Contrary to what many have thought, Anglicanism never goes so far as to deny the effect of what most Protestant bodies refer to as sacraments. Neither does Anglicanism affirm them. Simply, we claim not to know how God may work within those venues. We cannot do as the Roman Catholics have done, that is, to declare ministries to be "absolutely null and utterly void." The reason is simple. God has revealed what the sacraments are, and we have been given in that revelation a proper and Traditional way to administer them. But, he has clearly revealed something more, namely his willingness to work beyond the limits of what we understand, and that is because of his mercy and love.
My friend, Dr. William Tighe, posted this question in a comment:
Why not? The Early Church did this all the time, as, for example, in the canons of the Council of Nicaea when differentiations were made as to how those coming to the Church from various heretical groups and sects were to be treated...?
Indeed, his hypothetical question deserves a clear answer.
One thing has been clear in Anglicanism all along, and that is that we maintain the Apostolic Succession, having many strongly stated affirmations of our identification with the ancient Church. Many of the Protestant bodies have been based on a very different idea, namely that they have restored the Church, finding the most extreme definition of this idea in "outside the camp" Anabaptist terms, that they began all over again because the Church fell like Adam. Not so with the Church of England, and with the later development of international Anglicanism. During the English Reformation the Archbishop of Canterbury continued to be the successor of St. Augustine, and Ecclesia Anglicana retained its identity as that same church that traces its roots both to the ancient celtic British Church and to the later English Church, and the unity of those two churches into one Church at the Council of Hertford in 673 (following the successful groundwork for unity at the Council of Whitby in 664.)
Therefore, the English Church never redefined anything to do with the Orders of Ministry, but simply and clearly made known its intention and doctrine in the Preface to the Ordinal (1550):
IT is evident unto all men, diligently readinge holye scripture, and auncient aucthours, that from the Apostles tyme, there hathe bene these orders of Ministers in Christes church, Bisshoppes, Priestes, and Deacons, which Offices were evermore had in suche reverent estimacion, that no man by his own private aucthoritie, might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and knowen, to have such equalities, as were requisite for the same. And also by publique prayer, with imposicion of handes, approved, and admitted thereunto. And therfore to the entent these orders shoulde bee continued, and reverentlye used, and estemed in this Church of England, it is requysite, that no man (not beynge at thys presente Bisshop, Priest, nor Deacon) shall execute anye of them, excepte he be called, tryed, examined, and admitted, accordynge to the forme hereafter folowinge.1
Anglicanism was, from the start, unique among Protestant churches, and remained unique by retaining Apostolic Succession and the ancient Catholic Faith that included the administration of the sacraments.
Apologists and Bin Divers
Many writers tried to convert Anglicans to Rome. Appealing to our belief in the Catholic Tradition, they attempted to color the history of the English Church, especially as that history encompasses the 16th and 17th centuries, in such a way as to bring discredit to the clearly stated entent of the Preface, and to the whole body of doctrine and Canon Law that provides context for it. They have found unlikely bedfellows among a new wave of Evangelicals, many of whom delight in digging up old arguments Rome itself has abandoned, apparently without the consent of self-appointed apologists who frequent the Internet. Rome has abandoned them because she no longer pretends to believe the fictions her apologists once wrote boldly. Nonetheless, along come modern Evangelicals who claim to be Anglican, having only just discovered the trash Rome threw away and mistaking it for treasure, spouting this combination of a little knowledge with a large amount of ignorance, waving the trophies of their Bin Diving expeditions.
So, all over again, this time to refute the new-wave pseudo Anglican(?) Evangelicals, we find ourselves pointing out why the Church of England never knowingly violated its own laws, why rumors about non-episcopally ordained ministers amounts to no evidence at all, and that the English bishops actually meant what they said in ecclesiastical legislation, and that breaking these laws was also a crime in England ,etc., (the same old arguments Anglicans wrote to refute Roman apologists for centuries). Only this time, we are answering people whose agenda is not to convert Anglicans to Rome, but rather to deny the distinct nature of Anglicanism as both Catholic and Protestant without any internal contradiction.
Invalid versus Null and Void
This is because they do not want to "unchurch" Protestant Christians who make no claim to Apostolic Succession, and to historic continuity with the ancient Church. What I wrote in Part II of this series, however, is very different. The title of this series is "Grace and Sacraments." A distinction that needs to made and understood is that of what God may do and what the Church is commanded to do.
The very fact that the Church of England and Anglicanism world-wide, had always required, without exception, that no man may carry out the sacred ministry without episcopal ordination, is itself sufficient proof that the patrimony that we are Continuing has no hesitation in distinguishing valid sacraments from invalid sacraments (or, even non-sacraments, such as church bodies that merely license with not so much as a pretense to ordination). We have no hesitation declaring that some sacraments are invalid, such as baptism without the Trinitarian Name, or communion with no priesthood and no proper Intention. We reject women's ordination as invalid, and our concept that some marriages, though legal, may for proper considerations deserve a Decree of Nullity, are all based on our understanding that the Church has the authority and duty to recognize what is valid and to distinguish it from what is invalid.
Writing in Faribault on January 20, 1880, Rt. Rev. Henry B. Whipple, first bishop of the Diocese of Minnesota (known as a truly great missionary bishop to American "Indians," including the Dakota-or Souix), summarized our position simply with profound brevity:
God has wonderfully preserved our branch of the Church from this one error [from the context, exclusive claims as the One True Church], and I believe she is to be the Healer of Christian division in the last days. She preserves as primitive and apostolic her visible polity. She celebrates Divine sacraments as ordained by Christ, but does not define what God has not defined. She rests all her teaching on Holy Scripture, but gives her children the old Catholic Creeds for which she is a trustee. 2
This summarizes the Anglican understanding of our own patrimony, and in doing so expresses a standard of reason to be applied to Christian unity and to sacraments. "She celebrates Divine sacraments as ordained by Christ, but does not define what God has not defined." What we cannot define includes the "mechanics" of the sacraments (if I may invent a phrase). A perfect example of trying to define what God has not defined is found on the extreme ends of trying to explain the mystery of Holy Communion. The strained efforts of injecting man-made philosophical method into this sacrament, thus creating Transubstantiation (as understood pre-Ratzinger 3, or Pope Benedict XVI), and the opposite extreme of reducing the sacrament to a mere symbol, are two opposite results of the same presumption: Namely, that we can unravel the Holy Mysteries. Both of these extremes, indeed each of them equally, "overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions." 4 These words are equally applicable to the Memorialist as they are to the pure (pre-Ratzinger) Tridentine Roman Catholic. Both have made a dogma out of human reason instead of revelation. Indeed, that the Memorialist may fall prey to superstition is evident in the fear expressed by some Fundamentalists that the sacrament of the Catholics may contaminate them with something evil, maybe even (as some have expressed) the Mark of the Beast. Trying to define what God has not defined, trying to solve mysteries that he has deliberately hidden as far above and beyond man's imagination and highest thought, leads always to useless and foolish ramblings.
The limits of God's own workings and grace, however, are also in the category of what he has not defined. The Anglican position of refusing to define these limits is what has confused the two strange bedfellows, the out-dated Roman Catholic apologist and the new-wave Evangelical "Bin diver." Both have confused refusal to define what God has not defined with a low standard, perhaps a non-standard, in judging any sacrament to be invalid. Here we must distinguish between what is meant by two different terms: Invalid on one hand, and Absolutely null and utterly void on the other.
"Invalid" refers to the sacrament itself, and to the part of it that is under human control. We shall use as an example the Holy Communion. The Church has received a clear command from Christ, "this do in remembrance of me." This command contains a promise:
Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. 5
The Church has received clear teaching from the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ himself, that the bread becomes his Body and the wine becomes his Blood; and this is a mystery beyond our comprehension. It is a reality, not merely a symbol; but the nature of that reality is never defined by God, nor could we understand if he had defined it. We know from careful study of Scripture that every sacrament requires Form, Matter and Intention, and that every Sacrament carries a promise of specific Divine action in response. So, these four things mark each sacrament: The human work of Form, Matter and Intention, and the Divine work of fulfilling a promise of grace. When any one of the human workings is missing a sacrament is invalid.
However, the expression "Absolutely null and utterly void" suggests a thing beyond our knowing, for it dares to presume, beyond what God has revealed, a limitation to his grace. 6 "Absolutely null" may refer simply to invalidity, but "utterly void" cannot help but beg the question "void of what?" The only logical answer is grace, the part that God fulfills. This is what we cannot know. We are able rightly to say that a sacrament is invalid, but are not able to say that God has withheld his grace, even the grace that normally comes through the sacrament. 7 Furthermore, charity compels us to hope that the Roman Catholic doctrine of Invincible Ignorance (without exclusive claims), is as true as the ancient doctrine of Baptism by Desire.
It is true that Anglicans have always refused the call any sacrament "Absolutely null and utterly void." It is not true that we lack, or ever have lacked, the true standard by which we must treat some as invalid, and to treat them so for reasons that are pastoral and born of charity.
1. Later revised as follows: It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the Church of England, no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.
2. Quoted in Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, Rt. Rev. Henry Benjamin Whipple, D.D., L.L.D., New York, London, 1902
3. To understand the difference made by Pope Benedict XVI, long before his elevation to the papacy, see the blog article at this link.
4. Article XXVIII
5. John 6:54-56
6. Probably, these days no learned theologian anywhere, including Rome, would be comfortable with the implications of that phrase, as we discuss them here.
7. The Scriptural arguments are the same as before. II Chron. 30:18-20, Luke 23:39-43.