Project Canterbury

The Sacramental Principle.

By Marcus Donovan.

London: Industrial Christian Fellowship, no date.

What bothers the ordinary man who hears a Crusade address or listens to a sermon on the wireless is the gap between ideals and practice. He has no quarrel with our ideals, as a rule, but he feels they are impracticable. Take, for example, unselfishness. We all admire it—within reason. We like to see children sharing their possessions and being generous with their gifts. We applaud those who devote their the service of good causes. But there comes a moment when we say, "after all, you've got to look after yourself. If you don't, no one else will." And we find ourselves snatching advantages, getting the better of our neighbours perhaps getting involved in a racket before we, know where we are. And that is where religion seems to fail us; the ideals it, puts forward are splendid, but they are too exalted for this workaday world. After a time, we begin to resent them. “What's the use of your talking that way?" we, exclaim. "You know jolly well we can't live up to it. We doubt if you do yourself." There is a faintly resentful feeling when we hear of people, whose lives are (quite mistakenly) regarded as easy arid comfortable, proclaiming ideals which neither they nor we can put into practice.

In spite of that, we believe most people feel that the world would be distinctly poorer if no one cherished or proclaimed ideals. These ideals are valuable. They are the expression of real "values" like those of justice, mercy, love, etc. They are realities. And, moreover, they are powerful. Look at the burning enthusiasm of a young clergyman like Basil Jellicoe. He was on fire with ideals, and they worked. The transformation of the grim district of Somers Town where he worked must be seen to be believed. The present writer went, years ago, to offer to work there. He found the Vicar in bed with a broken rib. He had been, beaten up by "toughs" in a street appropriately known as "Little Hell." Father Jellicoe changed all that: he was not a rich man, nor particularly well known, but he had ideals and he got things done.

We claim then that values like justice, unselfishness and the rest, are just as real as potatoes, and we can't afford to lose them and let them disappear from the world. But the constant pressure of material things tends to crowd them out. After a time they become faint. It has been said that every man over forty keeps his heart either in his pocket or his stomach! The values have become dim or been forgotten.


Now when we are faced with ideals which we can't or don't intend to fulfil, there are three possible courses. The first is to turn round on the ideals and say: "That's all bunk; No one in his senses would dream of acting like that. It's just Quixotic." That is what some do. We have all heard the elderly counsellor who begins: "When you've lived as long as I have, my boy ..." and then goes on to denounce the sort of things which he has no intention of practising.

Or we can trim the ideals down a bit, until they square with a decent, but uninspiring level which, we feel; is about all we can manage.

But there is a third possibility, and that is to get the power needed to put our ideals into practice. Can this be done? It is a fine thing to know that Christian values are being upheld by numbers of quite ordinary people, and it is a grand thing to know that they are steadily being preached in thousands of pulpits, but more is wanted. We want to know how to gain the power of living up to these lofty principles ourselves.

That power must come into us. That is why Example and Education are not enough: they can only assist us, but can't actually put power into us. Example may inspire, but it may also depress. "He could do it, I can't," we reflect. Education may assist us, but on the other hand, it may only succeed in making us "clever devils" as the Duke of Wellington put it.

There is a power which comes into men, and it is called "Grace." If we can imagine a Government circular being sent round to all the clergy, telling them to fill up a form describing the purpose of their churches, what do you think they should put down? Some might describe them as centres of light and teaching: others might be proud to describe them as homes of fellowship and social welfare. But the best account of them is that each church is a storehouse of "Grace." That is what people should expect to obtain there. They might hear inspiring music or eloquent sermons—or they might not! The buildings might be beautiful, or they might be commonplace. But the thing ought to be quite clear that Grace is continually being dispensed to those who need it. And that is what we are, sometimes unconsciously, looking for. It is not. altogether accurate to say, "We don't go to church for what we can get": we do: we need the Grace of God. Let us for the moment content ourselves with describing it as God's power, coming into our souls to strengthen us to fulfil His Will. There are more exhaustive definitions, but that will do to go on with. And at this point, we pause to ask "do you want it?" Not "do you need it?" for we do. But do you realise your need and really desire it?

There is a difficulty here. In spite of painful experience, many imagine that they have only to resolve “to be good” and they can do it in their own strength. This is the particular temptation of self-reliant people. It is a dangerous mistake, because when we fail—as we are bound to do—the effect is to depress us and make us disinclined for further efforts. Therefore, make no mistake about it: we all need power, and power is available.


How is it bestowed? That brings us to the point where we have to consider what is called the "sacramental principle." We begin by reminding ourselves that, all inward gifts have to be wrapped up in outward "signs." This is a perfectly well-understood principle, but, a few examples may serve to illustrate it.

If we want to express an inward feeling, we embody it in an outward form, e.g. friendship is indicated by a handshake, welcome in a smile or word or gesture. The gesture does not contain the friendship but conveys it.

If we want to put our thoughts into another person's mind, we embody them in words, either spoken or written. The art of "putting it over" is one which is increasingly valued and studied. The dry-as-dust professor whose stores of learning are all in the "top-storey" has to learn how to "get it across." He does it by words, possibly by demonstrations, diagrams, etc. He uses external means. It would simplify things if he could just communicate his thoughts directly into the minds of his hearers, but it can't be done. That is because we are twofold beings, with an outward part, the body, through which all sensations have to come in order to reach the mind or the soul. Consequently, we arrive at a principle which we call the "sacramental idea," viz. that inward values normally have to be conveyed by outward means. We can now define, this more exactly: "A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." That is the traditional definition which is embodied in the Church Catechism. One further word should be added, viz. the word "effectual." The "signs" we are considering are not "signs" only: they effect what they represent. That is a step forward, for the ordinary "sign" does not necessarily "effect" anything. Thus the flag of a nation is an eloquent symbol, but it is only a symbol; it does not actually "effect" anything. But a sacrament does.

Thus, when we bring a child to be baptised, it is not simply an interesting ceremony, full of meaning, expressing the child's admission to the fellowship of the Church. It is more than that, for at that ceremony something definite is given to that infant which he had not got before, viz. Grace to lead the sort of life that will be expected of him in that fellowship.


We have noticed that the Sacraments convey God's Grace, but one Sacrament differs from all the others, viz. Holy Communion. This not only conveys but contains the life of Christ imparted to the receiver. This is not the place to go into the controversies as to the precise way in which the Presence of Christ exists in Holy Communion, but most Christians will agree that what is important is nothing less that the life of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine. It is, therefore, the supreme Sacrament, and we cannot feel satisfied with our membership in the Church unless we become regular Communicants.

Again, however, a difficulty must be met. We may put it, rather crudely, this way: "Are not Sacraments in the nature of 'extras' helpful to some, but not really essential?"

This idea has grown because we live in a largely non-Sacramental atmosphere. The kind of Christian teaching given in most schools ignores the Sacraments, hence very understandably a good many people fail to see their importance.

Yet the sacramental idea is essential to Christianity. For "the Sacraments are the extension of the Incarnation." What does that phrase mean? It means that the Sacraments continue what Jesus did. He came to give us power. That is the outstanding feature of the Gospel story. Power radiated from Him, and He claimed to be able to impart it to others. He was Himself an example of the sacramental idea. He used an outward body, lived a genuine human life, had human friends and contacts, used outward earthly things, and He ordained Sacraments to carry on His work. These ordinances are Baptism and Holy Communion, and five other means by which this power was to be conveyed to us. He still takes outward means, bread, wine, water, actions, words, through which His power is given.

The Incarnation was itself a great "Sacrament"; it is continued in the ordinances that we call Sacraments. They are not "extras," therefore, but a central part in the Christian Religion, so that Christ still touches us as He did the diseased, cleanses us as He did the leper, receives us as He did the children.

If we could look at it like this we should see that the sacramental principle is a marvellous truth, a sublime belief which makes all the difference to those who hold it. Of course, it can be abused and debased. If we think of Sacraments as just forms, then we shall dismiss them as unimportant and, finally drop them altogether. That is what many Christians do, to their immense loss. If we think of them as magic, that is just as mistaken. It was because people had slipped into this debased notion that the Reformation came as a protest, but like many protests, it went too far and left the meagre idea of Sacraments as just "Church ordinances" which are optional and of no great moment.

Finally, the Sacraments have a social value. They involve two consequences: (1) that material things are not evil, but are taken up and sanctified because they are the vehicles of Divine power. Archbishop Temple put it arrestingly when he said "Christianity is by far the most materialistic of the great religions." It does not despise matter but employs it. And that, in turn, carries with it the consequence that material things—housing, food, health, etc., are the concern of the Christian. (2) Sacraments also are bond's which unite Christian people. As Charles Kingsley pointed out, Baptism is the Sacrament of Equality, for all have to enter the Church by the same gate; and the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Brotherhood, for those who kneel at the altar share the same gift.

Christianity, then, does not consist of lofty utterances and noble sentiments. It offers to all the power to translate ideals into action, and that is what we all want.

Project Canterbury