Monday, January 30, 2023

Sacramental Actions?

 A few weeks ago, in a long stream of comments (here), some of which were about sacraments (and if you did not follow that discussion it is worth a look for several deep dive contributions into sacraments in Roman, Protestant/Anglican and Eastern Orthodox theologies), Mark raised the following questions with me after I had observed that in ACANZP we (officially) talk about two sacraments and certain other actions being "sacramental actions" (even though it is easy to hear Anglicans talking about "seven sacraments"):

"And, Peter, how come we need to invent other categories - "sacramental actions" - for rites that all my Anglican vicars so far have persisted in simply calling "sacraments". It's rather confusing and unnecessary, isn't it? A hangover of anti-Romanist identity formation?

The Anglican Church of North America (I think) delineates "Sacraments of the Gospel" from "Sacraments of the Church". If we want to emphasize which sacraments Jesus directly created (rather than simply participated in or inspired), that's a simpler, more sensible language than "sacramental actions", isn't it?

Wouldn't it improve our ecumenical relationships with the Catholics and Orthodox overnight if we made this simple acknowledgement?"

In response:

1. To get one issue out of the way: if the last remaining obstacle to unity with Catholics and/or Orthodox was that we Anglicans "conceded" on two becoming seven sacraments, then I wouldn't stand in the way ... save that, a lot of theology changes at that point, and my "concession" might be accompanied be deep reluctance etc! Conversely, I cannot recall ever hearing that it is Anglican stubbornness on the sacraments that is a vital blockage to unity.

2. The notion of seven sacraments is attractive numerically: seven is a perfect number, number of completion etc. But it obscures a simple fact in the development of these sacraments: there is no revelation in the early church's life that there are, or should be seven sacraments. Development was slow. I recall an eminent Catholic theologian, Denys Turner (in a lecture which I heard when in Cambridge in 2015, still noted at a link here) observing that marriage as a sacrament was finally agreed to by the church c. 1000 AD. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the notion that God willed marriage to be a sacrament whether from the beginning of creation or from the time of our Lord.

3. Thus there is a certain attractive honesty in the position of ACNA, two sacraments of the gospel and five sacraments of the church. But this approach begs two rather large questions. 

3.1. If a sacrament is an action of God, invisible grace through visible materials/actions, either a sacrament is a sacrament of the gospel (which is the announcement of God's grace towards humanity made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ) or it is effectively a speculative guess of the church re when God acts (i.e. acts sacamentally, in some sense akin to baptism and eucharist) and when God does not. 

3.2. Why stop at seven when no revelation of God has specified seven as a limiting number? Why not, for instance, make the dedicating and consecrating of church buildings an eighth sacrament, noting that we envisage all kinds of gracious actions of God taking place in such buildings rather than elsewhere? Should Foot-washing be a ninth sacrament?

4. It is not "anti-Romanist" to question today whether there are in fact seven sacramental actions worthy of being deemed "sacraments." Sure, in the 16th century the power of the then understood sacraments was being abused and the Reformation was a reaction against that misuse of power, but the same reaction asked theological, not just ecclesio-political questions about the sacraments, and those theological questions (as I am noting above and below) remain lively rather than nostalgic. In the cold light of the gospel, what are sacraments which flow from the teaching of Jesus Christ? Answer, in summary: two, not seven.

5. Why then talk, in ACANZP at least, about "sacramental actions" (e.g. in the agreed catechism of our church, p. 934: Reconciliation of a Penitent, Anointing, Christian Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination)? I assume that this phrase arises because in a diverse church, at the time of settling the wording of the catechism found in NZPB, there will have been anglo-catholics arguing for seven "sacraments" and evangelicals arguing for two "dominical sacraments" and thus "sacramental actions" is a compromise which respects the historical and spiritual significance of the five actions in the list above but does not shift the historic, theological position of the Anglican church on the matter.

A potential strength of this position is that it leaves open possibilities for discussion about other actions which have sacramental aspects without needing to argue whether they are worthy of becoming (so to speak) the eighth, ninth and ... fifteenth sacraments. (My suspicion is that having reached the number of perfection, seven, there is little appetite for those who do hold that there are seven sacraments to add to their number).

6. If the strength of the phrase "sacramental action" is that it offers some sense of an action having sacramental character (and thus offers a compromise for Anglicans, as noted above), then the weakness is that it begs the question why an action with sacramental character is not, in fact, a sacrament! I am afraid shortage of time this week means I am not going to pursue this question in depth or detail.

7. That is, I think I am pretty happy with the concept of baptism and eucharist being dominical sacraments and then leaving open the possibility that there are more than five other ways and means through which God's grace comes to God's people (whether we wish to call these sacramental actions or sacraments). 

8. There are mysteries here (to deliberately invoke an Eastern Orthodox approach to what the West call "sacraments")) and debate about them can distract. Might we not better focus on the greatest sacrament of all, Jesus Christ, the visible embodiment of God's invisible grace? What of our written Scriptures, bound together as the Bible: is this not also a visible embodiment of God's invisible grace because through this physical book spiritual transformation is achieved? (One might think of Augustine's famous conversion ...)

Monday, January 23, 2023

2023: what a year, and it's only 23 January!

The giddy breathlessness of events of this 2023 year has not ceased in the last seven days!

On the domestic, NZ front, our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern resigned on Thursday, and with a smooth internal election of Chris Hipkins to be the new Leader of the Labour Party and thus new Prime Minister, I think it is by the end of today that we will have a new Prime Minister.

I admire Jacinda immensely for a variety of reasons but none more so that that she has looked at her personal reality - she said her tank is empty - and made an appropriate decision as a leader. Great leaders know when it is time to go.

I don't have much admiration for all the harping critics of the last few days: not for the ones who have not wasted a nano second of social media time to tell us about all her (alleged) shortcomings and not for the ones who think she should have pressed on and not "given up" because it go a bit "hard." What is it about personal burnout which these critics do not want to empathise with? What is it about pushing "Pause" before rushing to judgment when a momentous decision has been made such as Jacinda has made?

I also admire the Labour Party for making the right decision in choosing Chris Hipkins as their next leader. Any party in such a situation needs to be listening to the nation as much as looking around their caucus room. Chris Hipkins, among other plausible candidates, stands out as someone the nation can warm to, listen to and appreciate. (That a political party might not achieve this simple feat in political wisdom was amply illustrated last year when the British Conservative Party chose Liz Truss to be its leader.)

The lovely thing about the decision re our new Prime Minister is, with an election looming later this year, we ministers of relgion who traditionally give no hints as to how we think people should vote could wear badges saying "Let's vote Chris for PM"! 

[Note for those not in NZ: the next Prime Minister will be the Leader of the Labour Party, Chris Hipkins, or the Leader of the National Party, Chris(topher) Luxon, whatever permutations our MMP voting system throws up.]

Meanwhile, in Anglicanland, the CofE House of Bishops has published its decision about the blessing (or, it appears, more strictly speaking "praying for") same sex partnerships/marriages (but no actual same sex marriages in CofE churches), to something of an uproar, at least on Anglican social media, with those who think there should be no change lambasting the decision and those who think the change should go further ... lambasting the decision. And there is more (e.g. weighing in against the ABC) but I won't detail it here - you may or may not want to follow links on the sidebar here, especially on Thinking Anglicans and Psephizo.

My commentary is both general and focused:

My general comment is that the decision is similar to (but not exactly the same as) the decision ACANZP made in 2018. The comfort in that observation is, I suggest, that in a divided church there are not too many options if the status quo is to change - if the seemingly interminable debates are to give way to a decision for some change and thus ACANZP did not head down an eccentric pathway in 2018. It will now be interesting to see where Australia goes on the matter.

My focused comment is on a common charge, from the right and the left, seen numerous times on social media in the past few daysm that the CofE HOB decision is "incoherent." (E.g. because it purports to not change the doctrine of marriage while offering some recognition of marriage which is not between a man and a woman.)

"Incoherent" sounds pretty terrible, doesn't it? But might we give "incoherent" a little bit of empathetic reflection?

Think about what marriage means as a "doctrine", per the past two thousand years: a man and a woman marry [diversity, two into one], for life [permanent], faithful to each other [no adultery], promising to love one another through thick and thin [covenanted love, companionship], and open to procreation [kind of basic to the continuation of the human race!]. That's coherent in the sense that most of us on the day we marry agree with it and intend to live it out, in the sense that it conforms to the story of creation and various aspects of marriage worked into that narrative, and in the sense that it conforms to the Law of Moses and to Jesus' renewal of that law according to the gospels.

Of course, marriage doesn't always work out according to such intentions: adultery occurs, relationships break down for reasons other than adultery, divorce takes place, a new marriage is sought, one spouse dies, a new marriage later in life may not plausibly be able to entertain the possibility of procreation occurring, and, even where there is openness to children being procreated there can be desire to limit the openness of each act of sexual intercourse to being procreative. The church has really struggled to offer a "coherent" account of what happens when marriages fall short or fail "intentions" for marriage according to the Bible. The most obvious incoherency is in the approach we take to divorce occurring and a new marriage being entered into: the universal church on earth does not have an agreed set of grounds for divorce to be accepted, let alone for a new marriage to be entered into with divine approval. Neither does the universal church have an agreed set of grounds for limiting the openness of the act of sexual intercourse to procreation occurring as a result.

Now, the point of suggesting "incoherency" on marriage already exists in the life of the church at large, to say nothing of individual denominations, is not to then determine that "incoherency" doesn't matter and that any old incoherency is fine. The point is, merely saying "incoherency" does not get us very far in assessing a decision to make change, such as the CofE HOB has done.

Might it be better to ask whether the decision made is a reasonable one?

Reasonable, that is, taking account of a variety of significant factors, the most obvious of which is assessing what the people of God within the CofE might live with?

Ultimately, of course, it will be for the people of God within the CofE to determine whether the decision made is liveable incoherency and reasonably liveable!

Then there is the question of how the Communion responds ...

Finally, thankfully, this past week has been an opportunity for me to attend two Christian funerals, to visit one of our parishes, Westland, which lives its mission out far from the well-resourced, well-populated centre of our Diocese and to participate in the induction of a new vicar. In each instance it has been uplifting to see and experience the the power of God's love working through his ministers, ordained and lay, and to have underlined the difference faith in Christ makes to life. The faithfulness of God's people, and the faithfulness of God towards his people, experienced through these past seven days, is at odds with some of the wilder claims made about the diminishment of the church because it decided X rather than Y or Z.

Monday, January 16, 2023

2023: what a year, and it's only 16 January!

2023 is off to a tumultuous start. American democracy barely functioning. Constitutional monarchy under threat in UK (by the unsparing revelations of the 5th in line to the throne, no less). Brazil experiencing a Trump-like attempt to overthrow an electoral result. Benedict XVI has died. Cardinal Pell has died. Some terrible storms disrupting life in NZ - we thought it was the summer holiday season. The CofE under convulsions again re That Topic. And also having conniptions, again, over +Philip North, who won't ordain women, becoming a diocesan bishop. 

Ever willing to assist, here is a picture I took, while on holiday, of splendid calm and peacefulness:

This is a plantation of Californian Redwoods, normally a coastal dwelling tree, in the sub-alpine district of Hanmer Springs, South Island, NZ. They were planted in 1930 and may live for 1000 years, so just babies, but calm, peaceful infants. Think what crises and calamities the world has lived through since 1930. These trees have grown as God would have us grow in Christ: faithful, maturing, fruitful, lasting (e.g. Ephesians 4:13-16; Colossian 1:19-29).

If a/the major question of this blog is, How might we become what Christ intends us to be, a unified people of God? , then a close second question is, What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ today?

How might we be faithful, maturing, fruitful, lasting disciples of Christ in 2023?

The answer, obviously, is to ... change "of" to "in" [smile].

How might we be faithful, maturing, fruitful, lasting disciples "in Christ" in 2023? 

Clearly, to the extent that we can be responsible human decision makers in respect of the course of our lives, we need to walk as closely with [note, another important preposition, see Mark 3:14] Christ as possible: through daily Scripture reading and prayer, through reception of and participation in the sacrament of communion, through openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, through various other spiritual disciplines.

But, we may also look to and give thanks for God's promise to us in Christ: that Christ will live in us and we will live in Christ (essentially, the whole of John's Gospel, much of the Pauline writings). To go back to the forest in Hanmer: those splendid Redwoods have grown by God's grace as God has gifted them rain, sunshine, carbon dioxide, etc. To become what God wants us to be is foremost a matter of God's grace, the Giver of life will gift life to us.

Yet, and yet, and yet: as we see, even in the first couple of weeks of this year, various people, otherwise at least baptised, possibly claiming to be some kind of ecclesio-political warrior for God, maybe holding powerful office with the support of church leaders, even holding high office in the church of God, proposing courses of action and/or propagandizing perspectives seemingly at variance with objective truth, or, just being foolish. The grace of God in growing us in Christ may be thwarted, tripped up or just thrown aside.

Although we can see this in certain people, living and departed, who currently exist in the laser light of news headlines, do we not see it in ourselves? 

Outside of the headlines, do not we ordinary mortals ourselves thwart the grace of God as we make choices that then lead - hopefully - to confession of our sins, to acknowledgement with sorrow of our capacity to not grow in grace, to stunt our maturing, to be unfruitful and to look like we will not be found to last the distance with God?


While not completely aligned with the topic above, I do not want to miss the opportunity to copy and paste a citation made in a commnet by Mark to the previous post:

Michael Sean Winters, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, on George Pell and his warrior approach to secular modernity:

"There are times when the church needs lions, protectors, prelates and others willing to man the barricades, at least in times of persecution. But the late 20th and early 21st century witnessed something different from persecution.

True, the acids of modernity, as political commentator Walter Lippmann once called them, were eating away not only at the faith but at the disposition to believe. The culture was becoming secular, but not the way late 18th-century French culture had become secular. People were not so much hostile as busy. They lost interest in the faith, failed to see that it related to their daily lives, and moved on.

Lions like Pell treated these developments as modern-day reign of terror and thought they could hasten the Thermidorian reaction, but they misdiagnosed the situation. Modernity was not producing anti-clericals in the mold of Robespierre but rather people who were alienated, drowning in materialism and plenty, needy.

The times called for pastors, not prophets, for accompaniment not thunderbolts, for missionaries and evangelizers not apologists, for lambs not lions."