Liberals and the Sacraments: a conundrum

Why do liberal churches bother with the sacraments? Here I am talking about those churches who consider the sacraments to be more than just symbolic – to, in some sense, actually convey or transmit grace to the recipient. This would include Anglicans, Lutherans, some Calvinists, and possibly others I am not aware of (it is hard to keep track of the variety of theological opinions in Protestantism), but I shall principally be looking at the Scottish Episcopal church (SEC), both because they are most familiar to me, and also as they seem to be a paradigmatic case in this respect (i.e.; a highly liberalised, mostly high-church, Protestant institution that considers the sacraments important in some way). I shall start by looking at Baptism, which, as with many things in the SEC, there is not clear teaching on, but general trends can be observed which represent the common beliefs on this topic.

Baptism, as the Catechism says, is the ‘gateway to the life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments’ (CCC: 1213), and so what a church believes about it will provide a good idea of what it believes about the rest of the sacraments. The SEC, broadly speaking, considers Baptism to be simply the means of welcoming someone into the community of the People of God. There is very little talk of the washing away of sins (certainly not Original Sin, which is widely either discredited or ignored) or of justification; and furthermore, very many (clergy and laity) in the SEC would consider the unbaptised to already be in some way one of the People of God – thus the sacrament becomes almost completely symbolic, and a symbol only of membership. However, the liturgy used, and the rites performed, are indeed very traditional, and in many SEC churches what is being enacted would be externally indistinguishable from the same rites being performed in a Catholic church. What then, is going on here; indeed, it would be legitimate, I think, to ask why they bother continuing with Baptism at all?

The SEC, in making decisions on its teaching, appeals to the traditional Anglican ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, but this interpretative framework is of little practical use, as the authority of Scripture is in practice almost universally undermined (despite some lip service being paid to its central place in their church), and Reason is undermined by their wholesale embracing of relativism, to the degree where there is no real criteria for judging change other than that indefinable secular shibboleth of ‘progress’. Also, the canons of the church (presumably formulated according to the three-legged stool) say next to nothing about the actual meaning of Baptism. This then leaves Tradition, and it is here that I think the crux of the matter lies. Before addressing this though, I shall look briefly at the Eucharist in the context of Scottish Episcopal beliefs.

As in most Anglican churches, the range of views regarding the question of what actually happens at Communion is wide – some will have a completely memorialist approach, and others will have a genuine belief in the Real Presence (although, again, it is hard to get anyone to establish exactly what they mean by this – agnosticism on as many central issues as possible is the order of the day here I’m afraid). But more worrying is the readiness of some SEC churches to allow (and actually promote) open communion – allowing unbaptised people to receive the consecrated elements. Now, I am not sure how widespread this is, but it is certainly not uncommon, and is definitely representative of the attitude the SEC has to the sacraments in general. Strangely enough though, it is often the most ‘high’ churches (where the clergy will lean more towards a belief in the Real Presence) that this sort of thing is allowed – i.e.; those who believe Christ to be in some way really present on the altar are actually the ones encouraging people who have not received baptism to partake.

This, it seems to me, undermines both the Eucharist and Baptism – it makes the latter even more unnecessary, and turns the former into some sort of casual gathering; certainly not a solemn ritual where one enters in the deepest possible union with the risen Lord. Again, then, I must ask why – why, if, as it seems, the SEC does not really believe in the efficacy or objective reality of these sacraments, does it continue to perform them with such high ceremony and observe undoubtedly traditional external practices? The answer is I think two-fold, and would apply equally to any other church of this kind – to give themselves an air of authenticity, and because they love the idea of tradition.

The SEC considers itself to be in continuity with the ancient Church in Scotland, and also to be in some way ‘catholic’. Its appeal to catholicity is rooted in the typical Anglican appeal to Scripture and the faith of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed – i.e.; to the most basic set of beliefs that churches to whom tradition is important could appeal to (the fact that, although the Creed is said in their churches, most of it is ‘interpreted’ far and away from its original and plain meaning, is by the by – this, on paper, is what their claim is). It also appeals to its part in the Anglican Communion – a loose federation of national churches, who by an accident of history (e.g.; where the British Empire happened to go) are joined together in a communion that, given the enormous amount of disagreement on first-order issues, makes a mockery of the word. Here internationality is mistaken for catholicity.

It is the appeal to tradition that is most revealing though. As I said, in its rites and observances the SEC does preserve a good deal of traditional practice. However, as seen with the sacraments, there is also much that has been jettisoned. Many saint’s days are celebrated in SEC churches, but I have often wondered what (to name two of the most famous Celtic saints) Saint Columba or Saint Ninian would think if they walked into one of their services and heard the sermon, or read the literature available at the entrance – to be quite honest, I think they’d be horrified. The SEC, and other churches like it, in an attempt to be ‘relevant’ and ‘progressive’ has gotten rid of a great deal of traditional teaching on morality (e.g.; on abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia) and doctrine (teaching about God often verges on a kind of all-inclusive, sin-denying pantheism). Yet in observing traditional rituals and practices, these churches believe themselves to be somehow validated and authenticated – that, by keeping these aspects of Tradition up, they have a claim to be just as much a part of the Apostolic Faith as the Catholic Church and Orthodox churches.

In reality, what is occurring is almost the exact opposite of how the Church approached the interpretation of the Old Testament injunctions to the Israelites. In that case, the Church preserved the ethical principles enshrined in the Law, and dispensed of its ceremonial (and judicial) aspects. Now, in liberal-sacramental Protestant churches, we see the ethical principles of the Church being contravened and ritual aspects of Tradition being held up on a pedestal. This approach does, to a certain extent, convince – some people, by looking at the rites and ceremonies of Episcopal congregations, see a less demanding and more ‘relevant’ version of Catholicism, and join them, believing themselves to be part of a genuine manifestation of the Apostolic Faith. Music is often a big part in this – hearing sacred music being performed well (and the Anglican tradition does have good form in this regard) can often give people the impression they are having a ‘spiritual’ experience, and this, combined with the aforementioned appeals to traditional rituals, can provide an atmosphere of religious involvement without the demands of traditional morality, or the exclusiveness of some Christian doctrine.

But a confusion of aesthetics for spirituality, and/or a flawed understanding of the development of doctrine is not a substitute for a genuine conversion of heart; furthermore, we can never have the real Christ when He is divorced from His Cross. Flannery O’Connor sums up the situation in these churches rather well in one of her many letters:

One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is of your own sweet invention.

from a letter to Alfred Corn, 16th June 1962.

Recent studies have suggested what one might surmise from all this – that a faith based on making oneself feel religious or spiritual without any commitment to truth or any idea that sacrifice of the self may be involved, cannot be a lasting or life-changing one. That sounds pretty reasonable to me, and, though I am not one to put much trust in surveys or statistics in general, does seem to represent the situation on the ground. The bottom line is that people will not go to church to hear the same opinions they can find in most national media, or in discussions with non-religious family and friends. Having a good choir and wearing beautifully tailored vestments, as well as providing an air of antiquity and authenticity via traditional rites and observance of feast days will get a few people in the door, but it is only the Truth that truly challenges, and, in this day and age, is truly counter-cultural. The Truth also cannot help being beautiful, and will always attract those who seek such things with sincerity and perseverance, regardless of whether certain externals are present or not. This Truth is Christ, and is found in its fullness only in His Church, whose Tradition is preserved whole and entire, and where the sacraments are real means to grace that really saves.

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4 thoughts on “Liberals and the Sacraments: a conundrum

  1. Pingback: Vatican II on discerning the signs of the times | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: Open Communion: A very modern heresy | Journey Towards Easter

  3. Pingback: Redefining terms: a problematic tactic of Liberal Christianity | Journey Towards Easter

  4. Pingback: Progressive Christianity in the Early Church and the Problem With ‘Creedal Orthodoxy’ | Journey Towards Easter

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