Sacramental Worship [Anglican Pioneer Ministry #3]

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Welcome to the third part of our mini-series on Pioneer Ministry and Anglican Identity. This time we’re exploring sacramental worship.

How important are the sacraments?

The practice of the sacraments, and in particular the two apostolic sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, are at the very core of the way that the Anglican Church expresses its identity in worship.

Anglican theologian, Daniel Hardy writes:

[The celebration of the Eucharist] is the major way by which the social meaning of the Church is consistently referred to God’s decisive formation of its meaning in Jesus Christ as continued through the Holy Spirit.

For him, sacramental worship is clearly a defining characteristic of the church’s identity, which ensures historical continuity with the life of Jesus and the New Testament church.

This view of the significance of sacramental, and particularly Eucharistic, worship is held by many other Anglican theologians. For example in Rowan Williams’ commentary on Michael Ramsey’s theology he writes:

The Church is what it is visibly and tangibly in one specific context – the Eucharist… Baptism inaugurates the reality of a life that can be transparent to God; but the rite that manifests all this repeatedly, publicly, corporately, is the Eucharist.

There is a huge tension between the Anglican sacramental liturgy, which tends to be ‘one size fits all’, and the core imperative of pioneer ministry to inculturate the gospel and liturgy in ways which are contextual.

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Within The Lab, this tension has restricted our own ability to practice the Eucharist, as we’ve had to make a decision between using the approved liturgy as it is, or not being doing it at all.

The pragmatic solution to this problem which we’ve reached is to offer Holy Communion through our partnership with The Methodist Church, inviting our ordained Methodist link minister to preside who has much more freedom over use of liturgy than an Anglican priest would.

This is great for The Lab’s sense of developing Methodist identity. In terms of the Anglican identity of The Lab, though, this isn’t a particularly satisfactory long-term solution.

It also poses problems for my own Anglican identity as a pioneer ministry once I am ordained.

If celebrating the Eucharist is a key aspect of priesthood, then it would be strange to continue choosing not to exercise that responsibility within the context of The Lab for pragmatic reasons.

How do we move forward?

The only way forward is more dialogue, for The Lab with our Bishop, and  in general within the whole hierarchy of the Anglican Church. This dialogues needs to be open and honest on both sides of the conversation. Bishop Lindsey Urwin writes (in The Future of the Parish System),

There is a desperate need in the fresh expressions movement to nudge the Church, and especially those in leadership, to both rediscover the possibility of an encounter with Jesus in sacramental events and to enable the experience in new ways… there is a need for de-regulation in evangelistic circumstances, for a proper and agreed doctrine of exceptions as we seek to draw in to life with Christ those who are so far from us.

Towards a deeper dialogue: Rituals and layers of meaning

Roman Catholic anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle writes about the importance of ritual in forming and maintaining culture. He suggests that rituals fulfil many different social functions such as:

  • relieving anxieties
  • constraining behaviour
  • defining boundaries
  • incorporating contradictions


Arbuckle warns about the dangers of changing rituals without fully considering their complexity. He argues that this can result in:

[the] uprooting of the inner framework of cultures, even when there is conscious and intellectual assent to what is happening, [which] destroys the stable sense of belonging and people’s individuality. All kinds of negative reactions can result.

It is perhaps for this reason that a deeper level of dialogue needs to take place, beyond discussing what is and isn’t permissible, towards a deeper discussion of the theological and sociological meanings which are held together by sacramental worship and liturgy.

Next time, in the final post on Pioneer Ministry and Anglican Identity, we’ll look at Episcopal Oversight (for those wondering that’s a posh phrase to describe Bishops and what they do).

Check out the other posts in this series:

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About the author: James Henley
James Henley
James has been with The Lab since 2007 and leads our team. He's an ordained pioneer minister in the Church in Wales.
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