Jordan at The Hackney Hub has written a provocative piece asserting that the notion of seven sacraments is not Anglican. The Hackney Hub is a great blog, exploring many of the same themes of classical Anglicanism that you’ll find here, albeit from a more Reformed perspective. Jordan’s post argues that the Catechism and the Articles point to only two Sacraments and that the language of seven sacraments does not come into vogue among Anglicans until after the rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the nineteenth century. While there is a good bit of historical truth to this, I find the whole notion of counting sacraments to be theologically unsatisfying, regardless of whether or not the number we arrive at is two or seven or something entirely different.
Defining the Sacraments
For all of our emphasis on it and wrangling over it, the word Sacrament is not a biblical word. It comes from the Latin, Sacramentum, which was used in the west to translate the Greek mysterion, which was used by the Fathers to describe a variety of actions in the Church. It means something hallowed or set apart, originally referring to the oaths sworn by military officers. In the Christian context, the word sacrament has always been a way of marking the otherness certain actions. The sacraments set us apart from the world, even as they set ordinary items like water, bread, and wine, apart from their usual context.
Over the centuries, the word sacrament has become more and more carefully defined. The Baltimore Catechism, which was used to catechize Roman Catholic children from the late nineteenth century up through the sixties, says that “An outward or visible sign, the institution of that sign by Christ, and the giving of grace through the use of that sign, are always necessary for the existence of a Sacrament, and if any of the three be wanting there can be no Sacrament.” This is not terribly different from the Anglican definition, found in the Catechism, that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Martin Luther put it more eloquently in his Large Catechism, saying that “the Sacraments and all external things which God ordains and institutes should not be regarded according to the coarse, external mask, as we regard the shell of a nut, but as the Word of God is included therein.” For Luther, it is the uniting of God’s Word with the physical elements that give them power. When the priest speaks the name of God into the water at Baptism, for instance, it binds that powerful name to the one being baptized.
Embracing the Mysteries
All of this is helpful and interesting, to a certain degree. Nonetheless, it misses a certain element of the biblical truth which is captured in the word mysterion or mystery. To this day, the Orthodox Churches refer to the sacraments as the divine mysteries, and we could learn something from that in the west. Mysterion comes from the Greek word to initiate. A divine mystery is less about the setting apart of ordinary things and more about the initiation of God to claim His world and make it holy. Mystery is not easily defined. It contains a secret, something that cannot be comprehended through simple logic. The actions of God are inherently mysterious.
The prime example of the use of the word Mystery in this way in Scripture is found in Ephesians 5:32, at the end of Paul’s description of the union of husband and wife and the way in which marriage is an icon of Christ and the Church. “This mystery is a profound one,” says Paul about marriage, “and I am saying it refers to Christ and the Church.” The mystery of marriage is rooted for Paul in the much greater mystery of the Church. Christ is the one who initiates mysteries, and the Church is His method of doing so. The Church herself is the chief mystery, the chief sacrament. She is the only route to grace and wholeness for the world because it is only when we are united with her that we come to be united with Christ.
If we follow the western model, the need to enumerate sacraments becomes crucial. Sacraments have a certain recipe, a certain form. If they have to be given directly by Christ in the Gospels for the salvation of souls, than perhaps it makes sense to say that there are properly only two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, since every other sacramental action flows back to these two. It would seem to be logical to privilege these two in our teaching as they are generally necessary for all people by the explicit command of our Lord.
Nonetheless, to say that there are only two mysteries would be a profound mistake. The entire action of God in the world through Christ is pregnant with mystery, leading to our final reconciliation with God and our transformation. Christ has initiated any number of means to fill our world with His presence, reclaiming it from the scandal of sin and the tyranny of death. These actions of Christ have their root in the ultimate mystery, the Church herself. Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Confirmation, Confession and Absolution, and Unction would certainly qualify as divine mysteries, as would many other things, such as the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday or the blessing of homes. These things are not separate rites in which we are taken out of the world and set apart. Rather, they are part of the whole action being taken by Christ through His Church to reclaim the world.