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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
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.