Monday, July 16, 2007

For those in "ecclesial communities"

Some Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church have expressed dismay at the recent statement from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith clarifying some questions about the Catholic teaching about the nature of the church, particularly that Protestant churches are not churches in the fullest sense, and are thus instead termed "ecclesial communities." Some have asked me about it, so I thought I would make some points that might help those of us outside Rome's umbrella to understand what they mean and where they're coming from.

The meaning of "church"
I think the key distinction to understand is that when Rome uses the word “church” it is nearly always in the visible, structural sense. Even when the more recent expression of the church as the "people of God" is used, it is still in reference to a visible entity. When most Protestants use the word “church”, it is more often than not in the invisible sense (i.e., the collection of all believer, or all the elect). So when the statement talks about other churches not being churches in the true sense, it is only talking about visible institutions. It is not saying that others are not true believers or that they are not Christians, nor even that they are cut off from all the means of salvation that are a part of the church's life. Indeed, note that they statement points out:

It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. . . . It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.

It is saying that other “ecclesial communities” (or church-like organizations) bear many, but not all of the essential characteristics of a church. To use the analogy of a house. It would be to call something a house-like structure, but say we can’t really call it a true “house” because it is missing some things (be it a roof, or plumbing, or doors, or people to live in it).

The document does refer to the Eastern Orthodox churches as churches in the true sense because they are considered by Rome to have all the essential elements (or, it is really a house because it has walls, a roof, plumbing, doors, people, and everything else). They have all the elements of a church, and lack nothing more than visible unity with the See of Peter and, perhaps. So they are called “sister churches”, and other groups which have most of the features of a church are called “ecclesial communities.” Of these ecclesial communities, the Second Vatican Council stated, "Among those in which some Catholic traditions and institutions continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place."

In Rome’s view, that one defect is the invalidity of our ordinations, and thus all the sacraments that must be celebrated by a validly ordained priest. Rome’s position was not entirely clear until Pope Leo III gave his judgment on the question in his letter Apostolicae Curae in 1896, declaring Anglican orders "absolutely null and utterly void. The Pope's judgment was forcefully refuted by the Church of England in their official response Saepius Officio. Since that time the question has also been muddied by the participation of bishops in our episcopal ordinations who are validly ordained bishops, in Rome’s view. Still, that judgment stands as far as the Vatican is concerned.

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has made great progress in dialogue and agreed statements on this and many issues that need to be reconciled. Despite the ordination problem, ecumenical relations have been close since the time of Archbishop Ramsey and Pope Paul VI. The Pope repeatedly referred to the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as "our beloved sister church" and gave Ramsey the gift of his own papal ring, which the succeeding Archbishops of Canterbury have worn and cherished.

The Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht (whom Rome considers to have valid orders) accepts Anglican orders as completely valid and entered into full communion with us in 1930. That relationship was rescinded by one member church, the Polish National Catholic Church (USA) after the Episcopal Church started ordaining women. What about the Eastern Orthodox? They have a slightly different theology about ordinations and the question of validity. They would say that Anglican clergy have all the same marks of validity that Roman clergy have—except what they both lack, which is union with the Orthodox.

The Anglican position
As far as our own view? Of course we hold that our orders are valid (except that not all Anglican believe that women can be validly ordained—so that whole issue has caused great problems in our communion). We claim they are valid because of an unbroken apostolic succession. We also explicitly stated the intention to continue the same kind of ordained ministry in the preface to the ordination rites: “It has been, and is, the intention and purpose of this Church to maintain and continue these three orders” (i.e., bishop, priest, and deacon).

As for our view of the church and “ecclesial communities”. Like Rome, our use of the term “church,” at least in confessional statements and theological discourse, is mainly in the sense of the visible institutional structure. As an example, here is the description of the church from Resolution 9 of the 1920 Lambeth Conference:

I. We believe that God wills fellowship. By God's own act this fellowship was made in and through Jesus Christ, and its life is in his Spirit. We believe that it is God's purpose to manifest this fellowship, so far as the world is concerned, in an outward, visible, and united society, holding one faith, having its own recognised officers, using God-given means of grace, and inspiring all its members to the world-wide service of the Kingdom of God. This is what we mean by the Catholic Church.

Like Rome, we also take the position that there are some things that are essential for an ecclesial community to be a church in the fullest sense. Although, for charity’s sake, we don’t refrain from using the word “church” about those institutions that we think are lacking in some essential matter. Also, we stress that all who are validly baptized belong to Christ and are members of the holy Catholic Church, regardless how imperfectly that institutional realization may be. I’d say Rome takes a similar view, but does not emphasize it as much.

The clearest Anglican statement on the essentials of a “church” (in that visible sense) was made at the beginning of the ecumenical movement as a guideline for approaching other churches in dialogue. The first version was made by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 1886. It was taken and used as a resolution of the 1888 Lambeth Conference, to speak for the whole Communion on the matter. The bishops stated:

We do hereby affirm that the Christian unity can be restored only by the return of all Christian communions to the principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church during the first ages of its existence; which principles we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world, and therefore incapable of compromise or surrender by those who have been ordained to be its stewards and trustees for the common and equal benefit of all men.

As inherent parts of this sacred deposit, and therefore as essential to the restoration of unity among the divided branches of Christendom, we account the following, to wit:
1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
3. The two Sacraments,--Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,--ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.


jswranch said...

Fr. Matkin,
Quick question on this:

What about the Eastern Orthodox? They have a slightly different theology about [Anglican] ordinations and the question of validity. They would say that Anglican clergy have all the same marks of validity that Roman clergy have—except what they both lack, which is union with the Orthodox.

I have a different impression I received from the Orthodox authorities I have met. My impression is they do not see the Anglican orders as valid either from this piece of evidence: if a Catholic priest becomes Orthodox, he simply goes to confession, then he is an Orthodox Priest. If an Anglican priest wants to be an Orthodox priest, he must first be ordained as such.

Granted, I got this view from only one Orthodox priest.


Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Yes, the Orthodox take the position that our orders are invalid, seen in the practice of reordaining individual converts.

However, my understanding is that if we were to enter into full communion with them, our clergy would not need to be reordained as a whole. Their view of economy would cover that deficiency.

As I said, that's my understanding (which may be way off). Anyone with more details, please comment.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

I found the following posted on the Catholic Answers Forum:

If a Catholic priest converts to Orthodoxy, several choices can be made by the receiving bishop:

1. Reception by Vesting as a Priest.

To receive him by "vesting." This simply means that during the Liturgy and before the Consecration the bishop hands to the convert priest the various items worn by a priest when he celebrates the Eucharist. While there is no visible re-ordination this does not imply a blanket acceptance of Roman Catholic Orders either. The idea is that whatever was lacking in the Catholic ordination is made good by the Holy Spirit through reception into Orthodoxy.

2. Ordination

3. Reception as a layman. The bishop may decide that he does not want the man as a priest.
If, at a later date, the bishop did want him to be an Orthodox priest he would be ordained.

To make some sense of this, please see the article on the Forum by Irish Melkite:

Apostolic Succession: Catholic & Orthodox Views

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

I found that William Tighe relates that an Orthodox priest told him:

The Russian Church Abroad always ordains Roman or Byzantine Catholic Priests who convert. In the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, this is also the usual rule, although Melkite Priests who are not changing their marital status may be received by vesting.

The OCA never ordains Catholic Clergy of any Rite when they convert, but receives them by vesting, if they are not changing their marital status. If a celibate Catholic Priest converts and marries, he is received into the OCA as a layman. The Greeks always reordain, and those Orthodox jurisdictions in America which either stemmed from an Eastern Catholic Church (e.g., the American Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholic Orthodox Church) or drew much of their lay membership from one (e.g., the Ukrainian Orthodox Church) never reordain.

Anonymous said...

Great Post Father...A very helpful and consise response to questions that many of us have had over the last few days. I will certainly refer my parishioners to your blog. One point of clarification, thhough...I may be wrong, but I think that Paul VI presented Archbishop Ramsey with the ring he wore as Archbishop of Milan, not one of his Papal rings.
Fr Jones
Have a great day.

Anonymous said...

How do you define "the historic episcopate"? What is its function? Must it be physically linked through ordination back to the apostles? Must it adhere to historic titles, or being "locally adapted" use other titles?
Mike F.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick thought in response to the anonymous question about the historic episcopate. When I entered the Anglican Communion from the Roman church (not an easy decision), I was concerned about the validity of orders with respect to the pedigree of succession. A quick bit of research produced an interesting result. All Roman Catholic clergy have a "pedigree" or chartable succession traceable only back to the 1556 consecration of Giulio Antonio Santorio by Scipione Rebiba. Anglican "pedigrees" are definitively traceable to Pope Nicholas I and the consecration of Formosus of Porto in 864.

One cannot trace succession in any direct sense back farther than this, working down the list of popes to Peter, etc.

Apostolic succession is more than pedigree, though. It has to do with continuity in preserving and sharing the apostolic faith, part of which is unity within the church--which makes the orders of one church often look spurious to another. The "pedigree" approach is only useful as a testimony to this larger conception of apostolicity--a witness by other bishops that, yes, this bishop and this local church have preserved and handed on "apostolic faith."