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EX OPERE OPERATO

Religious controversies have their times and cycles. There was a time when the above Latin tag, thrown into a discussion, excited extraordinary vehemence. Roughly stated, “Catholics” believed that when sacraments were celebrated their force and virtue became really present because a qualified person, using the right words, the right ceremony performed that which the Church intends to do. “Evangelicals”, concerned about the moral suitability of the persons to which the sacramental rite was the subject (and the verb), and the reality of the faith of such a person or persons denied that the sacraments had force or virtue of themselves. They became real and forceful or virtuous if the recipient was faithful and “moral.” Catholics believed that the sacraments “worked” ex opere operato. Evangelicals were “receptionists.” As in all convenient tags, those so tagged were not all of one mind or in one place. Yet perhaps they exhibited sufficient degrees of commonality to be placed in convenient categories.

Today such controversies may seem hardly worthy of contemplation. Just to think that Episcopalians left their church because they denied that in baptism children became regenerate merely because they were baptized. The language of the Prayer Book rite in use then made that claim. Evangelical parsons tended to leave that bit out, or coughed loudly when reaching those words. The same people denied that the Holy Table was an altar, that ministers were “priests” other than being, if saved, members of the “priesthood of all believers”, or that Jesus was truly present in Bread and Wine, although Bread and Wine might act as effective signs and symbols inspiring the faithful recipient to encounter Jesus by faith. Ironically there are many non-evangelical Episcopalians today whose views differ only marginally from their Protestant ancestors some of whom left to found the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1873.

Certainly our Evangelical ancestors would approve of the Almy-inspired reformation of ecclesiastical furniture. The altar is now a Table. The theory of mutual ministry suggests that in baptism all enter the priesthood of all believers and that “ordained” ministry is merely functional, and that “priests” are not set aside to an ontological ministry, but merely recognized to have the charisms and talents to exercise that which all have by virtue of baptism. No one says much about bishops in all this! That in many places the consecrated elements, or those remaining, are placed on the ground outside for the birds and plants indicates either a Lutheran idea that the presence only remains effective when “in use” -but what about the reserved sacrament? – or that the real presence is only “real” to those who by faith receive Bread and Wine.

There remains one area in which the Catholic view of the sacraments or at least baptism prevails and that in perhaps a starker form than the classical Catholic doctrine allows. It is suggested that all the baptized by virtue of baptism are to be included and have the varied gifts of ministry simply by virtue of their baptism. Here one sees a triumph for ex opere operato. Indeed there are those who in championing communicating the unbaptized, suggest that human beings by virtue of their being created by God have all the privileges of Christian and ecclesial inclusion, subject perhaps to those infuriating church regulations to be used or ignored at will. There are those who proclaim such a view with enormous relish. Such primitive issues about whether a person is faithful, in a state of grace, believes the faith once delivered to the saints are to be disregarded except by commissions on ministry and perhaps diocesan bishops and even then with an eye to the law of inclusion. To such people the new doctrine of the Baptismal Covenant includes all. Such a view I gather is expressed in a statement to be found on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan. As In many areas I think the problem with such a view is that it doesn’t go far enough. The radical notion that God in Christ has purposed to redeem us through the Cross, and the Resurrection and has called us to new life in a new society which always stands in counter-culture to the world, demonstrates the poverty and inadequacy of natural inclusivity. As with most heresies, the problem is not radicalism but essential timidity. And our response surely is not to propose a pure church and to burn the heretic, but rather to propose the hard work of orthodoxy as we tackle the timid sentimentality of error For we are to love those whom Jesus seeks and would save.

3 Responses

  1. I agree with you about the timidity and sentimentality; they skip right over the good parts.

    This all comes from a lack of education in (or respect for) the basics, and an ensuing dearth of rigorous thinking and debate, I’d say. Well-meaning, I suppose, but totally without salt or flavor.

  2. The radical notion that God in Christ has purposed to redeem us through the Cross, and the Resurrection and has called us to new life in a new society which always stands in counter-culture to the world, demonstrates the poverty and inadequacy of natural inclusivity.

    Given though that the church militant is yet gathered sinners, our counter-culture will have much of culture in it, and thus, its own inclusivity stands in judgment before Christ as well. Again, the Anglican echo-chamber of nothing extra nos has become severely problematic.

  3. I’m sure I’m not the only person in The Episcopal Church who finds the Baptismal Covenant troubling, but we are certainly in a minority. For one thing, its placement in the rite suggests that it is a prerequisite for baptism. For another, it deals with actions that are the consequence of baptism. (The Apostles Creed may be an exception, since it traditionally occurs just before or as part of water-baptism.)

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