The fact that the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion deny that ordination is a sacrament affects the whole debate about women’s ordination and the validity of their orders. While there are Anglicans who interpret the Articles of Religion in a ‘catholic’ way, I think the plain reading is that they are a Protestant document intended to repudiate certain elements of the Catholic faith. That they have done so in the popular Anglican mind, and in the minds of many Anglican priests and theologians, cannot be disputed.

I discussed the effect of denying the sacrament of ordination in an earlier post, and it seems that this same problem undermines the Anglican understanding of marriage, and reveals the deep fissure between Anglicanism and Catholicism on this most troubled subject.

The thinking goes like this: If marriage is not a sacrament, then what is it? Anglicans are unsure. Some would say it is a sacrament. Others would follow the Articles of Religion and deny that it is a sacrament, but say that it is a ‘sacramental rite’ which is graced. Still others would deny that it has a sacramental element at all and that it is simply a state of life allowed by and blessed by God through his church.

If marriage is a sacrament, however, then it effects what it signifies. St Paul says that marriage is a mystery; that marriage is like the relationship between Christ and his Church, and this is one of the supports Catholics have for saying that marriage is a sacrament. In and through the physicality of marriage God’s grace is active. The individuals sharing in the marriage are changed through the marriage. They have a new relationship with one another and a new relationship with Christ. As Scripture says, they are no longer two, but have become ‘one flesh’. As in the other sacraments, something has changed. A new reality exists, and if a sacramental marriage exists it is, by its very nature, unchangeable. What God has joined together man cannot divide. Not just ‘should not’ divide or ‘may not’ divide, but ‘cannot divide’.

However, if Anglicans (and other non Catholic Christians) do not believe marriage to be a sacrament–if there is no real and essential change– then this indissolubility cannot be assumed.  The lifelong nature of marriage then becomes an ideal, but it is possible for a marriage to end and another one to begin because it was never anything more than a blessed contract. If it wasn’t a sacrament, then nothing really happened at a mystical and ontological level, and there is no sacred bond to be broken. This is why so many non-Catholic denominations have quietly let drop any objections to remarriage after divorce. Pastoral reasons dictate a ‘forgiving’ policy. Without a sacramental theology of marriage this is obviously the best (and arguably the only) way.

If however, the marriage is sacramental, as the Catholic Church teaches, then something real and mystically permanent has happened, and to break that bond is not only to break a marriage, but to break a sacrament….and this is why Catholics teach that divorce is so terrible–not only because of the tragic effects in the breakdown of the family, but because a sacrament of grace has been trampled just as certainly as if you had marched into Mass seized the ciborium and chalice and desecrated the host and the precious blood.

The sacramental theology of marriage also has an impact on the very nature of marriage and the marriage act. For a sacrament to be valid we must have proper form and proper matter. The proper matter is a man and woman who intend to contract a sacramental marriage and are free to do so. Consequently, it cannot be a valid sacramental marriage if an impediment exists which means the man and woman are not free to marry. It is obvious also, therefore, that it is simply impossible for two people of the same gender to marry. It might be nice and make people feel ‘affirmed’ but it isn’t a marriage and never will be just as a ‘Eucharist’ using Coca-cola and potato chips isn’t a Eucharist.

Finally, this same sacramental theology of marriage influences that most controversial teaching of the church: her teaching on artificial contraception. If the marriage act is sacramental, and the matter of the sacrament must, by its nature, be open to life, then artificial contraception is also a smear on the sacrament. If the sexual act is a sacrament then all forms of fornication, adultery, pornography, etc. etc. etc. are sins not only against purity and chastity, but blasphemies against the most holy sacrament of marriage.

I realize that this topic is far more complex than can be treated in a blog post, but there are important underlying theological points here to consider, and when we think about the implications of marriage being downgraded from a sacrament to a ‘sacred rite’ we might re-visit the old debate on whether the ‘Reformation’ was actually a Revolution. The final result culturally and historically on this monumental theological revolution is seen all around us in the divorce culture and the age of sexual revolution. Of course these are abominations which the Reformers themselves would have abhorred, and which good non Catholic Christians still abhor.

Nevertheless, the end result of downgrading marriage from its sacramental status is a kind of sexual stripping of the altars–a reductionism that has brought our culture where it is today.