How many Sacraments are there in Anglicanism?

I recently got into a discussion via twitter with a Lutheran Pastor from Manitoba that made me want to do a post on the Sacraments, or more importantly, the number of Sacraments: Are their two or seven. As an Anglican presently attending an Anglo-Catholic Parish the answer for most of us would be Seven. However, most Protestants (Lutherans included) believe that there are Two. Part of this is because there is a dispute of…

What is a Sacrament?

There are multiple views of what a Sacrament is even within Anglicanism. However, given that we are a people who follow the principle of Lex orandi, lex credendi; The Law of Prayer is the Law of Believe.

Articles of Religion

The Articles of Religion, better known as the XXXIX Articles, don’t give us a definition of what a Sacrament is. Why are included in the Books of Common Prayer of most members of the Anglican Communion, however the aren’t a prayer, aren’t included for instruction and may no longer have authority even in the Church of England. That being said Article XXV states the following:

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Okay. So, there are two then. Right. Well, the Article then goes on to say:

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

On the surface that former portion of the Articles says that are not Sacraments…of the Gospel. It reiterates to say these Rites are “not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel“. Thus, this Articles seems to suggest a possible Hierarchy of Sacraments.

Catechism of the Church

One part of the Prayer Books that would be from the Catechism included in the Book that was used to instruct those preparing for Confirmation. The Catechisms generally give us a definition. Now, there are a number of editions as each member Church has their own.

Church of England, 1662

Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
Answer. Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

So, the Church of England says there are only Two … as “generally necessary to salvation”. It also gives us the definition that a Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us, ordained by Christ himself. That last part is important as we see there is importance to Sacraments being ordained by Christ. If you recall Article XXV said the additional rites were:

are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures;

It seems that the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer rules out the other five rights as being Sacraments. The Questions and Answers given in the 1962 Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church of Canada are nearly identical.

The Episcopal Church in the United States, 1979

The Episcopal Church’s contemporary language Catechism has a bit more of a middle path:

Q. What are the sacraments?
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

Q. What is grace?
A. Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.

Q. What are the two great sacraments of the Gospel?
A. The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.

Here will still have the language that Sacraments are still given by Christ. However, in this Catechism refers to Baptism and the Eucharist as the two “great sacraments of the Gospel”. We are also given a definition of Grace. However, this more modern Catechism does state:

Q. What other sacramental rites evolved in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
A. Other sacramental rites which evolved in the Church include confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.

Q. How do they differ from the two sacraments of the Gospel?
A. Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are.

Here the 1979 Book refers to the other five rites as “Sacramental Rites”, and reiterates that they are “not necessary for all persons” for salvation. This book is written in more modern times but also more than 150 years after the Oxford Movement which sought to re-affirm the Catholic Heritage of Anglicanism. This insertion and language is here to seek a middle ground between Low and High Church Anglicans.

Service of Holy Communion

The service of Holy Communion for Anglicans was changed very little from 1552 until the 20th Century. However, there is a small phrase of importance in the service that is very important to how many sacraments are there:

take this holy Sacrament to your comfort

You might think to yourself “Okay. So this is something said by the Priest for those communing, right?” Well, not exactly.

During the invitation to Confession that is given before the Eucharistic prayer the service has the following rubric and statement:

Then shall the Priest say to them that come to receive the holy Communion,

YE that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees.

The language here is a little ambiguous. One interpretation is that the Sacrament being taken is the Eucharist. The Exhortation and the other prayers in the service would seem like more than enough to point to the attendants coming for that Sacrament. However, it can also be interpreted that the Confession is the Sacrament being mentioned. After all, immediately following the Confession by the Faithful are the Comfortable words set to re-assure the Faithful that their sins have been forgiven.

The ordination prayer for Anglican Priests going back to 1550 states:

…Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments;

The prayer specifically quotes John 20:23. It is then understood that an Anglican Priest is forgiving Sins in the Absolution during the Service of Holy Communion:

Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins;

I would submit that the liturgy is stating that Confession, at least confession during the service of Holy Communion, is a sacrament. However, the English Reformers seemed to prefer that a Sacrament was necessary to Salvation and thus leave it to the “big two”.

So, after all this how many Sacraments are there?

Well, it depends on your definition of Sacrament. The English Reformers seemed to move towards the other reformers on the continent and say there are Two: Baptism and Communion. However, it appears they made their definitions and liturgy open enough that the Rites of Confirmation, Penance, Ordination, Matrimony, and Anointing of the Sick can be considered lesser Sacraments.

Thus, I believe the correct Anglican answer is Seven: Two necessary for Salvation and Five not necessary for Salvation.