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Posted on Tue 1 March 2022


There was a period after the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission agreement on ministry and ordination had been published  even though the first canonical ordinations of women to the presbyterate had begun to take place when there was optimism among many that the question of the validity of Anglican Orders could be seen in a new light.

I well remember, however, the anguished correspondence between Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Coggan and the same between Pope St John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie, as well as that between the latter and Cardinal Willebrands (then head of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican). In the correspondence, the Popes and the Cardinal are seen as pleading with the Archbishop to prevent provinces of the Anglican Communion from taking unilateral action over the ordination of women to the presbyterate. They felt this would jeopardise the agreement on ministry, showing that the it was more apparent than real, thus making any possibility of re-evaluating Anglican Orders more difficult, if not impossible.

In his replies, Archbishop Runcie, while rehearsing some of the arguments in favour of ordaining women, expressed his inability to prevent any province of the Anglican Communion from acting independently on the issue. Runcie’s argument revealed a fault line in the Communion which was to become even more pronounced over other issues such as divorced and remarried clergy, and the ordination to the priesthood and episcopate of those in sexually active homophile relationships. Was Runcie right to hold such a radical view of the autonomy of the provinces? Had not the 1920 Lambeth Conference declared that the provinces were indeed “independent”, but independent in the Christian freedom which recognises the restraints of truth and love?

I am not alone in having been uncomfortable with such a thoroughgoing belief in the autonomy of the provinces.Sadly, however, a view of an interdependent relationship between the churches of the Communion did not prevail. 

The scenario regarding women in the presbyterate was then repeated over the ordination of women to the episcopate when Cardinal Kasper, as head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Union (PCPCU), came to the House of Bishops of the Church of England. Basing himself on the Cyprianic maxim, episcopatus unus est, he requested the Church of England, as the “mother church” of the Anglican Communion, not to take unilateral action on this matter.

As one present at his address, I was amazed that some of the Anglican bishops present did not really understand his argument, let alone endorse it. When I was chairman of the Rochester Commission, appointed to consider all the questions surrounding the proposed ordination of women to the episcopate, I received numerous submissions on the issue. One of them was from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales asking how Anglicans could claim to share in the Apostolic ministry with the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches, and yet be willing to make such a momentous change in it without any ecumenical consensus. I remember this struck home at the time and led me to reconsider my own views and practices.

 The ordination of women to the episcopate is now an established fact in many parts of the Anglican Communion, with this also affecting views of the ministry of men ordained by them. In the province of Canterbury, for instance, I understand that the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, is now often the Chief Consecrator at ordinations of bishops. In such instances, I believe, the Archbishop of Canterbury attends but does not consecrate. Such practices will, undoubtedly, influence views about the validity of such ordinations among those within the Anglican Communion and those without who do not believe that unilateral action in ordaining women to the episcopate was justified.

The arguments for continuity in the preface to the 1550 Ordinal, in Saepius Officio, the reply of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to Apostolicae Curae, and the ARCIC agreement, are weakened, if not nullified, in the eyes of those who believe that a duly qualified male constitutes part of the “matter” of ordination and that a woman cannot be such.

For such people, Anglican willingness to ordain women, as with some Protestant churches, reveals that they do not share a view of priesthood held by the Catholic Church. For them, it is fruitless to ask questions about validity, in the Catholic sense, when the understanding of what constitutes ordained ministry has been shown to be so different. This difficulty is exacerbated by the ambiguity in Anglicanism as to whether or not ordination is a sacrament. Neither the 39 Articles nor the Book of Common Prayer Catechism are clear on this point and the rites themselves do not mention the term. It is certain that many Anglicans do not regard it as a sacrament, but some do and the agreement on ministry and ordination sets out the qualified way some Anglicans could regard it as “sacramental”. In the face of such ambiguity, it is difficult to see how the Catholic Church would be willing to revisit the matter, even leaving out of account the question of women in Holy Orders.

Anglican ecumenical agreements with churches that have not retained Apostolic succession also reveal differences with the belief and practice of the Catholic Church. The Porvoo agreement with the Lutheran Scandinavian churches claims that Apostolic succession is continuity in the Apostolic faith and in the continuity of Christian communities in the historic sees, even where succession by the laying on of hands has admittedly been lost. There is no requirement here for bishops of such sees to recover what has been lost. Indeed, Porvoo appears to tolerate ordinations by non-episcopal figures, such as deans of cathedrals. It is not clear how such a view can be seen as consonant with what is said about ordination in the ARCIC agreement. Unless it is clear that Apostolic succession includes the laying on of hands by those who are themselves in such succession, I cannot see how the Catholic Church could agree on the doctrine of ordination with Anglicans.

Indeed, Anglicans themselves disagree about the meaning of ordination and whether succession, as described above, is necessary. Many would see ordained ministry as simply an extension of the priesthood of all believers and, perhaps, as representative of the Church. But they would challenge the view expressed by ARCIC that it “belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit” and is configured to Christ, the High Priest. Unless it is clear that this is what the Church and the rites formally intend to do, it is difficult to see how there could be a revisiting of Apostolicae Curae. 

Sorores in Spe an ecumenical discussion group that revisits the condemnation of Anglican Orders by Pope Leo XIII in 1896  mentions the recognition, by the Catholic Church, of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari (an ancient eucharistic rite of the Church of the East) as eucharistically valid, even though it does not have the words of the institution as such because it was judged that the intention of these words is found dispersed throughout the rite. I am not sure how this applies to intention in the Anglican rites: are they saying that the intention demanded by Apostolicae Curae is to be found dispersed throughout the rite? If so, this needs demonstration. ARCIC’s method was to ask how priesthood is now understood by the two traditions and whether such an understanding is reflected in the rites being used for ordination. It is this which might have provided a new context for the reevaluation of Apostolicae Curae, had other developments not intervened.

The document revives the idea, first developed at Malines, that the Anglican Communion should be “united but not absorbed” in any future arrangement with the Catholic Church. This has now become conventional wisdom for models of organic union in ecumenical circles. It is surprising, however, that the ordinariates are nowhere mentioned as models of this fruitful idea, or at least a partial fulfilment of it.

What then can be said about the future of Anglican-Catholic dialogue on ministry and Holy Orders? Lumen Gentium teaches that many elements of sanctification and truth are to be found beyond the visible structures of the Catholic Church and that these lead those who have them to a search for authentic Catholic unity. Similarly, the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II states that many of the elements and endowments which go to build up the Church and vivify it can exist in communities separated from the Catholic Church.

Their ministries can be fruitful in bringing salvation to their people and derive their efficacy from the fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, declares that wherever elements of sanctification and truth are present, the one Church of Christ is present in other Christian communities. The Decree on Ecumenism also singles out the Anglican Communion among the separated communities, with origins in the West, as one where “Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist”. What is now open to question is whether the force of this statement has been reduced by developments in the Anglican Communion which have taken it not in the direction of greater Catholic unity but a liberal Protestant model of federated diversity.

In the light of the above, two courses of action may be constructive: one is to pursue dialogue with the Anglican Communion (and, indeed, other denominations) on how fruitfulness in ministry can be recognised and promoted and how it can lead towards greater unity with the Catholic Church. The other is to foster a “distinctive dialogue” with orthodox Anglicans where what was noted in the Decree on Ecumenism can still be recognised.

One other point which should be made is whether some attention should be given to how ministries may in future be reconciled once there is enough doctrinal and ecclesiological agreement to do so. This may include, as Catholic practice does today, celebrating the fruitfulness of the ministry of those being reconciled, as well as bringing them into the fullness of Catholic Orders. 

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