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Sacramental validity and legal validity
June 28, 2010, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , , ,

In its original report, quoted in its additional report, the Manchester Group asserts that “the fact that some may doubt whether women may be sacramentally priests and bishops and/or exercise headship is a separate matter from calling into question whether as a matter of law the ordinations are valid.”

Well, is it a separate matter? The problem lies in how one understands the term “valid”, and what the status of the law is.

In Catholic ecclesiology, the Church is a community of persons which takes its basic structure from Christ and in relation to Christ. In particular, it is held that Christ himself commissioned the Apostles as his plenipotentiaries, with authority that was both individual and collegial. That authority they in turn have committed to the episcopate, or, more precisely, to the college of bishops which is the continuation of the Apostolic college.

In order to be incorporated into that college, and to participate in that authority, an individual must be “ordained” by a member or members of that college who has authority to do so, using a form that adequately expresses what is being done, and with the intention of doing it. The principal distinction between the two grades of priesthood is that the authority to transmit orders is inherent in the higher grade (bishops) but not in the lower (priests/presbyters). Both grades have the authority to preside at the Eucharist, where the Church is most visible, just as every believer has authority (at least in exceptional circumstances) to admit new members to the Church by Baptism. What all the sacraments have in common is that the minister acts “in persona Christi”. It is Christ, ultimately, who baptises, consecrates, ordains, through his minister. Without this baptismal or priestly “character”, there is no sacrament.

As noted above, the authority of the apostles and the bishops is both individual and collegial. In practice, there are certain things (the Eucharist, ordination) that a bishop can do by the authority inherent in him individually, but there are other things he can only do in virtue of his place in the college, and in accordance with the dispositions of the college. In the most general way, the latter are matters of teaching and guiding the faithful. For convenience, I will call them “matters of discipline”, since “discipline” can refer to theoretical teaching as well as to practical regulation. The disciplinary authority of an individual bishop is limited both in respect of place and time. He has no general authority outside his own diocese; his authority ceases if he loses office, e.g. by retirement.

Thus there is a certain distinction between what may be called the “sacramental” and the “disciplinary” authority of a bishop. While he cannot lose the former, the latter may be restricted in a variety of ways. One way of looking at this is to say that his sacramental character comes immediately from Christ, whereas his disciplinary authority is mediated through the Episcopal college. It is important to emphasise that by “the Episcopal college” I mean the college conceived as a single body, continuous with the Apostles, with the authority and structure given it by Christ. A group of bishops arranged according to geographical or other convenience is not a “college” in the same sense, nor does a group of dioceses constitute a “church” in the proper sense. This term should properly be applied either to a local church (diocese) or to the Universal Church.

Although there is a distinction between the bishop’s individual sacramental authority and his shared and mediated disciplinary authority, it is clear that he can only possess the latter if he also has the former, though not vice versa. He must be a bishop, before he can be bishop of this or that diocese. His disciplinary authority derives from his union with the universal Episcopate.

The Church of England has a problem, in that in the sixteenth century the King of England declared that he had supreme authority over the church in his realm, both in temporal and even spiritual matters. It became illegal (according to the law of England) to be in ecclesial communion with the See of Rome or with the rest of the Church which remained in communion with that See. While some individuals resisted this and suffered legal penalties, including death, the English bishops as a whole acquiesced in the situation. However one looks at the matter, a state of schism thenceforward existed between the Church in (and now “of”) England, and Rome. Further, this was not a purely ecclesiastical affair, since inherent in it was the acceptance of State supremacy over the Church. England, in fact, adopted a model of Church governance largely based on that of the Eastern Roman Empire, from Constantine onwards. In the West, while there had long been rivalry between Church and State (not least in England), the distinction between the two was maintained. This, now, surely, is the only basis for a proper relationship between the Church and the modern secular State.

In Catholic ecclesiology, it is perfectly possible to question whether a valid ordination is in fact lawful. “Valid” means sacramentally effective; “lawful” means in accordance with the rules laid down by the Church regarding the manner and circumstances in which the sacraments should be celebrated. English law uses the terms differently: a “valid” act is one which is in accordance with the legal procedures, and the question of sacramental effectiveness is not addressed (nor could it be).

There is therefore a fatal ambiguity in saying that while individuals may doubt the sacramental reality of women’s ordination, they must nevertheless regard it as legally valid. Of course, it is “valid” in the English legal sense of being in accordance with English law; but this is not to say that the women so ordained are “validly” ordained in the theological sense. And this has grave consequences.

Episcopal authority (both individual and collegial) requires being a bishop, that is, receiving authority from Christ. Receiving authority from the law of England is neither here nor there. If one does not recognise a particular person as truly a bishop in the sense of having been validly ordained to membership in the Episcopal college and having received authority from Jesus Christ, then how can one conscientiously (for instance) take an oath of canonical obedience to that person as one’s bishop, or accept delegated authority from that person?

For a Christian, while where possible one should obey the laws of men, the Law of God takes precedence. The question of who is, and who is not, a bishop in the Church is not one that can be settled by majority voting or by Synodal and Parliamentary procedures. We are told that the question is still theoretically open, and it is lawful to believe that ordained women do not, in fact, have authority from Christ. It is, however, obligatory to accept that they have the authority of English law. But when they purport to act in Christ’s name, improperly and ineffectually as one is entitled to believe, to refuse them recognition will be a disciplinary offence.

A diocese is not merely, or even essentially, a geographical entity. It is a community of Christian believers united under the guidance of a bishop, who has received his authority from Jesus Christ. Priests, in particular, form a college with the bishop, for the care of the whole people. A priest who cannot recognise as truly a bishop the one who physically occupies the bishop’s seat; or who cannot recognise colleagues as truly priests: that priest is in an impossible position. Until recently, it could at least be argued that a distinction between Church and State was still tenable; and that the Church was merely bowing to State power in some issues. Unfortunately, the Church of England seems to have no understanding that its power is limited not only by the State, but by Christ himself. It is acting beyond its competence, and using the law of the State to override conscience.


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