John MACQUARRIE: A guide to the Sacraments.
NY: Continuum, 1998. Pp. 245. $16.95 pb ISBN 0-8264-1100-2

Reviewed by Jake EMPEREUR, S.J, San Fernando Cathedral, SAN ANTONIO, TX

Macquarrie has successfully fulfilled his purpose in writing this book on the sacraments. He hoped to present the present state of sacramental theology in an accessible and readable form for members of the Christian Churches. His presentation is clear, well reasoned and indicative of the breadth of scholarship long associated with this author. He has well summarized the thinking on the sacramentality of the world as the context for a consideration of the traditional seven sacraments. Macquarrie is ecumenical in both his ability to deal with complex issues without engaging in polarizing controversy and his speaking from the mediating Anglican position which makes use of the best of Catholic objectivism and Protestant subjectivism.

The first five of the twenty chapters develop the notion of a sacramental universe. His thesis is that the purpose of sacramentality is "to make the things of this world so transparent that in them and through them we know God's presence and activity in our very midst." (1) Such an approach to the sacraments is very needed in a world where the dominance of the secular is squeezing any sense of sacramentality out of ordinary human experience. Concomitant with this advancing grip of the secular is the opposite tendency to flee the world by engaging in spiritual practices which deny a place for the material and the embodied. Both opposing tendencies prescind from the fact that we live in the tension between the spiritual and material. The sacramental principle then is to achieve a balance between these opposing dynamics.

In the beginning chapters Macquarrie stresses that sacramental awareness goes both ways. It enables the Christian to extend sacramentality beyond the confines of the church and at the same time to grasp how a sacramental sense is part of being a human being. While in no way denigrating the power of human words, Macquarrie sees that rationality and linguisticality in no way exhaust the meaning of personhood. There is something more and the sacraments include that "something more." That is why word and sacraments together are the way Christ comes and dwells with us.

Most of what is found in these first five chapters as well as the following chapters dealing with the individual sacraments will come as no surprise to those who have kept themselves aware of developments in contemporary sacramental theology, if only on a popularized level. They will find here well articulated notions of symbolism, Christ as the primordial sacrament, and such issues as the number and minister of the sacraments. There would be little from which they would dissent. What will be especially helpful for the reader would be certain observations, insights, and qualifications that Macquarrie makes from his irenic but Anglican position.

The two chapters on baptism consider the rite of initiation from the New Testament and early church sources and the inner reality of the sacrament from which baptismal spirituality flows. We find here a well-reasoned defense of both practices of adult and infant initiation. In both cases baptism is part of a process of Christian union. The one chapter on confirmation discusses the variety of ways in which the churches have tried to make this sacramental experience theologically credible and pastorally effective.

The chapter on penance/reconciliation will be unobjectionable for many of the Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church. Macquarrie regrets that the church has lost much of its sense of discipline that in the past accompanied this sacrament. More discipline would gain more respect for the church. I and others would dispute his claim that probabilism, which is a moral position that when there is a law that is doubtful one is at liberty to follow it or not, has aided the decline in the quality of Christian commitment to overcoming sin. Probabilism emerged from a legitimate pastoral concern. It would be hard to show that it caused the sacrament of reconciliation to be taken less seriously.

Macquarrie sees the Eucharist as the central sacrament and devotes five chapters to it. In order he discusses the origin of the Eucharist, the Eucharist as meal, as a sacrament of presence, as a sacrifice, and the practice of reservation. In all these chapters Macquarrie is very catholic, without in any way diluting the emphasis of contemporary theology. His explanation of real presence is very good and the book's theme emerges here in a clear way, namely that matter is not "mere formless stuff" but is "fearfully and wonderfully made." (155) He fittingly concludes this section on the Eucharist with the connection of Eucharistic sacramentality to social justice.

The chapter on anointing which sees this sacrament as a sacrament of life rather than of extreme unction, deals with the issues of healing, sickness and sin, the relationship of matter and the spirit, and the need for this sacrament even in the modern world with its more sophisticated approach to disease and disablement.

The four chapters on ordination deal in turn with the definition of ministry, the distinctive ministry of the ordained, the place of the bishop and the importance of the pope as a symbol of Christian unity. Macquarrie leaves no doubt that that he believes that an ordained ministry is a necessary part of the church. He is also in favor of the pope being an effective symbol of the unity of the Christian churches. The latter, however, presupposes changes on the part of the Vatican as well as the churches themselves.

The last chapter on marriage would be unobjectionable to any Catholics. However, his outright rejection of same sex marriages not only will not be acceptable to many, but his position also seems to be too dependent on an argument from physical procreation. For those who are looking for a good introduction to the sacraments, and a competent review of contemporary sacramental theology which is open, comprehensive and ecumenical, this is the book.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Barnes and Noble - Powell's books - Pauline Sisters

This is Catholic Issues OnLine. Click here for home page