Not From The Vicarage


Not From The Vicarage

The Loss of the Sacramental


As in other walks of life, clergy of the older generation notice that their younger colleagues have been educated differently about what ‘church’ means. Naturally the changing face of church over decades plays its part. But always for the better? The ‘old boys’ – and to a more recent extent ‘old girls’ – in ordained ministry will eventually find themselves out of step with their former selves, or indeed their ministerial formation. Outwardly this may not seem to matter; but it has implications for both preaching and teaching in the parish. When I was ordained in 1984 I was part of a church which was certainly conscious of evangelism (the ‘Decade of Evangelism’ for instance ran from 1990-2000) but pastoral and sacramental ministry were still seen as central to parish life. The words of the Ordinal seemed unequivocal: a priest “must set the Good Shepherd always before him as the pattern of his calling, caring for the people committed to his charge, and joining with them in a common witness to the world’.

Contrast this with the experience of one of our clergy today who heard a diocesan adviser say just a few years back: “the age of pastoral care is dead”. The adoption of Mission as the church’s sole focus affects a whole new generation’s understanding. Of course Jesus made the preaching of the Good News his priority: but without his healings and compassionate care for sinners the Kingdom would have been stripped of its meaning.

This major shift worries a ‘retired’ like me for a number of reasons. The evangelical wing of the Church of England is now in the ascendant and has been for the last 20 years. The problem with that (the majority of our 72 bishops now represent only one wing of the church) is that an increasingly lop-sided understanding of parish life has emerged. The evangelical emphasis on the Scriptures is to be universally welcomed. But the fact that the sacramental part of Christian life is declining in significance is not.

At the Eucharist we encounter Our Lord in word and sacrament. Receiving the host (and pre-Covid the wine) is the culminating point in our Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion). A diminishing number of clergy from the ‘catholic tradition’ (small ‘c’) retain a deep understanding of the centrality of the sacrament; that the Holy Spirit transforms God’s people in the Eucharist as they come to the altar. There is a mystery about our incorporation into the Body of Christ which goes deeper than charismatic preaching, fervent prayers or worship songs. The ‘dumbing down’ of sacramental awareness is sad, even heart-breaking. It also sells God’s people November 2020 Page 4 short. Evangelical worship often presents a chummy, over-familiar relationship with the Father. Where is the opportunity for humility, reverence and awe? Evangelical worship is sometimes triumphalist and noisy: where can one find the ‘still small voice’ of meditation and silence?

There are valuable insights to be gained from evangelical spirituality: personal conversion, extempore prayer, commitment to the Bible. But strangely enough even these may lead us only into the shallows of faith. If we also want to plumb the depths of the Divine, the sacramental life can reveal to us the ‘mystery beyond all telling, deep in the heart of God’.

Canon Graham



















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Page last updated: 17th November 2020 12:36 AM