Protestantism, Simplicity and the Sacraments

Putting aside theological and ecclesiological differences, one thing seems to leap out in assessing the issues that separate Protestantism from other, more historic forms of Christianity, and that is simplicity. There are, famously, a wide range of different expressions of the Protestant principle, but they all share a common commitment to presenting a more direct, stripped down, immediate and fuss-free version of the Gospel. This is reflected both in the theology underpinning Protestantism (sola fide, rejection of saintly intercession, etc) and often in the types of devotion one finds therein: there are not really many distinctive schools of spirituality such as can be found in Catholicism, and this itself perhaps stems from the directness encouraged by Protestant theology – you just go straight to Jesus, and any ‘methods’ to aid that communion may well be seen as getting in the way.

As well as being a distinctive feature of Protestantism, it is probably its most attractive characteristic as well – the idea of going straight to God without having to worry about how one has prepared to do so, expressing oneself in an extempore fashion, and, in terms of public worship, not having to bother with all the customs and guidelines that the historic churches bother about. Such an approach is greatly appealing, and moreover, is based on fundamental truth regarding our Faith – we should feel confident of going straight to God, the way to Him has been opened for us, and we very much do not need pre-written prayers, liturgical ritual or prescribed spiritual methods in order for Him to hear us or us to grow closer to Him. The problem with such an approach however, is not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete.

Just as our salvation, whilst grounded absolutely in the grace of God, requires our cooperation and is thus an ongoing process (something affirmed by Catholicism and Orthodoxy but, in terms of what its theology actually admits, if not what many of its adherents necessarily believe, denied by ‘classical’ Protestantism), so that living out of our relationship with God, though based on His absolute admittance into His fellowship, is not quite so simple as it may at first seem, and for our benefit requires it to be more than just an individual effort (i.e.; the prayers of others, the wisdom of previous ages) and also thus requires it to be more complex than it would at first appear. Our communion with God is a simple procedure – the door is open, and He welcomes us with open arms – but if we wish to deepen our relationship with Him, the intercessory aid and inherited wisdom of others is something we would be imprudent to do away with.

Strangely enough, one of the motivating principles behind the Protestant Reformation was that all Christians, not just priests and religious, should be encouraged to lead a fully integrated life of devotion – that holiness should not be something for one portion of society, but that all should be allowed and urged to deepen their relationship with God. I shall not address here the extent to which people were already allowed to do just that prior to the Reformation (though I would recommend both Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Christopher Haigh’s The English Reformation as well as two contemporary articles here and here for relevant information) but the actual outcome of the changes that occurred does not seem to have encouraged a greater amount or degree of devotion, either public or private. Contrary to expectations, getting rid of the monasteries and ridding societies of ‘clericalism’ does not seem to have led to an increase in contemplatives in the regions where these changes were made.

Furthermore, when coming from a purely practical perspective, it can be seen that going to meet God in prayer without aid or preparation, if it doesn’t lead to a lack of intensity or depth in one’s prayer life (which sadly does seem to have been the case in a great many instances – cultures where Protestantism took root have not been known for intense devotion, and have produced relatively few truly saintly characters of note), can instead lead to anxiety or inconsistency. A prayer life must be slowly and steadily cultivated over long periods of time (indeed, more truly over one’s whole life) and to have at hand familiar prayers or techniques can help to focus one’s devotions as well as providing a kind of spiritual foundation from which to build – a comfortable and sure base to place oneself upon (or rather within) so that the heart and mind are centred and less prone to wander or worry about how to articulate the various fleeting thoughts and emotions that come to mind during prayer.

The issue of familiar prayers and devotions brings me back to a point briefly mentioned at the outset of this post, and one with which I would like to conclude – the idea that the spiritual life is never individualistic, but always rooted in a larger context, that of the Church’s life now and through the ages. We are linked, through our Baptism, into a ‘mystical body’ and are thus connected by bonds more secure than any we might encounter in this life to all other Christians, both now and who have gone before us (such bonds are what make the invocation of the saints not only a wise thing to do, but also an act of fraternal charity). The prayers and spiritual practices handed down to us are thus not only eminently useful in bringing us closer to God, but are hallowed by centuries of usage – when we pray the Sub Tuum Praesidium, the Jesus Prayer or Veni Creator Spiritus; when we pray the Rosary or use the Sulpician Method, we are treading well-tested and blessed ground.

This issue of our corporate life as Christians finds its most significant expression in the sacramental life – at the very roots of our Faith, God never intended us to go it alone, but to be bound to one another in the life of the Church, and for His grace to be given to us in order to help us on our way via certain material means, namely the sacraments. This is where the issue of the Church and its authority becomes important, and it is also the point at which the Protestant world can be roughly divided into two separate kinds – those for whom the sacraments are important, who believe that they are divinely ordained channels of grace (e.g.; Lutherans, Anglicans) and those who see them as important symbols but not in any way necessary for salvation. For the latter camp, whilst I would note that their view is profoundly ahistorical, it is a very real point of view and so worth citing – nevertheless, from this particular perspective, the nature and authority of the Church is not really relevant.

For sacramental Protestants however, the nature and authority of the Church is a very important question. Most of these would only accept Baptism and Eucharist as valid sacraments, but given that all the other sacraments tend to flow from these two (especially the Holy Eucharist) there is enough common ground here to illustrate the point. In the case of Baptism, if one accepts that it effects regeneration, then this requires the nature of the Church to be more than just the sum total of those who have truly saving faith in Christ – as well as this (necessarily invisible) aspect, the Church must also have a visible aspect; and as it is highly impractical to survey the number of those who have been baptised, this also requires the visible aspect to be institutional – there must be somewhere we can point to and say ‘this is the Church.’ Indeed, the New Testament itself assumes that the network of various local churches are subsumed under the unity of the one Church (a point well argued here) and that this wider body is something plainly visible to the world.

When we come to the Holy Eucharist though, we encounter a different, albeit related issue – that of authority. Regardless of what manner of change it is believed occurs during consecration, if one is a sacramental Christian then the fact that some kind of real change does occur, and that in the reception of the consecrated elements Christ in some way gives of Himself to the communicant, are of central importance. In such a situation then, we must ask ourselves how that change/conveyance of grace is brought about – obviously it is God who gives Himself and God who is the primary actor in this, but the words of consecration must be said by someone – can anyone do it? If so, why not allow lay presidency at the altar; why restrict such an act to the minister? It could be argued that a certain amount of learning is required to preach and teach, but not for this – in this case only a few words need to be said and the celebrant is just the one whom God works through.

If one has a high view of the Eucharist then, it seems to me that it will not do to have just anyone celebrating it, and that someone with some kind of authority is required to do so; otherwise we run the risk of either not knowing when a real consecration has occurred, or of Our Lord being just as present whoever invokes the words of consecration, regardless of what they mean to the person saying them or the degree of reverence in which they hold the act in the first place. The validity of a Eucharist is not dependent on the views of the celebrant, so we would have in this latter case Our Lord being genuinely and fully present in circumstances where His presence is either ignored or even maligned. Clearly, in keeping with the need for there to be a visible Church, the sacramental life assumes a Church that can proclaim and deliver the sacraments with authority, in order that such situations be avoided.

So, regardless of what one thinks about official pronouncements on doctrine and the relationship between individual conscience and ecclesiastical governance, if one believes the sacraments to be a necessary aspect of the Christian life then one must engage with the question of where those claiming to consecrate the Eucharist get the authority to do so – i.e.; where and how does the Church receive her authority; where and what is the Church? If you believe the Sacrament you receive in Holy Communion is valid, then where does the minister’s authority come from – if from Christ, then how; how is it separate from the authority given to all believers? If that original authority of Christ is mediated through His Church, then where can the Church be found and what are the channels whereby the authority necessary to give Our Lord to us in bread and wine is transmitted?

These are questions of utmost importance, and not to be neglected, nor compromised on. But, to reconnect with the original theme of this post, they also show how much of an illusion the promise of unfettered simplicity that Protestantism often seems to offer is. In fact, even the least sacramental of Protestant churches recognise the importance of the Eucharist in some, albeit limited, sense, and many of the newer denominations, whilst formally rejecting ritual, have only embraced a more contemporary, rock-concert style of worship that is just as regularised as the most ancient of liturgies. Furthermore, a great number of evangelical churches are rediscovering various aspects of Sacred Tradition (prayers, sacramentals, devotions, writings of the saints), and finding them to be excellent aids to devotion. Just as the motivations behind the ‘stripped-down’ Gospel are not wrong, only incomplete, so are its manifestations – they are not wholly wrong, they only lack the fullness which enables true simplicity of sprit, the communal support that aids a deeper communion, the genuine catholicity of the Catholic Church.

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4 thoughts on “Protestantism, Simplicity and the Sacraments

  1. Excellent post. I once heard someone explain the use of memorized prayers by comparing it to an athlete. A professional athlete may well know how to exercise and take care of their body. And in some ways they can choose their own workouts. But without the stable foundation of set routines to their workouts, they would not excel as well. In the same way, our foundation of beautiful memorized prayers and devotions passed down for centuries by those who have gone before us in Christ serve as the basis for our spiritual “workout”. They give us a starting ground and words to speak when no other words will come to mind in our most trying of circumstances. From there, we can build and use our own words, our own sentiments, to continue our growth in faith.

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