Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Aimless Happiness

"When I found myself confronted with perfect happiness, a quite unexpected thing happened. I suddenly discovered that if happiness is aimless, it's unbearable. I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and sufferings had to be overcome, there was always something beyond them. But because it had no further meaning and because I believed in nothing, happiness seemed to be stale. So I decided I would give myself a year to see whether life had any meaning."

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, School of Prayer (London: Daybreak, 1989), p. xiii

Saturday, 7 January 2017

ACNA Catechism – Responding to Adam C. Young

Rev. Young offers a good summary of the strengths of the ACNA Catechism in his March 2014 post. I would like to interact with his three main criticisms of it. In the following “Answer” refers to the ACNA Catechism, “Article” to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

(1) What is the human condition?
Young claims that the Catechism only designates our “self-centred rebellion against God” (Answer 2) as sin but not our “fallen and corrupt nature” (Answer 47). I am not sure this is true, given that Answer 2 speaks of our general human condition as “the state of sin” which is explicated in the very next answer as follows:
“Sin alienates me from God, my neighbor, God’s good creation, and myself. I am hopeless, guilty, lost, helpless, and walking in the way of death. (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 6:23).”
Consequently Answer 5 rejects any notion that we can mend our relationship with God , stating, “I have no power to save myself, for sin has corrupted my conscience and captured my will. Only God can save me. (Ephesians 2:1-9; John 14:6; Titus 3:3-7).”

Young would be right to observe that the Catechism does not use the phrase “original sin” but his judgement that “I am born a sinner by nature, separated from God” (Answer 106) is too little too late seems to me harsh.

(2) How may a person repent and place faith in Jesus Christ?
Young reads the Catechism’s answer as an Arminian statement and consequently in contradiction to the Articles. I can see why one might read it this way and I regret the Catechism’s failure to reference Ephesians 2:8 but the criticism is nevertheless not justified and this for two reasons. First, the “How” in the question cited (Answer 14) is arguably not concerned with the condition for repentance but its practical outworking. This seems to me clear from the sequence of questions. In other words, Question 14 does not ask, “can each of us repent and place faith in Jesus Christ as and when we wish or does this need God’s enabling?” It asks “how do you go about repenting and placing faith in Jesus Christ” and affirms that anyone at any time (and presumably anywhere) can do so, e.g., without any need for special rites or occasions, cf. Acts 16:31-34 and Romans 10:9, two of the Scripture references given.

Secondly, among the Scripture references given in Answer 14 is John 15:16 (“You did not choose me but I chose you”) and Answer 108 states that God “shows his saving grace by bringing to faith in Christ those who are far from him. (Romans 5:1-11),” thus affirming that we cannot come to faith in Christ apart from grace.

(3) Are there more than two sacraments?
The ACNA Catechism accepts the language of “sacrament” not only in relation to the “sacraments of the Gospel” (Answer 104), namely Baptism and Holy Communion, but also in relation to the other “five commonly called Sacraments” (Article 25). Young rightly notes the difference between Article 25 and Answer 117 which defines the difference between the two “sacraments of the Gospel” and the five “sacraments of the church.” The Answer reads
“They are not commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation, but arise from the practice of the apostles and the early Church, or are states of life blessed by God from creation. God clearly uses them as means of grace.”
Article 25 notes that these sacraments “have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles.” The addition of the word “corrupt” is of course significant but its omission need not be as odious as Young makes it out to be. Given that the way in which these rites were enacted at the time it is understandable that the Articles add the word “corrupt” but the way in which these rites are used today within ACNA and elsewhere is different from the common practices in 16th century Roman Catholicism. So unless one were to argue that one or more of these rites, having originated in corruption, should be dropped altogether, it seems feasible to drop the word “corrupt” without thereby implying that these rites were never practised in corrupt ways.

The main thrust of the sentence just quoted from Article 25 is not entirely unambiguous, “Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel.” Does this mean that they should not be called “sacraments” at all, as Young implies? Why then the addition “of the Gospel”? The concern of the English reformers was to make sure that Baptism and Holy Communion are clearly distinguished from any other rites that may be called sacraments (and the ACNA Catechism follows this); they were on the whole not as hard-line as Young on the use of the word “sacrament.” The proof of this seems to me in the second Book of Homilies, Homily 9. Young instead, in his first post, appeals to the earliest commentary on the Thirty-Nine Articles, written by Thomas Rogers.

The position espoused by Thomas Rogers has been present within the Church of England from the 16th century until today and is also found in other commentaries on the Thirty-Nine Articles. But it is not the one codified in the Articles or Homilies. In a second post, Young rightly points out that “numbering the Sacraments at seven is not following the teaching of the apostles or the early church” and that the Eastern Orthodox churches have not adopted the number “seven” (Young acknowledges that the Roman Catholic church is not entirely rigid about the number either). But while he is thus aware of a fluid and broader understanding of the term, he seems to believe that the use the word “sacrament” pretty much inevitably leads us to think of other rites “as being Sacraments in the same way that Baptism or the Lord’s Supper are.” He therefore believes that “If we call these other things sacraments we need to qualify it EVERY TIME by saying that they are not really Sacraments in the truest sense.”

Such anxiety over the use of the word “sacrament” seems to me unnecessary. The Articles and Homilies seem to me less anxious about safeguarding the word “sacrament.” They are concerned with making sure that people understand the difference between Baptism and Holy Communion, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, rites which are not “commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation” (Answer 117).

Given the broad understanding of God’s grace reflected in the Catechism, and rightly so, I find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to deny that God uses means of grace other than Baptism and Holy Communion. The ACNA Catechism does not disallow the use of the word “sacrament” in contexts other than the two sacraments of the Gospel and the five sacraments of the church. It arguably allows for people to hold to a more Eastern Orthodox position but as ACNA is part of the Western church it does not seem to me unreasonable and harmful to single out “confirmation, absolution, ordination, marriage, and anointing of the sick” as “sacraments of the church.”