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Anglican Orders on Demand

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 03, 2007

When I wrote my last column on the importance of taking Holy Week seriously, I used the conversion of Episcopal Bishop Daniel Herzog as an occasion to consider how much we Catholics take things for granted. Many readers appreciated the point, but there were a few who thought I was either denigrating Anglicanism or misunderstanding the nature of Anglican Orders.

The column, Incorporation into the Sacred Mysteries, was only tangentially concerned with either Anglicanism or Anglican Orders. The point was simply that Bishop Herzog had obviously decided that the fullness of Faith and Sacramental power was to be found in the Catholic Church, and so he was likely to find his first Holy Week as a Catholic very special. Since concern has been raised, however, let’s take a look at the issue of Anglican Orders.

There are two aspects to this question. The first hinges on whether the pure Anglican line of apostolic succession is intact. The second hinges on whether validly ordained non-Anglican bishops have at times participated in Anglican ordinations, thereby rendering valid in some cases what would have otherwise been invalid. In his 1896 bull on the nullity of Anglican Orders (Apostolicae Curae), Pope Leo XIII addresses the first issue.

Anglican Orders Per Se

Before writing Apostolicae Curae, Leo set up a commission of scholars with diverse opinions to examine all the available evidence on the question of the validity of Anglican Orders wherever it might be found, including everything in the Vatican Archives. The commission concluded, and Leo XIII affirmed, that the consistent understanding of the Church was fully justified by the evidence.

The chief impediment was the new ritual of Anglican Orders implemented during the reign of Edward VI by radical churchmen who were very sympathetic to a Protestant understanding of ministry. This Ordinal purported to confer the sacrament through the words “receive the Holy Spirit” alone, without any reference to the purpose of the ritual. There was no reference to priesthood, sacrifice, or the consecration of the sacred species. The idea of sacerdotium (priesthood) was completely absent.

When Queen Mary took the throne, she had a deep interest in finding out which so-called priests in her realm were really priests, and popes Julius II and Paul IV shared her concern because of their desire to provide as expediently as possible for the spiritual welfare of English Christians. Under their direction, the famous papal legate Cardinal Reginald Pole spent considerable energy in attempting to answer Mary's question with the express purpose of affirming the validity of orders for as many “priests” as possible.

Unfortunately, as early as 1555 Pope Paul IV noted the insurmountable deficiency of both form and intention characteristic of the Edwardian Ordinal. It was deficient in form because it did not mention anything about the office of the priest in conferring the Holy Spirit; and it was deficient in intention because, clearly, the reformers had deliberately eliminated the Catholic understanding of the priesthood in composing the new ritual. Therefore, all ordinations performed using the Edwardian ritual were null.

A century later, a more conservative Anglican leadership became concerned about the deficiency of form, and added the words “for the office and work of a priest”. Unfortunately, this change was unavailing, for it was exactly analogous to closing the barn door after the horse had escaped: By the time the Ordinal was reformed, all Anglican bishops who had been legitimately ordained had long since passed from the scene. From this time forward, the problem would be not so much the form as the powers of the celebrants, who themselves had never been legitimately ordained or consecrated.

Enter the Old Catholics

Grounds for altering this judgment would exist only if it could be shown that the more recent revised ritual was later used by a validly ordained and consecrated bishop. The presumption is overwhelming against any Catholic bishop having “crossed over” to perform Anglican ordinations up to the time of Vatican I. After Vatican I, however, the Old Catholics did exactly that.

Old Catholics are a somewhat eclectic collection of churches, originally based in Holland, some of which were initially under papal authority and some of which were not. The chief source of validly ordained bishops among the Old Catholics came from those Catholic clergy in the Netherlands who rejected Vatican I’s decree on papal infallibility. As one might expect, the Old Catholics and the Anglicans recognized that they were natural allies very early on. Thus, as early as 1879, an Old Catholic bishop (whose last name was, coincidentally, Herzog) ordained some Anglican priests in Paris for the Anglican bishop of Edinburgh.

As time went on, Anglicans and Old Catholics officially accepted each other’s orders, and it seems clear that in some cases legitimately consecrated Old Catholic bishops participated in Anglican ordination and episcopal consecration ceremonies. For this reason, there is at least the possibility that some Anglican and Episcopalian priests and bishops are validly ordained, and do have sacramental powers. Form and intention still merit examination, but Anglican priests and bishops ordained or consecrated from a legitimate Old Catholic line have a serious claim to validity.

Caution Is the Rule

The Catholic Church regards it as sacrilegious to attempt to confer the sacrament of orders twice. Therefore, she makes every effort to determine whether a particular candidate has or has not been validly ordained in the past. Even with the injection of the Old Catholics into the debate, however, tenuous connections and uncertain intentions have caused the Church to be extremely cautious in evaluating such claims. The doubt is severe enough to make conditional ordination the norm for those priests who, converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism, wish to continue their priestly ministry.

If this is more than you wanted to know, I hope it at least demonstrates why I didn’t try to explain it in a column designed to encourage all of us to take Holy Week more seriously.

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