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Two plus five equals seven

03 January 2014

Alec Graham studies a new book on the sacraments which bridges traditions

Why Sacraments?
Andrew Davison
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THIS is a remarkable and relatively short work. It deserves to be widely read by the clergy who administer the sacraments, and, indeed, by all who desire a feast for their minds which will help them to understand more deeply the meaning of these rites.

It is an example of inter-Anglican co-operation illustrating how at its best, and when it is true to its vocation, the Anglican Communion can contain in one communion and fellowship believing Christians who come from a wide variety of background and presupposition.

The author is on the staff at Westcott House, and clearly comes from a background of Catholic piety and practice. A commendatory foreword is provided by one of the group of members of Ridley Hall who met the author weekly to discuss with him the chapters of the book in draft form. It is encouraging to learn about the common ground established, and about the willingness not to let difference of opinion on some matters mar the underlying fellowship.

The title of the book precisely indicates its contents. The author treats the two great sacraments and "those five commonly called sacraments". Interspersed with the chapters on individual sacraments are chapters that treat particular features of sacramental theology - for instance, sacramental character, sign, matter, form. Very welcome, too, is the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the operation of the sacraments, a feature often overlooked by worshippers, recipients, and preachers. Indeed, he includes a fine polemic against the tendency, in some quarters, to avoid the Trinitarian formula. In addition, the author provides sensible, balanced guidance with regard to practical matters in the administration of these rites.

Perhaps surprisingly, the longest chapter is that concerning marriage, and it could well do with some simplification. The space thus made available would leave room for one feature that the author does not address. He relies very much on the language of coming with reference both to the incarnation and to Christ's presence in sacramental actions. Undoubtedly, this is an important element in our understanding of the sacraments, as it is of the work of Christ, particularly of the incarnation and of the end of the age. But, surely, this language needs to be balanced by a complementary truth, that he who "comes" has been there all the time, in, with, and under all things, closer to us than we are to our inmost selves. He, the very Word and Wisdom of God, "is before all things and in him all things hold together", St Paul tells us, echoing Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus 43.

There is patristic use of the word often used with reference to the so-called second coming of Christ to signify the universal presence of the Logos, who inheres in all things. As we pursue this line of thought, we may understand the coming of Christ in the sacraments as a feature of the creative purpose of God as well as of his redemptive work. The incarnation and all that flows from it helps forward the process by which God works to bring the entire creation to the perfection that he intends for it. Thus the sacraments help us to become more truly what we already are.

Be that as it may, it in no way detracts from the remarkable excellence and usefulness of this book, written in a crisp, easy style, generally with short sentences, full of arresting turns of phrase. No reader will put it down without, in every chapter, having his or her understanding enlarged. 

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham is a former Bishop of Newcastle, and a former chairman of the Doctrine Commission.

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