Vicar’s Window February 2019

Dear friends,

I declare this “Vicar’s Window” a Brexit-free zone.

Last month we celebrated the memorial of S. Francis de Sales. He was a Roman Catholic bishop who sought to encourage a spirituality appropriate to the lifestyle of the person concerned. He rightly discerned that the praying-pattern of a monk could not be the same as that of a bishop or a builder. He also argued that it would be better if Christians did not serve the Lord in order to avoid hell or gain heaven. He believed it more important to love God simply for God’s sake.

This is a revolutionary understanding. Revolutionary because it was proclaimed at a time when salvation was a major topic among Christians. The idea of offering worship to God simply because God is to be worshipped could be viewed as an entirely selfless activity. The very act of worshipping the Creator and Redeemer, simply because they are who they are, is far removed from the gaining of heaven and the avoidance of hell. As the angel with the bucket of coal and the bucket of water said to the man, “I am off to burn down heaven and put out the fires of hell so that people will worship God with no self-interest!”

However, there is no getting away from the fact that we are fallen, sick, sinful people who are in need of divine healing, not only from physical sickness but also from human frailty. I can’t remember who said that Holy Communion (the receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ under the forms of bread and wine) was “medicine for the soul”.

In the Letter of James there is laid out before us the tension between salvation through good works and faith. The pre-reformation church concentrated on the good works of various spiritual exercises combined with care for the poor etc. Protestantism emphasised salvation purely through faith in Christ. “Justification by faith alone.” was the rallying cry of Martin Luther, the primary force behind the revolt against Catholicism. To be justified meant to be put right with God – saved. Good works did not procure salvation, they were the graceful result of that salvation.

Now that I have reached the age of nearly 65, and no longer have to pay for prescription drugs, I am conscious of being diligent in taking the little pills that have been prescribed. On a much larger scale was the taking of many pills of a good friend who had been diagnosed with HIV and had many pills to take over the course of the day. Sadly, he died some years ago. Although the treatment now is less invasive, people still die of the virus, though considerably fewer than some years ago.

For many people, however, pills are not the only thing. An old friend fell and broke his hip and refused to do any of the post-operative exercises recommended. Although he took his medication, he was hardly able to move for the rest of his life. I recently visited a firefighter friend who has had his second knee-joint replaced. Although the pain has been excruciating, he has followed the exercise regime dilligently. He is well on the way to making a full recovery. The pills did their work but action was also required.

Which makes me think about the Christian Life. If the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is, among other things, “medicine for the soul” then, like all necessary medicine, it has to be taken. If the physiotherapy of “good works” is also required for full healing then it is equally necessary. Bible reading, daily prayer, study, the use of the sacraments, giving to the Church, giving to those in need, helping others, practising virtue and avoiding vice etc. are all vital to living with God and attaining heaven.

My question is this. If these are necessary aspects of the Christian Life, then why are people so slack in their discipleship? I find it curious that people can be well enough to go to work – but not well enough to receive the Sacrament. People who are unable to get to mass in mid-morning do not seek out a church early morning or evening. One of my boxes of pills instructs me to take the pill later in the day if I have forgotten in the morning. This I do. A group of the congregation will be confirmed in a few weeks time. I was confirmed 49 years ago and have only missed receiving Holy Communion on an holy day of obligation (every Sunday and Feast Day) on three occasions – through extreme illness. This is nothing to do with virtue. It is to do with recognising that the Blessed Sacrament is necessary to the health of my soul. It is more important than taking pills. Better to die than to miss out on salvation!

I only wish that I was better at the list outlined in the eighth paragraph!


On Sunday, February 24th, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet will be celebrating mass and confirming members of the congregation who desire the completion of their Christian initiation. Some were baptised as children, others were baptised in adulthood. They now complete that journey of Christian belonging through the laying-on-of-hands and anointing with Sacred Chrism by the bishop. That belonging is completed in the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion.

These are all SACRAMENTS. A sacrament is a physical thing which conveys the presence of God and the conveying of GRACE to the recipient. Water is used in baptism; bread and wine in the mass; oil at confirmation and unction etc. A Sacrament is efficacious. It is changed and it changes. Water become holy and confers baptismal regeneration. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ and unite the recipient with the sacrifice of Christ and His Real Presence. “Christ within you, the hope of glory.” “Medicine for the soul.” as outlined in the Vicar’s Window this month.

I have to confess that, until I knew better, I thought that the candidate “confirmed” his or her belief in God. This suggests a movement from the person towards God. This is wrong. Sacraments are always the movement from God to us. In other words, it is God who baptises through the ministry of the priest (and, indeed, anyone, if the person to be baptised declares their faith and water is poured in the Name of the Sacred Trinity.) It is God who confirms through the ministry of the bishop. “Confirm, O Lord, your servant N…. with your Holy Spirit.” There is, of course, opportunity for the candidate to offer their testimony – but that is not the heart of confirmation. The candidate is there to receive a gift from God. Bishop Christopher Hill, former Bishop of Guildford and, prior to that, Bishop of Stafford, always made clear to the candidates that HE was the one confirming, not the candidate.

In the New Testament, Baptism is the Sacrament of initiation. Although Saul was converted on the road to Damascus, it was not until he had been baptised that he became a Christian. It is a new birth. Jesus is God’s Son by right – we are God’s sons and daughters by adoption and grace, by baptism. In the early church it was the norm for adults to be prepared for baptism and for the sacrament to be conferred on Holy Saturday night at the Vigil Mass of Easter. It was in this rite for adults that water was poured and/or the candidates immersed in water followed by the anointing and laying-on-of-hands. The new Christians were then given bowls of milk and honey – signifying their entrance in to the Promised Land, the Church. They would then present the gifts of bread and wine at the altar and be the first, after the bishop and clergy, to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. Those preparing for baptism/confirmation would only be allowed to stay at mass up until the end of the sermon. Only when they were initiated could they stay for the whole liturgy.

While there is reference to whole families being baptised (adults and children) it was generally the case that individual adults would be initiated. For various reasons, not least the prevalence of infant mortality, it became the custom to baptise the children of Christians at an early age. The Orthodox church of Russia and Greece baptise, confirm, and give Holy Communion to babies. The Roman Catholic Church rearranges the order by baptising infants, admitting to Holy Communion at 6-7, and confirming at 14. (Adults receive the three sacraments at one service.) The Anglican Church keeps the original order but doesn’t allow the reception of Holy Communion until after being confirmed. The age of candidates can vary and provision is made for the reception of Holy Communion prior to confirmation.