There are seven Sacraments recognized in the Anglican Church. Two are referred to as “Gospel” or “Greater” sacraments, the other five, of which Unction is one, as “Lesser” sacraments. All operate according to the Book of Common Prayer definition: “a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Holy Unction is one of the oldest “outward signs” of God’s inward presence and blessing. Unction involves anointing with oil blessed by the Bishop for the purpose. The sacred oils are normally consecrated (blessed) annually at a Cathedral Eucharist when diocesan clergy gather on Maundy Thursday.
Unction, the anointing with sacred oil, is often misunderstood. Because it has been associated with “last rites,” death and dying, the Sacrament is viewed as spooky, morbid or somehow magical in nature. Unction is not holy insurance. Neither is it magical. Rather, Unction is an affirmation and a sign (sacrament) of the presence of the Holy Spirit, alive within us, and giving us assurance as we journey in our lives. Holy Unction is not only for the dying, although those nearing death or, if not able to speak for themselves, those who are close to them, will appropriately request it. Unction is an opportunity to celebrate, face life decisions, grieve, and realistically deal with mortality. We are never alone. God is with us. In Unction, we are marked once again, as in baptism, as Christ’s own forever.
Holy Unction is not required. It is an opportunity the church offers as an assistance for those in the midst of life’s most difficult times. In no way has someone who has died neglected responsibility if not anointed. On the other hand, Unction provides an assurance and confirmation of faith found no where else.
Unction is often accompanied by the “Laying on of Hands,” the reading of scripture and prayer. The Letter of James 5:14-16 gives specific direction, answering the question: “Are any among you sick?” Unction is appropriate at the near approach of death (Extreme Unction) but also at the time of any illness. The clergy welcome requests for Holy Unction.
Grant to this thy servant grace to desire only thy most holy will …
When death draws near, one of the significant issues with which all involved are forced to struggle, is that health and healing are gift. While we have an important part to play in whether we live or whether we die, ultimately we all sit at feet of the mercy and grace of God – it is who we are, whether we acknowledge it or not. The will of God is often very much on the minds of those who journey with others at the time of death. Submission to God’s will is often difficult. These sentiments are well illustrated in the prayer included in the Ministry to the Sick in the Book of Common Prayer (page 579):
GOD our heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being: Grant to this thy servant grace to desire only thy most holy will; that, whether living or dying, he may be thine; for his sake who loved us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Personal Confession (personal verbal recognition of sin) and Absolution (effectual granting of forgiveness) is customarily part of the Sacrament of Holy Unction. While Anglican Christians are most familiar with “General Confession” (as in public worship) they might be less aware that personal confession is also formally part of Anglican Church (catholic)) teaching. Where personal confession is concerned, the Anglican stance is often described as: All may, some should, none must. Rites for personal confession are in the Book of Common Prayer on page 581 and the Book of Alternative Services (Reconciliation of a Penitent) on page 167. Our belief is that the full blessing of God requires our recognition of weakness, our sinfulness and our trust in God.
Rites for the Ministry of the Sick are also found in the Book of Alternative Services on page 554.
As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil,
so may our heavenly Father grant you
the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Of his great mercy,
may he forgive you your sins,
release you from suffering,
and restore you to wholeness and strength.
May he deliver you from all evil,
preserve you in all goodness,
and bring you to everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.