Sacraments    What are they?1

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If you want a simple answer, think of a smile. You see a creasing of the face – and you know how the person smiling feels. Something on the outside, something on the inside. Or, as the Church of England describes it, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”2. A handshake is another good example. I extend my right hand to you – and you can tell I am friendly, because it is a sign I am not going to draw my sword. Or a wave. Or even a punch3.

In churches certain ceremonies are described as “sacraments”. Two are held to come from Jesus himself: Baptism and Holy Communion. Five others are held by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as also coming from him. But there is disagreement about exactly how they come from Christ – and that may be why the Church of England officially holds that only the main two are sacraments ordained by Christ. The other five [Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony and Extreme Unction, as they are officially called] are regarded as lesser sacraments and “have not like nature” with the other two4.

Yet, depending on your background and perhaps your churchmanship, you probably at least hold some of these “lesser” sacraments in some degree of respect. Most Anglicans accept [and many use] the sacraments of Confirmation and Matrimony – and though only a few go through ordination, we normally hold it to be of importance in the church’s life. Where we often differ is in our view of what is called “sacramental confession” and in our understanding of “Unction” – anointing with oil.

Some Christians don’t hold with sacraments at all5 – and others treat them somewhat differently from us6, either reducing their significance through less frequent use or by emphasising the significance of a sacrament [eg the Baptists’ insistence on adult baptism].