A Roman Catholic friend asked me recently, “What do Anglicans believe about Salvation and the Sacraments”? So, here’s a brief explanation.
Anglicanism was begun by the Protestant Reformation in England**, and while its shape differs from Lutheran or Continental Reformed Protestant doctrine and practice, it is much closer to them in understanding than it is to either Roman Catholicism or Anabaptism. That’s part of the challenge when I talk to RC friends who come from backgrounds largely formed by Anabaptist doctrine (most Baptists, Pentecostals/Charismatics, and non-denominationalists). They know little, if anything, of Continental Reformed Protestantism, so they don’t understand us, either. They just know The Episcopal Church in America is WHACK, and the Church of England looks very similar, so they can neither make heads nor tails of Anglicans. Pretty much they think Henry VIII wanted a new wife and made the Church of England, and then we all became fancy dressed Baptists. That isn’t the case at all. Also, since the 19th century an increasing number of Anglicans are rather embarrassed by the Calvinist-ish views of the early Anglicans, and might seek to nuance these answers away from that perspective. So, while there are many who call themselves Anglicans (and rightly are), my answers will not satisfy some of them.
Since Anglicanism is not hierarchical in the same was as Roman Catholicism, there is a range of answers. Anglicanism doesn’t have the same broad range of official doctrine, but the formularies (The 39 Articles of 1571, the Ordinal of 1604, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) and the Books of Homilies, combined with the worship guided by the prayer book, give boundaries to genuine Anglican belief.
"The Anglican Communion," Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher wrote, "has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ's Church from the beginning." It may licitly teach as necessary for salvation nothing but what is read in the Holy Scriptures as God's Word written or may be proved thereby. It therefore embraces and affirms such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the Scriptures, and thus to be counted apostolic. The Church has no authority to innovate: it is obliged continually, and particularly in times of renewal or reformation, to return to "the faith once delivered to the saints."
To be an Anglican, then, is not to embrace a distinct version of Christianity, but a distinct way of being a "Mere Christian," at the same time evangelical, apostolic, catholic, reformed, and Spirit-filled.
Finally, before I start, we acknowledge that God may do as he chooses, and the statements below are what is normative, not exclusive. Also, it reflects current doctrine, not the doctrine of previous time, although both would claim to still have the same dogma as the early church.
Salvation – RC: occurs at baptism “by grace”. Baptism saves the individual and removes the account of their prior sins, as well as the curse and condemnation of original sin. (CCC 1254) From that point forward, salvation – meaning, eternal right relationship with God and protection from the second death, is contingent upon faith and works. (Catholics call the state of the person’s relationship to God after baptism justification, not salvation). Both faith and works are described as a result of the grace of God, but failure to maintain the right balance of works – such as avoiding mortal sin – make the “salvation” of baptism not effectual (CCC 1274, 1861). Thus, “salvation” is an historical event in the life of a person with no guaranteed result.
Salvation – Anglican:
Salvation is by grace, through faith. It is supernatural, in that it cannot be merited either before or after conversion and/or baptism. Because it is supernatural, it effects a change in the recipient of God’s grace, in that they then have justifying faith which they could not have prior to receiving God’s grace. Also, because it is supernatural, grace and faith generate good works. So, while both RCs and Anglicans would say we are saved by grace, Anglicans are not speaking of a temporary salvation from eternal judgment, but a permanent change of condition from a child of the devil to a child of God, who lives as if they are what they are. While it’s true that Anglicans believe that works are necessary evidences of justifying faith, they are not necessary components to receiving justification, since we are justified by faith. Since salvation is a gift granted by God by grace without merit, nothing merits its continued effect but that same grace.
So, the often heard challenge – “you say you can have faith without works” – is a canard when deployed against Reformed Protestants. It’s true - in that it is theoretically true, in the “thief on the cross” example. But, Anglicans, and historic Protestantism (and, we would say, historical Catholicism of the early church), deny that such a faith is possible. As St. James says, we will “show our faith by our works”. A faith that doesn’t produce works is no faith at all – there is no grace of God present to produce either (for further explanation, see the Book of Homilies on justification). We are justified by faith, and works are necessary.
In the Roman Catholic expression of Christianity, the sacraments are effectual because of their authority as sacraments, not because of the faith of the receiver nor because of the status of the giver. Their grace is accomplished “ex opere operato”, or, “it is done in the doing”. An unbeliever who eats the sacrament is still eating the flesh and blood of Jesus, and a believer with unconfessed sin does as well. The sacrament remains effectual. Extreme Unction is effectual, no matter the belief and behavior of the priest or the dying person.
Furthermore, the Roman Catholic church claims that all seven sacraments were instituted by Christ (CCC 1210). The permanence of baptism (in its removal of prior and effects of original sin) is mirrored by the permanence of holy orders, or matrimony, or penance – they are effectual in the performance of them, and their effects cannot be negated (CCC 1582, 1640) – this is why matrimony requires an annulment, which is a declaration that the marriage was never valid, not valid and broken.
Sacraments: Anglican –A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God gives us the sign as a means whereby we receive that grace, and as a tangible assurance that we do in fact receive it. We do not believe that unbelievers receive the sacraments as similar signs of grace, as Augustine says, “although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.” That said, we have no reason to doubt the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion are effectual when we take them in faith, or we see others taking them whose hearts we do not know.
The Anglican Way does not believe that the other sacraments of the church are the same type or effect as the two sacraments of the gospel (baptism and communion). They are not commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation, but arise from the practice of the apostles and the early Church, or are states of life blessed by God from creation. God clearly uses them as means of grace.
Questions? Corrections? Let me know.
Grace and Peace,
** The Church in England existed long before the Church of England, but for brevity’s sake I begin at the Reformation.
( I have quoted extensively from the Anglican Catechism, “To Be A Christian” and the Catechism of the Catholic Church)