As I write this blog, yesterday was Mothering Sunday, a day when people traditionally give cards, flowers and other gifts to mothers as a sign of their love and appreciation for them. This is, of course, not the only occasion when such gifts are given. Birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries are three other examples, and numerous other examples could also be cited.
For our purposes, the point to be noted about the gifts given on such occasions is that they are an outward sign of the inward feelings that the person giving the gift has for the person to whom they give it. If the giving of a gift is more than simply obedience to social convention, then it is a sign of the love that one person feels for another. Love is inward and invisible, and the gift is an outward and visible sign that shows that love exists.
Thinking further about signs, we can also observe that signs can make things happen. The Queen’s signature on a piece of legislation makes it law. Receiving a degree certificate makes someone a graduate. The acceptance of a ring makes a couple engaged. In all these three instances the visible sign points to a reality beyond itself, the Queen’s consent to a law coming into force, someone having successfully passed their exams, and the desire of a couple to eventually get married.
The two truths about signs that I have just outlined, that they can express love and make things happen are also the truths that underly what the Prayer Book Catechism teaches about the sacraments. This teaching runs as follows:
‘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.
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.’
The background to this section of the Catechism is the disagreement between the Roman Catholic and Protestant sides at the Reformation.
In the earliest days of the Church there was no agreed definition about the number of the sacraments. In the Middle Ages however, the view came to be accepted that there were seven sacraments. These were: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. At the Reformation, the matter was debated once again, and while the Roman Catholic Church stuck with the Medieval list, the Church of England (like other Protestant churches) eventually decided that there were only two sacraments – baptism and ‘the Supper of the Lord’ ( another name for the Eucharist). It is this view of the matter that is taught in the Catechism.
The Church of England of England took this view of the matter because it came to believe that a sacrament, properly so called, has to have two characteristics. It has to have been instituted by Christ, and it has to be an effective sign of divine grace. Baptism and the Support of the Lord meet these two criteria, but the other five Medieval sacraments do not.
We know that Christ instituted baptism and the Supper of the Lord because the New Testament tells us so (for baptism see Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, and for the Supper of the Lord see Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We also know that both involve the use of external signs, water in the case of baptism, and bread and wine in the case of the Supper of the Lord.
What is less obvious, however, is what it means to say that these signs are effective signs of grace. In order to understand this we need to go back to the point made at the beginning of this blog that signs can make things happen. It is this point that is being made when the Catechism says that the sacraments are ‘means’ by which we receive ‘an inward and spiritual grace.’
What the Catechism means by ‘inward and spiritual grace’ is the new relationship between ourselves and God that Jesus made possible when he died and rose for our salvation. Baptism and the Supper of the Lord are methods (‘means’) established by God through which we enter into this new relationship (in the case of baptism) and are sustained in it (in the case of the Supper of the Lord), which is the why the Catechism says they are ‘generally necessary for salvation.’
The two questions that arise at this point are (a) why does God use signs for this purpose and (b) do we automatically receive grace through them?
The answer to (a) is that God uses signs because as human beings the grace of God is invisible to and us so he uses signs to show it to us. As the sixteenth century Anglican writer Alexander Nowell explains, the answer to the question ‘Why would God so have us to use outward signs?’ is that as human beings:
‘… we are not endued with mind and understanding so heavenly and divine, that the graces of God do appear clearly of themselves to us, as it were to angels. By this mean therefore God hath provided for our weakness, that we which are earthly and blind should in outward elements and figures, as it were in certain glasses, behold the heavenly graces which otherwise we were not able to see. ‘
God condescends to our weakness by giving us the sacraments in order to enable us to see the ‘graces of God’ (‘graces’ being used because God’s grace is manifold in its nature) in visible form. When we see someone being baptised, or the bread and wine being given to people at the Supper of the Lord, there we behold God giving his grace to his human creatures. To put it another way, God loves his human creatures, and he demonstrates that love visibly through the sacraments, just as human beings demonstrate love in a visible way when they give flowers, presents, or engagement rings.
The answer to (b) is that grace is not automatically received through the sacraments. They are not the spiritual equivalent of inoculation. This is because love that is offered has then to be received.
Think for a moment of a boy giving a girl an engagement ring. For a new form of relationship as an engaged couple to be established between them the girl has to first of all believe what the offering of the ring signifies (i.e. that the boy really does love her and wants to marry her) and secondly has to be willing to accept that love and let it change her life.
In a similar way, for a new form of relationship to be established through the sacraments, human beings have to believe that God loves them and is offering them the opportunity either to enter into a new relationship with him or to be sustained in that relationship and they also have to being willing to accept what God offers and to let it change their life. This is what Christian theology means when it says that their needs to be ‘worthy reception’ of the sacraments. This does not mean that the people who receive the sacraments need to be worthy of God’s grace (something that is never true of anybody). What is does mean is that those who receive the sacraments need to believe in the love that God offers, and are willing to receive it and to have their lives changed by it.