Saturday, September 04, 2010

Sacramental Validity: a response to the Rev Mr Clatworthy

I ought to stop reading the Thinking Anglicans blog as it raises my blood pressure too high. I just don't see how if they claim to be "Thinking" Anglicans they can't seem to think rationally from both sides of an argument. They will of course accuse us conservatives of doing the same but, hey, we're not the ones who are claiming to be able to "think". If by "thinking" they mean posting venomous and unChristian comments in comment boxes, then I think they'll find a happy home among the more crotchety Anglo-Catholic blogs.

That which has particularly caught my attention is this article by the Reverend Jonathan Clatworthy, lecturer in Ethics, and General Secretary to Modern Church.

It's a very carefully reasoned article claiming that Anglo-Catholic concerns about Sacramental Validity are unfounded and that the Anglo-Catholic worldview needs to be challenged and shown to be untenable.

Actually, I found it rather interesting to read, Fr Clatworthy writes rather well. But he's so very wrong. I had hoped that a theological brain vastly more superior than mine would have made a response to him, but I've not yet seen it. I thought then that I'd better have a go in the hope that if I make a pig's ear of it, one of my more capable readers would be inspired to address these arguments more coherently.

Fr Clatworthy’s argument runs as follows:

  1. The concept of Sacramental Validity is a construct of a 19th Century answer to the atheistic Rationalism of the Enlightenment.

  2. The 19th Century answer establishes the reality of the spiritual realm without physical evidence.

  3. Since Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, there is no need to separate physical from spiritual.
Conclusion 1: Therefore the 19th century idea of sacramental validity in the context of a separate self-contained spiritual world is pointless.


  1. God does not need our rituals and gives His grace freely.

  2. There is no traditional theology which leads us to expect that God would withhold His grace if the minister was a woman.
Conclusion 2: Any notion of Sacramental Validity does not depend on the sex of the minister.

  1. Natural phenomena are open to scientific investigation.

  2. If God created everything so that the effects of a Sacrament were the natural results of the Sacrament were being performed correctly then Science would be required to justify this.

  3. There are no observed effects of valid or invalid sacraments.

Conclusion 3. The Validity of Sacraments cannot be understood in a naturalistic framework.

Main conclusion: We cannot understand the Validity of Sacraments either naturally (which would require scientific justification) or spiritually (which is a pointless 19th century invention), thus it doesn’t matter if the minister of a sacrament be male or female.

I hope I’ve got that right.

So here goes…

As I say, I find the argument rather lovely. The problem lies in Fr. Clatworthy’s premises.

Although Fr Clatworthy does actually demonstrate that there should be some reasonable conditions that a sacrament to be ministered faithfully: “a room with a visual focus and minimum of distractions…”, “suitable music at the right moments”, something for the children…, his arguments against validity, however, seem to make it possible for a trained parrot to produce a valid sacrament. This is decidedly worrying to say the least. What if, in 500 year’s time, a convincing android ministers the sacraments? Would people be untroubled by this? No? Is it then the personal faith of the one who receives? So then the one who does not receive because it’s an android is a heretic and not to be associated with? Rather un-Anglican, methinks. Nonetheless, it’s produced a question of validity, hasn’t it?

To reject the natural view of sacraments and the spiritual world of the 19th Century on the grounds of lack of evidence seems rather to follow the line of Dawkins. Indeed doesn’t Dawkins’ argument for the non-existence of God follow Fr. Clatworthy’s worldview?

Fr. Clatworthy does say that “our host society has a worldview in which Christianity can sit comfortably.” Of course, Scripture says that it can’t in several places (St Mark viii.36, St John viii.23, St John xiv.20, xv.19, xvii.16, xviii.38, I Cor i.17-end, …) Christians are called to be in the world not of it. If Christianity is sitting comfortably with the world and not challenging its science, then it has lost its saltiness. The Bible is filled with references to an unobservable part of reality, why else with the Bible end with an Apocaylpse – an unveiling of the spiritual realms. That’s not 19th century, that’s always been.

Fr Clatworthy does not believe in a “picky” God who chooses one person over another. He clearly does not believe in the God who appears in the Bible, a God who demonstrates His personality (or personalities?) and even His humanity by selecting people for tasks, not to belittle the unselected, but rather for the edification of all. Does one need a worldview to see that in Scripture? I notice that there is no reference to scripture in his arguments.

He does, however, believe that modern worldviews of science and reality trump those of the folk who have gone before. What happens when the aforementioned android priest shows him to be wrong and thus denounces all his understanding as “old-fashioned” and “out-of-date”? If there is a figment of Eternal Truth, where is it in Fr. Clatworthy’s argument that will stop it from becoming out of date? If it is an Eternal Truth, where is the argument for women priests before the 20th century?

So where does Sacramental Validity come from? Fr Clatworthy seems to think it an invention of the 19th Century. However, the question must naturally appear in the History of Christianity in regard to any schism. Of course the Schism that he will be most interested with is the 16th Century Schism whence sprang the XXXIX articles. Before any schism, there was no need to question the validity of the sacraments because everyone could be sure that they were being correctly ministered.

As soon as there is a substantial change in praxis, people are going to wonder about why the change was necessary. (Fr. Clatworthy, like most liberals has not demonstrated why the change is necessary outside their own worldview). Some will accept the change, others won’t. The peculiar aspect of the Anglican Church was that it tried to hold together two opposing view points, and the XXXIX articles came about to try and bind Anglo-Catholic and Anglo-Puritan together. All the more reason then why Anglo-Catholics want to stay in the Church of England in honour of that aspect of Anglicanism. Of course, other Anglicans opposing Fr Clatworthy are leaving the CofE for the Continuum or for Rome. Will Fr Clatworthy not bless any of them? Those Anglo-Catholics who wish to remain in the CofE recognise that their opponents are at least sharing some common heritage with them. We are trying to continue in fellowship, even if that doesn’t make logical sense.

In order to ascertain the conditions for Validity, it is necessary to look into Church History and see what was established before the Schism. Folk on either side of the Schism will justify their arguments therefrom. The probability is more likely that only one is right, though in God the possibilities remains that both are wrong or (less likely but possible) both are right. Thus, there needs to be a Christian generosity and accommodation from both sides.

Further in discussing the notion of “contract”, Fr. Clatworthy seems to fall into the same trap as those who say “God does not need our worship”. God needs not our rituals, nor our prayers, nor our worship, but we do. The rituals, prayers and worship affect us and help us to be ready to receive the grace of God fully. Fr. Clatworthy will want me to demonstrate the evidence for this because it is essentially a naturalistic view of sacrament. All I can offer is from what I believe from Scripture that in performing the ritual I am being “transformed by the renewing of [my] mind, that [I] may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans xii.2). That is, after all, what Communion is supposed (in part) to achieve.

I hope that I, as a confused and largely uneducated Anglican Papalist, have done justice to this argument. I would welcome your thoughts.

    5 comments:

    poetreader said...

    posted earleir on the Anglican Diaspora messageboard - in two parts as this format won't accept it whole:

    The man is clearly wrong, but neither inconsistent nor loony. To make either of those accusations is to lose any argument with him. To read him superficially is to encounter point after point with which one cannot agree, some of which give the superficial appearance that they are inconsistent with each other. Unfortunately, that is not true. Within the postmodern secularistic view that he holds as its basis, the paper is very well constructed and reasoned, and will be thoroughly consistent to anyone that accepts his presuppositions

    It is those presuppositions that are false. He is thoroughly wrong before he even begins. His assessment of the history of theological and scientific opinions has little relation to anything occurring in the world in which we live. His descriptions of what he thinks to be held necessary for ‘validity’ is laughable. There is no legitimate theological insistence on reciting precisely the right words or holding one’s hands just so. Those who make those assertions (and there are some) are ignorant of sacramental theology. The precise directions for celebration are disciplinary only, and actually predate the ‘medieval’ view he makes so much of. They have been required for the sake of order, but validity does not depend upon them. I think he honestly believes that to be the historic teaching, but he shows himself ignorant of what it is that he opposes. There is, furthermore, no traditional insistence on the use of RED wine. Many historically have had a strong preference for white wine. Yes, fermented wine has been insisted upon, but the definition of even that has been far looser than some would make it. Any requirements of a percentage of alcohol are bogus. Certain segments of the church have historically used an infusion of raisins, which presumably does include yeast, but which has had little time to actually ferment. I point this out merely to show that he has no set conception of what is considered necessary for assured validity.

    His observation of the nature of the scientific viewpoint is likewise flawed. Yes, there is an assumption in the scientific method that reality operates on regular principles, and that one can make conclusions based on observation – but it is central to the scientific method that ALL observations and ALL conclusions be treated as tentative and correctable – that one simply does not know, but merely assesses probability.

    poetreader said...

    part 2

    Thus his assessment of the medieval, early enlightenment, later enlightenment, and contemporary viewpoints is quite superficial and in serious error in many ways. Since the basis of his argument is so seriously flawed, it makes no real difference that he has done such a brilliant job of weaving a self-consistent tapestry. If the premises are wrong, no conclusion can be achieved.

    I could make a lot of more specific challenges to his thinking, but find it unnecessary and probably a waste of time to make the attempt. It’s a house built on sand which, no matter how well built, cannot stand.

    ed

    poetreader said...

    a few additional comments:

    You answer him rather well. Your training in mathematics has been used to good effect.

    Mr. Clatworthy's argument is tightly organized and quite logical, and difficult to counter IF one grants his original premises. However, it is these that are fatally flawed. As they say in computer science, GIGO: Garbage in, garbage out. His "History" of sacramental thought has little if anything to do with what was actually thought or written by any of the reputable scholars, fathers, doctors, theologians, whatever, of any of the periods he discusses, but is a straw man so constructed as to be easily overthrown. His presentation of the scientific worldview is no better.

    If God has not the right to set conditions on His operations with regard to men, he is most certainly a very ineffective being, and there is no purpose whatever in worshiping Him.

    It is true that it is God and NOT the priest whose power is evident in the sacraments, but God has the right to choose how He will dispense these blessings.

    Either there is a Church or there isn't. If there is, it is the reliable witness to how those blessings have, in fact, been dispensed. If there is not, none of this discussion matters.

    ed

    AFS1970 said...

    Fr. Clatworthy's argument seems not to really be that a sacrament is equally valid when performed by a man or a woman, but that it is equally invalid. He argues that no sacrament can truly be valid as science has not found a way to quantify the results. Yet the purpose of this is to argue that the sacrament of ordination being extended to women should be widely accepted by the orthodox including consecration to the episcopate.

    I still have one question: If our human rituals are pointless, why then do these women need to be ordained? Ordination is simply one of these human rituals is it not? If there is no need for ordination, why then must women be made Bishops, as there is no need for them to pass down any succession (apostolic or otherwise)?

    When I used the word loony, I meant it in the sense that one can not argue ones right to partake in a certain sacrament by arguing that sacraments are unnecessary. That sort of argument is, if not loony, then at least a bit odd.

    poetreader said...

    I would think it consistent with his overall position to argue for ordination as a matter of decent organization, and, if that is all there is to it to advocate for women in the job. The problem is that he is totally unclear as to the purpose of the sacraments (or whatever he wishes to call these rituals), or, for that matter, as to the act of worship in itself. He does appear to go so far as to disapprove mildly of prayer itself.

    It's difficult to identify inconsistency in this religion that he advocates -- it's a well-developed and logical construct, but it is difficult also to determine what, if anything, it has in common with Christianity.

    The man is clear thinking and sane -- and firmly and logically rejects the core of the Faith. Pray for his endangered soul.

    ed