy of this great gift, but we are called to approach it in a worthy or appropriate manner.

With this part of the exposition, we conclude our consideration of the traditional Anglican Catechism. We have looked briefly at our identity as Christians, the Apostles' Creed, the Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. These matters concern the core of Christian belief and practice- not just for Anglicans but for orthodox believers of all times and places. There are certainly other things to think about and do (indeed I hope soon to include an addendum on the Church and the Ministry). Yet if all Christians could maintain a constant devotion on the basic matters included in the traditional Catechism, then we could make greater advancements in our spiritual life and and in our mission in the world.


  1. Good words! I have enjoyed your brief exposition and may have to copy them to my computer for future use (with your permission of course!).

    Is the concept of infant faith resonant with the prayer book? I've wondered that for a while now. I tend to lean toward the view that infants can have faith when it is considered as basic trust, though they of course do not understand the Gospel as an adult would, but I think that they can certainly trust what the Gospel says much like an infant trusts his mother for his physical nourishment. I feel like infant faith is something that the prayer book wouldn't necessarily deny, but puts the emphasis toward a future confession of faith.

    As for the Lord's Supper, have you heard of the book Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper by Keith Mathison? It's a great book. From what I have read so far and my understanding of the sacrament, I think the Anglicans are pretty close to Calvin's view, which is exceptionally high compared to how most Presbyterians and Calvinists view the Supper these days.

    I hope that Christmas was good for you and yours!


  2. Thanks for the kind words. Certainly you may copy and use my comments on the Catechism- if you ever use them in a public context, please cite the blog.
    I don't see anything in the Catechism or BCP in general that would exclude the possibility of some sort of implicit faith in infants. Personally, I have also found that idea attractive. However, I do think that the BCP stresses both the active grace in Baptism and the hoped-for future response.

    I have not read Mathison's book, but I have often read and heard that Calvin's view of the Eucharistic Presence is higher than that of many of his followers. There are also many commentators over the years who have seen affinities between Calvin's views and those of some Anglicans. Calvinist language is sometimes similar to that in the Thirty-nine Articles. I do find the 1662 version of the Catechism "higher" than Calvinist views. Furthermore, the traditional BCP Prayers of Consecration-Thanksgiving and the Prayer of Humble Access seem to me to connect the Presence with the Bread and Wine much more directly than is found in Calvinist views. Although many people would disagree with me, I find the general BCP views of Holy Communion closer to Lutheran views without going into the detailed theories used by some Lutherans.

    I hope you all had a blessed Christmas as well- and wish you a happy Epiphany season!