William Temple on Sacraments  

Posted by Joe Rawls

William Temple (1881-1944) was the son of Archbishop of Canterbury Frederick Temple.  He held his father's position for the last two years of his life.  Before that, he had a most distinguished career in academia and the Church of England.  After  taking a first-class degree from Balliol College, Oxford, he held a fellowship at that university and was ordained before being named headmaster of Repton.  From there he was successively Bishop of Manchester, Archbishop of York, and Archbishop of Canterbury. 

He is perhaps best known for his work in social reform and ecumenism, but he was also one of the leading Anglican theologians of the twentieth century.  This is clearly seen in Nature, Man, and God, the Gifford Lectures delivered from 1932 to 1934.  Lecture XIX:  The Sacramental Universe expresses quite well his "high" view of the sacraments. 


Now a sacrament, as understood by those who prize sacraments most highly, is an instance of a very definitive and special relationship of spirit and matter.  We have already distinguished it from mere conventional symbolism such as we find in ordinary speech or (more accurately) in nomenclature.  We have also pointed to the less marked distinction which separates it from the essential symbolism of poetry.  It is a spiritual utilization of a material object whereby a spiritual result is effected.  Its operation is not independent of symbolism or or of the psychological processes set in motion by symbols; but its operation and effectiveness does not consist in these.  Indeed many of those who set special store by the sacramental mode of worship value it because of their belief that the efficacy of the sacramental rite is totally independent of any conscious apprehension or other form of spiritual experience at that time.  When faith exists as a struggle to believe in spite of empirical and temperamental pressure to unbelief, when the whole life of feeling is dead, when nothing is left but stark loyalty to God as He is dimly and waveringly apprehended to be--then the sheer objectivity, even the express materialism, of a sacrament gives it a value that nothing else can have.  And when faith revives its ardour, and feeling is once more aglow, when the activity of prayers spoken and praises sung is again a natural expression of devotion, the rite which is believed to have retained its efficacy when all else failed becomes a focus of grateful adoration to the God who therein offered grace--that is, His love in action--to a soul that could receive Him in no other way.  All turns, of course, on the conviction that in the sacrament God acts, fulfilling His own promise.  This distinguishes the sacrament from magic, of which the essence is that man through the rite puts compulsion on the god, while it also endows the sacrament with the virtue and potency which magic falsely claims to offer.

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