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?"
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 ...)