The Chapel at Lambeth Palace
where Matthew Parker was
consecrated Archbishop of
Elizabeth’s challenge was to get her new Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated. All the Marian bishops, including Anthony Kitchin of Llandaff in Wales who had adopted the Protestant Rites under Edward VI, reverted to Catholicism under Mary, and would adopt Protestant worship again under Elizabeth, refused. In the end Elizabeth came up with four co-consecrating bishops which is, after all, one more than required. However the credentials of several of them were not as impeccable as one might have hoped.
The consecration of Matthew Parker is a key stumbling block in Catholic/Anglican dialogue. All current Anglican Bishops can trace their lineage back to Parker. If he was not consecrated validly, then the validity of the diaconal and priestly ordinations and episcopal consecrations of subsequent Anglican bishops gets called into question. If he was consecrated validly then all subsequent Anglican bishops stand in the Apostolic Succession and the Churches of the Anglican Communion have, by Catholic standards, a fully valid sacramental system. (The issue is complicated, by the way, by the introduction of Old Catholic co-consecrating bishops in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that is for a later post.)
Spoiler alert: Pope Leo XIII declared in the Bull Apostolicae Curae of 1896 that Parker’s episcopal consecration was invalid on several points and thus the Anglican Church does not stand in the Apostolic Succession. For us historians, the issue is far more complex and not as easily settled however, and so we want to look in detail at the Parker consecration and what happened so as to see the evidence on which Leo’s commission appointed to study the issue came to their conclusions. And for those who think it is a settled question, consider this: In 1993, in an effort to persuade the Church of England not to go ahead with women’s ordination (to the priesthood) then-Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, offered that in return for the Church of England backing away from this historic step of admitting women to the priesthood, the Holy See would re-open the question of Valid Orders. To proceed, however, with the ordination of women to priestly ministry as either bishops or priests would mark a definitive closure to this question as the Catholic Church believes that it is of divine law that only men can be ordained bishops and priests. The willingness of the Catholic Church—and Cardinal Ratzinger could not have made the offer without the consent of the Pope at the time (Saint John Paul II)—to reexamine the decision of Apostolicae Curae does mean that Leo’s Bull is not irreversible.
What do we mean by valid orders? The Catholic Church—along with the Orthodox Churches, the Churches of the East and the Copts, the Anglican Church and several branches of Lutheranism (among them the Church of Sweden)—holds that bishops receive not only their authority but their sacramental “power” from standing in a long line of bishops traceable back to the Apostles through the prayer invoking the Holy Spirit on the new bishop and the laying on of hands conferred on each new bishop in each successive generation from the Apostles to the present day. Priests, likewise, receive the “power” to celebrate the Eucharist and forgive sins by the laying on of hands by their ordaining bishops who stand in this lineage traced back to the apostles.
Frankly, no one has the papers to show an unbroken line back to any of the 12, but the claim of an unbroken succession from the Apostles is not as outlandish as it may seem. From the first century onwards their was great scrupulosity about making sure that this transmission of office was done through the laying on of hands and it is a very reasonable assumption that bishops can indeed trace the lineage back to the Apostles laying hands on those they chose for ministry in the primitive Church.
If it were simply a matter of the lineage of the hand-onlaying, it wouldn’t be complex. But historically there were challenges to various features of the ritual. Were there specific words, or at least specific ideas, that had to be vocalized in the accompanying prayer invoking the Holy Spirit? Were there other accompanying actions that comprised an essential part of the ritual? What if the ordaining bishop were not orthodox in his faith? Would an ordination conferred by him be valid? What if candidate was not orthodox in his? What if either secretly rejected what was supposedly happening? There is no end to the number of pins on which a questionable number of angels can dance.
The allegation that ordinations had been invalid or where ordinations were subsequently annulled has been widely abused in the history of the Church. Various movements and groups in the Church of the third and fourth century had declared the ordinations of their rivals “invalid” in order to discredit them and shake the confidence of their adherents. The Donatists claimed that the personal sinfulness of the bishop or priest made him incapable of conferring sacraments validly. The Montanists refused to recognize the ordination of those outside their movement and orthodox Christians in turn rejected the ordinations of the Montanists. In the ninth and tenth century it got even worse as successive popes annulled the ordinations of their predecessors who came from rival political factions in Rome. Popes declared the ordinations of antipopes invalid and antipopes returned the compliment which sounds reasonable until you realize that most often it was only years later that it was settled which claimant to the papacy wore the white tiara and which wore the black. All of this is to say that the charge of “invalid orders” was so overused and abused throughout history as to have little credibility except as a polemical tool. And so when told that their ordinations were not valid, the sixteenth-century reformers sort of shrugged their shoulders and went on with their lives. “Wolf” had been cried too often.
This isn’t to say that there is not substance the idea of “valid” and “invalid” orders, but only that the entire matter has to be very carefully nuanced. It isn’t like buying a quart of milk with an expiration date on it. The milk is either sour or it isn’t and everyone can tell. What do you mean by “valid” or “invalid” orders? How can you tell?
I remember one time forty years ago, as the ecumenical movement was just beginning to dawn, being at a very High Church Episcopal Eucharist. A friend of mine, then a Catholic seminarian, said as the Sacrament was being incensed at the consecration: “Don’t they know that it is just crackers and grape-juice.” That then-seminarian is now dean of an Episcopalian Cathedral and he obviously doesn’t know that it “is just crackers and grape-juice.” Nor is it. Chapter 22 of Unitatis Reintegratio, Vatican II’s Declaration on Ecumenism, says of the Eucharist as celebrated in the various churches that we Catholics judge to stand outside the Apostolic Succession
Though the ecclesial Communities which are separated from us lack the fullness of unity with us flowing from Baptism, and though we believe they have not retained the proper reality of the eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Orders, nevertheless when they commemorate His death and resurrection in the Lord's Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and look forward to His coming in glory. Therefore the teaching concerning the Lord's Supper, the other sacraments, worship, the ministry of the Church, must be the subject of the dialogue.
Notice: “while we believe that they have not retained the fullness of the Eucharistic Mystery”—primarily because of the break in the Apostolic Succession—we acknowledge that
1. Like our understanding of the Mass, the Eucharist in these communities commemorates the death and resurrection of the Lord,
2. It signifies (a word replete with sacramental meaning) life in communion with Christ
3. And it is a sign of the Kingdom of God
It is amazing that the Council Fathers chose to admit their subjectivity in this crucial matter and did not make an absolute pronunciation on the full validity of non-Catholic Eucharists. The Council Fathers also spoke of the “fullness of the Eucharistic Mystery,” again not saying that the Protestant Holy Communion is “crackers and grape-juice” but only somehow lacking in what it might have should the Apostolic Succession have been maintained. There is, the Catholic Church says, an authentic union with Christ; the issue is whether Christ is corporally present.
There is a reason for this to be challenged. Jesus asks: what father among you would hand your child a stone if he asked for bread…” (Matthew 7:9; Luke 11:11.) No serious theologian, unless he were descending from theology into polemics, would claim that the prayers of the baptized would go unheard by our heavenly Father when the baptized ask him for their spiritual nourishment in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. No, the understanding of the Eucharist is most often different among our separated brothers and sisters; the experience is most often different as well. But that “nothing” happens? Well, actually that is what many Catholics believed for several centuries, but then we were burning women for witches and spreading stories about Jews stealing the Eucharistic host to use in the ritual killing of Christian children. That great age of Counter-Reformation baroque: It often wasn’t a pretty sight when you looked too close.
By the way, just as a point of clarification: while the Catholic Church questions the precise nature of the sacramental systems of the various Protestant Churches, we accept the validly of the Sacraments of the Orthodox Churches (though they do not all accept ours), the Ancient Churches of the East, and the Copts and other ancient Churches.
We have drifted far from Matthew Parker’s Episcopal consecration, but let’s review. We need validly ordained consecrating bishops (one is absolutely required; three is usual, and we have four—though that validly ordained thing is sketchy for two of them, as we will see.) We need to be able to reasonably presume that the ordaining bishops intend to pass on the Apostolic Succession, or we at least need to have no evidence that they are withholding their intention do so do. We need a ritual that has an acceptable verbal formula for calling down the Holy Spirit upon those being ordained/consecrated. We need whatever other parts of the ritual are required for validity. (This last will be interesting because the Catholic Church will change horses in mid-theological-stream, leaving Leo XIII hanging out to dry on this point.)
What do we get? There are four consecrating bishops. We have William Barlow, once Bishop of Bath and Wells. We have John Scory, once Bishop of Chichester. We have Miles Coverdale, once Bishop of Exeter. And we have John Hodgkins, Bishop of Bedford. Barlow was consecrated a bishop in 1536 when England was in Schism but still using the traditional Pontifical. He was therefore a validly ordained bishop. Hodgkins was similarly consecrated under the ancient ritual in 1537. Coverdale and Scory were consecrated Bishops according the revised Protestant rites in the Ordinal of Edward VI. Their ordinations are, therefore, less certain depending on whether one acknowledges the validity of the Reformed Rite. Nevertheless, we only need one and we have at least two.