Thomas Cranmer called the leaders of the church in his day to faithfulness to the “sacraments of Christ…as this Church has received the same.” The Anglican clergy of the subsequent centuries have all promised fidelity to this statement. What did the archbishop martyr mean?
The first and certain answer is that he meant the sacraments of the gospel, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.” All other “so called sacraments” were not to be accorded the same place in the life of the church as these two dominical ones. They were the sacraments that gave voice to “the truth of the gospel” in an “outward and visible” way. They did not add to the gospel, they reinforced it. One of them, Holy Baptism, enshrined the necessary understanding and faith required to begin the Christian Journey. The other, Holy Communion, enshrined the necessary understanding and faith required to be sustained on that journey. These sacraments gave liturgical clarity to the “doctrine of Christ” which was at the heart of the churches life and witness.
It is an ancient teaching that what is essential to the Christian Faith is that which is required of an adult at baptism. What then did Cranmer understand to be essential? Clearly he meant to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ sufficiently to repent of one’s sins and turn to Christ. This meant to understand the atoning death of the Lord Jesus on the cross, and to yield one’s life to him. There must be clear evidence that this faith has been wrought by the Spirit of God, and is not just a formal action. There must be evidence that he understands the rule of faith as contained in the creed, the commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the school of preparation. Only then was a man to be baptized. It was a step to be taken by faith.
Having been baptized, the new believer was bidden to come to the Table of the Lord, to receive the “bread of angels” given for all who would follow and serve the Lord Jesus. The communion in the body and blood, the bread and the wine, received by faith, was the only once offered, but to be continually received, spiritual sustenance for true believers. It was not magic, but a holy mystery of the first order, that rightly received united the believer to his Risen Lord, and strengthened him for service. Without feeding upon the Lord it was impossible to grow up into maturity. This sacrament was not to be neglected or despised, since the Lord had commanded it to be at the center of the church’s life on the night before he died. To be “his disciple” and abstain from the Holy Table was to risk proving oneself to be outside the covenant of grace. But no one was to come lightly or unadvisedly to that table, for to do so put one’s eternal salvation in jeopardy. It was a step to be taken by faith.
These two sacraments were the only two received by the Church of England in the beginning. The “doctrine of Christ” was contained in them, and the liturgy of the church sought to make that doctrine unmistakably clear.
Next Week: Cranmer’s Standard Examined (III)