The Church and the Sacraments

Being Christian in the World that we’re in: Session 5


The Church and the Creed at the time of the First Ecumenical Council

We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

In a country where many people grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, it’s understandable that people would think that this sentence from the Nicene Creed refers to that huge and venerable organization run by the Pope. However, while there was an important bishop in Rome when the Nicene Creed was adopted, he wasn’t at that council and the church wasn’t organized around the papacy at that time. The “one holy catholic Council of Niceaand apostolic church” meant something very specific to the 200 or 300 bishops who gathered in the imperial palace in the lakeside town of Nicea in 325 A.D. It referred to the faith and life in the churches they represented, a faith and life that had been passed down from the apostles of Jesus. Catholic means universal—those bishops who had come together from throughout the known world recognized the unity of a universal church with universal belief and common worship. The Roman emperor Constantine had called the meeting and was in charge of the meeting, but the one authority over that Church was Christ and not a single person or institution.

The origins of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism

The Episcopal Church is descended and directly related to the Church of England. That church was separated from the Roman Catholic Church about 500 years ago. There are two reasons that this happened: first, the Protestant Reformation was at its peak in Europe—there was great controversy over authority and theology in the church; and second, the King of England wanted a divorce. His wanting a divorce, or technically an annulment, of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon is a complex story, involving international relations between England and Spain. European monarchs generally expected the Pope to grant annulments when they needed them, but when Henry’s ambassador arrived in Rome, it was occupied by an army belonging to Catherine’s nephew, the Emperor of Spain. So, the King of England broke away from the Pope. Historically, similar things had happened, but reconciliation eventually came about. But the Protestant Reformation had its influence in England, including many who questioned the authority of the Pope, or at least the form and extent that it had reached by the 16th century.

To simplify a complex couple of centuries, Henry VIII kept most of the existing structure of the church, but prohibited the papacy. Many of the clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior bishops were convinced by the protestant reformers, but there was not a single ascendant theological genius, like Martin Luther or John Calvin unifying their perspective, and indeed many clergy and bishops were more convinced by the theology and practice as inherited from Roman Catholicism. I think this was a good thing.

The One Church in all times and places

Here’s why: the early Anglican theologians had to look far afield to explain their church

Richard Hooker
Richard Hooker–Anglican Theologian and theorist about the church, expert on Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin.

—how was it One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic? This required listening to their contemporary controversies, both the arguments of protestant reformers and of reformers who remained in the Catholic Church as well. But it also required listening to earlier voices, great medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, the writings of Orthodox Christians from the East who had never incorporated the papacy, into how authority, theology and worship was managed in their churches, and most significantly, the writings of the theologians of the early church, who they called the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers were mostly writing in the late Roman Empire—a world much different from the medieval culture that immediately preceded the 16th century. They approached problems differently than the feudal system that had developed in the previous 500 years or so, they were exposed to different people and cultures than early modern Europeans knew. The structures of the Church and society were different. These old writings presented Anglican theologians with new ways of looking at things.

These are a lot of voices. There are a lot of different pages that these people are on. Christians have been in many, many places and conditions throughout history. Faithful responses have not always looked the same. So what does it mean to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?

As Anglicans, we know that all of these things must somehow be taken into account, every bit that is true.  One church reflects One God, One Truth, One Christ. Yet that doesn’t allow us to be simplistic, to take one off-the-cuff assertion by some guy as the whole and adequate truth, when there are millions of faithful voices over thousands of years across the globe to be listened to.  But that’s a bit much, isn’t it?

The idea of an Apostolic Church is that there is continuity in the church, going back to the Apostles. We call our church the Episcopal Church, naming it after bishops (the Greek word is “Episkopoi”) who are a continuous line of teachers, leaders and interpreters of the scriptures going back to the apostolic church. Sometimes there is an overly-mechanistic understanding of that, but continuity of teaching and worship is essential to the ongoing church and in Anglicanism (or Episcopalianism) that is emphasized even more than it is in other denominations. The Catholic aspect of the church does NOT refer to any effort to be similar to the Roman Catholic Church, but to listening to that broad range of Christian voices, Universal across time and geography that makes up the body of the faithful. It is not so much a matter of being certain that we are right and will always be right, but that we can listen to voices beyond ourselves when we are wrong and be corrected, restored into fellowship in Christ. Thus, being the church is an ongoing process of living, learning, and listening, rather than having a rigid, crystalline set of decrees in a church that never changes made for a world that never changes.

Worship in the Church–Continuity and Change

The church is Holy because God is Holy and has made God’s people Holy in a life of worship of God. Like our bishops and our teaching, our worship is in continuity with the historic church. When the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, the liturgy was translated into English, the language understood by the people. The liturgy incorporated much of the structure of the mass as it had developed in medieval Catholicism as well as insights from the protestant reformers and prayers and liturgical elements found in liturgical material from the Orthodox churches and the early church. The complex monastic daily office was developed into Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer meant for daily public worship in parishes.

About 400 years later, the Episcopal Church started a full-scale revision of its worship. The intention was to streamline and update the language and to bring the structure and prayers more in line with the worship of the early church, at least the earliest complete liturgies we have, from the fourth and fifth centuries. This project was completed while I was in seminary and is found in our prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, 1979. We shouldn’t think that our liturgy reproduces the worship of the fourth century either in its words or its ethos. Rather, the Liturgical Movement which our prayer book revision was a part of, sought to return to early sources to make worship responsive to our current life.

The outline and language of the new liturgies is clearer and simpler than those that preceded them. This is a modern adaptation. It focuses on the essentials of God’s redeeming action in Christ, which is the ancient and apostolic concern.


Christian worship has always been sacramental worship. That is to say elements of our created world immerse us in God’s redeeming action. The Prayer Book catechism describes a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Baptism and Eucharist are the sacraments at the heart of Christianity. In baptism, we become one in Christ’s death and resurrection by being submerged in water and brought out to new life, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer focuses on baptism as the center of the Christian life, not only in the baptismal liturgy itself, but also in the structure and themes of the other liturgies, especially the Eucharist.

Baptism at Easter VigilThe most complete version of Christian baptism is in the Easter Vigil, which is based on the baptismal practice of the early church. It begins in darkness with the lighting and blessing of the new light. That is followed by a long series of scripture readings and singing of psalms—their structure is to tell the story of God’s redemption of God’s people Israel, beginning at creation, the exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea, the delivery from exile, and the words of hope from the prophets.  At the end of this, the candidates for baptism are presented, they make their vows to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, and commit themselves to Christ, as the congregation reaffirms their own baptismal promises and the candidates are baptized with water. After this, all the lights come on and the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection is read and the Eucharist is celebrated, with the newly baptized being the first to receive communion. Thus in baptism, we re-enact and remember what God has done for us and receive the gift of new life. It is how the church is bound together in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Every week, we celebrate the Eucharist—which is a Greek word meaning Thanksgiving. After reading and teaching scripture, we pray for the world and one another, then we gather for the Great Thanksgiving. In this sacrament, Christ offers bread and wine as his body and blood. The prayer that the priest leads takes us through the same basic account of God’s redemption of the world. In it the outline of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples is recounted: “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” The center of our life together is this story of being united in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the story of God’s ultimate mercy—Jesus’ friends did not rescue him, or stay by him, but rather betrayed and abandoned him, yet it was to them that he appeared when God raised him from the dead, it was them that he blessed and empowered to live a life of conveying that same mercy.  In sacramental bread and wine we partake of Jesus’ body and blood and we become one with him in his community of mercy.

There are five other sacraments that the church provides, which adds up to the mystical number of seven sacraments. Confirmation, Matrimony, Reconciliation of a penitent, Anointing of the sick, and Ordination to Holy Orders. In each, an outward sign, usually something physical, is used to convey the grace intended. In Confirmation, the person who has been baptized takes adult responsibility as a baptized person and is joined to the wider church by the laying on of hands of a bishop. In Matrimony, the couple being joined in marriage exchanges rings as a symbol of their permanent vows and being bound together as one family. In Reconciliation, the repentant person confesses their sins, commits to performing the assigned reparative task and the priest pronounces absolution, that is forgiveness of these sins, on behalf of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. In Anointing, oil is spread on some part of the body as a physical act and prayer of healing. This can be done at any time, but is particularly appropriate during illness or crisis. In Ordination, the person being ordained is joined to the church, permanently, for a special ministry and commitment. The bishop lays hands on the ordinands, joining the newly ordained with the ministry of the church. This is particularly dramatic at the ordination of a priest where all the presbyters present join in laying on of hands on the ordinand—it is a palpable joining with others in ministry.

The sacraments all join people together in God’s community. They heal those things that have become disjoined and call people together in the ministry of God’s mercy. Baptism and Eucharist in particular convey us from the disorder of sin into the healing of Christ’s Body. It is in the sacraments that we live out the Gospel.

The church–a Sacrament joining all people together in God

In the Episcopal Church, we are the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, because we are joined, not to a group which we find pleasant and agree with, but to the people of God in all times and all places. This is open ended, flexible and dynamic, but it is not vague. We know the witnesses to Christ, those theologians and martyrs of the early church, the teachers of the Reformation and of the Middle Ages. We know people near us who have shared their lives and faith with us, but we also know those from far away. Just this Easter we were blessed by Bishop Sebastian Bakare, whose life of Christian witness and courage was mostly with the people of Zimbabwe, East Africa, though I knew him forty years ago 3,000 miles in the other direction, where we studied theology in Berkeley, California. The Church is widespread in time and space, but it is united by “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. One God and Father of us all who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5)

The Church follows Jesus together. We are Episcopalians because we are united in God’s mercy and we hold to a faith that is in continuity with Christian tradition and worship throughout the ages but is open to where God leads us next. God may lead the Church forward in ways that makes our denominational labels obsolete. What will not be obsolete is the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Questions for Reflection & Discussion

  1. What does it mean to you to be a part of the catholic church?
  2. Share a time when you were touched by God’s presence when receiving one of the Sacraments? What happened?
  3. What do you appreciate most about the Book of Common Prayer?
  4. What do you most appreciate about our Roman Catholic roots?

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Calvary Episcopal Church

This is a forum for learning and discussion about Christianity. Calvary Episcopal Church is an open and welcoming community of Christians in Flemington, New Jersey

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