The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Sacraments: Acts of the church

Sacraments: Acts of the church in the power of the Spirit

Symbolic acts, rooted in church tradition, empowered by the Spirit of God

Sacraments are classically defined in Anglican tradition as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. As phenomena – things that happen in time and space – they are acts of the church, the community of faithful people gathered in the name of Jesus Christ our Brother in God the Most Holy Trinity. Thus understood, sacraments partake of divine energy, not in some mechanistic way – no one gets zapped! – but in the way of God’s love, which imbues all the church does in worship, prayer and evangelical service.

Sacraments are not ceremonies, although there are ceremonial aspects to our acting in these particular ways as the church. Ceremonies vary from congregation to congregation. Some are traditional in the sense that they have come down to us through the tradition of the church, while some are local; for example, the manner in which water is poured into the font during baptisms may be a local ceremonial custom, while kneeling to receive Holy Communion is a traditional ceremonial custom in use for centuries.

Sacraments are not rituals, although rituals compose the outward and visible signs of sacramental acts. Bishops, for example, lay their hands and invoke the Holy Spirit upon those to be confirmed or ordained. The laying on of hands is an ancient Christian ritual, which may be understood as a symbolic act deeply meaningful to the community of faith. Symbolic acts, like symbols themselves, not only signify but also participate in the reality to which they point. Hence they are qualitatively different from ceremonies and are essential to celebration of the sacraments. Symbols differ from signs – for example, the sign of the cross we make upon our bodies – which signify something but do not participate in that to which they point. Signs are meaningful but are qualitatively different from symbols. (Note: There is no bright red line between that which is symbolic and that which is significant.)

Sacraments, then, are complex, symbolic acts of the church composed of ritual and ceremonial through which we derive meaning and by which we may experience transformation and the deepening of our consciousness – our awareness of the presence of God not only in the community of faith but resonant in the world.


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