In this article, I thought I would take the prerogative of a catechist for a moment. Even good bishops need to be catechized. After all, they are the chief catechists of the Church. For the past several years, I have served the Anglican Church in North America as the chair of the Committee for Catechesis. Sadly, that role has often meant correcting bishops on occasion. I find it all the more necessary today, especially when it comes to their particular calling as bishops: the diligent preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the Sacraments, and the provision of godly discipline, so that “all may receive the crown of everlasting glory.” (BCP 2019, 500)
My chief concern in this brief catechesis is to address the language of the following resolution by the Primates from their September 2021 meeting:
the Primates acknowledged that while there is disagreement and ongoing discussion on the issues of the ordination of women as deacons or priests, and the consecration of women as Bishops, we are agreed that these are not salvation issues and are not issues that will disrupt our mission: to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations.
The rhetoric employed is rather simple: nothing to see here, the only real thing we have to consider is salvation issues, right? Can’t we just move on from this horrid albatross?
But, the usage of this term “salvation issue” begs a serious question. What, pray tell, are salvation issues? You’d think we’d want to know what those things are, right? Would the good Primates of GAFCON provide us with a handy list?
But, there is a more serious question I would ask today. Is this true? Do issues of ordination touch on salvation or not? What is salvation?
Let’s start with the basics. What is salvation? Or, perhaps more clearly, how does God save us?
To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism answers this question in the very opening section on salvation:
#6 How does God save you?
God forgives my sins and reconciles me to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he has given to the world as an undeserved gift of love. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The Catechism states later (Q 15) that this reconciliation to God in Christ includes forgiveness of sins, union with him in Christ, adoption into his family, citizenship in his Kingdom, and new life in the Holy Spirit. And just how does this happen? Through the Sacrament of Baptism, which is considered in the Articles of Religion (XXV) as “generally necessary for salvation.” In other words, unlike many evangelicals today, for whom salvation is solely about an affirmation of a number of propositions, it is about being joined to Christ by being joined to his death in a sacramental manner. Of course, creedal faith cannot be divorced from this new identity. In fact, it is the identity of the Christian. This is the reason that baptismal rites have always included the Rule of Faith, specifically the Apostles’ Creed.
Another way of putting this is that for Anglicans, salvation is participation in the life of God, granted through the great gift of Jesus Christ. Why do we believe this? Because it is the teaching of Holy Scripture.
Furthermore, the Anglican formularies (Including the Catechism, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Articles) do not stop by saying that Baptism and the living faith of the Christian are the only things necessary for salvation. To these, another is added: the Lord’s Supper. The Articles declare that Baptism and the Eucharist are not merely marks of profession, but “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.” (Article XXV) This is to say that if it is grace which is given in the Sacraments, it is certainly true that they are generally necessary to salvation. Why? Because it is first and foremost grace that is necessary to salvation.
So, is grace a salvation issue? You bet it is. Is sacramental grace a salvation issue? Of course!
Keep in mind also that the visible Church herself is defined as “a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” (Article XIX) That is, the Church is most herself in the proclamation of the Word and administration of the Sacraments, by which she receives the implanted word and the gift of participation in the person of Jesus. Thus, the article makes clear that there are things which are requisite to these two fundamental actions: not just clarity concerning Holy Scripture and the Gospel, but also Bishops that are real bishops and priests who are real priests.
Thus, neither the ordinal nor the sacramental rites of the Book of Common Prayer allow for monkey business when administering these sacraments. Anglicans are free to charitably hold that other ministers of the Gospel might be equally able to administer the sacraments, but canonically, there is no wiggle room. The Ordinal must be followed. The rites must be observed. Not only does this quell the doubt of the scrupulous, it ensures that the Church is most fully herself.
My point is that none of this is superfluous to salvation. Saint Paul calls the bread which we break and the cup of blessing “a participation” in Christ. While it is emphatically true that participation in the Eucharist does not effect our justification, it is very true that it imparts the grace of sanctification, and this being so is very much a salvation issue.
The problem which is presenting itself in the Primate’s resolution is that such a definition is anything but an Anglican statement. Anglicans are not interested in the lowest common denominator. This is a phenomenon of American revivalism more than anything else, and I suspect, therefore, a phenomenon of the East African Revival all the more. These revivals specifically avoided any sacramental content whatsoever, primarily because they were not the working of one church or another, but an extra-denominational movement. This meant historically that the doctrinal definitions of such movements were, of necessity, sparse.
The Primate’s exaltation of the mission to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations as some higher-ordered good than sacramental conformity is mystifying. If I can put the issue simply: the sacraments are the mission. The Church is not herself merely because of the faithful proclamation of the Word, but because of the faithful administration of the sacraments as well. Ersatz sacraments at the hands of ersatz bishops simply won’t do, no matter how faithfully the Gospel is preached. In fact, we should be willing to say that a proclamation of the Gospel sans the sacraments is no Gospel at all. It is a disembodied Gospel. It is more gnostic than Christian. And we should say so.
One more thing should be added to this, that the current controversy illumines the manifold difficulties of re-casting Anglicanism as a confessional Church. Even the Jerusalem Declaration does not presume to be a confession. In 2008, confessionalism was not the only solution on offer. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and others articulated the need for a renewal of conciliarism. The need is rather acute: bishops need to meet and decide on critical issues. A simple statement is insufficient. They cannot punt the ball downfield. Yet, this is the very thing that happened in Nairobi, introducing a somewhat magisterial statement as to the severity of the issue of women in the episcopate. We were told, let’s just move on. This is unimportant. Get over it.
Trouble is, for those who hold Anglican identity as a thing worth preserving, there is no getting over it. These issues are issues of salvation. And we will continue to say so.