The Porvoo Agreement which comes before the next meeting of the General Synod, seeks to establish full ecclesial recognition – including, of course, recognition of Orders – between the Anglican Provinces of Britain and Ireland on the one hand and Nordic Lutheran Churches which have retained the structural organisation of the medieval Catholic dioceses on the other. Hitherto, modern Anglican practice has been to recognise the Orders – and, hence, full ecclesial reality – of the Swedish church, because in Sweden the Apostolic Succession (the Ordination or Consecration of Bishops by those who are already Bishops in the Church of God) was maintained during the Reformation; but to refuse recognition of Orders to the other Nordic Churches, in which the Succession was broken.

This policy has been deemed to be required by the Preface to the 1662 Ordinal: “No man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop …in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said functions except he …hath had …Episcopal Consecration” – which, in the context, clearly means Consecration by Bishops. Since (except the Swedes) Nordic Lutheran ‘bishops’ derive their succession from men who were not consecrated by bishops in the Apostolic Succession, their orders have hitherto been regarded as unsatisfactory in terms of the law of the Church of England.

Supporters of Porvoo prefer a ‘broader’ definition of Apostolic Succession. It may not matter, it is felt, that individual Lutheran bishops have not had authentically episcopal hands laid upon their heads; they occupy, one after another, the succession lists of their ancient episcopal sees: that is what succession really means. Second Century patristic writers guaranteed the truth of the Catholic Faith by showing the lists of those who, from the Apostles, had occupied certain sees. These writers showed no interest whatever in the details of the ordination of each individual bishop. So Nordic Lutherans, it is held, have a good enough form of succession. And, in any case, we should consider the Apostolic Succession of the whole Christian community rather than making everything hinge on a ‘legalistic’ episcopal succession. We shouldn’t bother too much about ‘ pipeline succession’ which runs the risk of giving the impression that Christianity is something mechanically handed down through history rather than ‘given’ dynamically by the Spirit.

Pour Vous? The present writer is far from sure that Porvoo has got to be rejected, immediately and totally and for ever. He is sure about two things: 1) This is a grotesquely inopportune moment, from the catholic Anglican standpoint, to adopt the novelties of Porvoo theology; and 2) There are, in any case, grave problems in Porvoo’s theology which its proponents show little enthusiasm to face.

Inopportune? At the moment the ordination of women has created a problem in our relationships with Rome and other ancient Churches. As far as Apostolic Succession is concerned, our present Anglican principle and practice, prima facie, is identical with that of Rome. After Porvoo, Anglican principle and practice, prima facie, will have moved out of their present identity with the official principle and practice of Rome.

You don’t have to be a rabid papalist to feel that, before we do this, we should be absolutely sure that we are not setting up yet another barrier between ourselves and the Great Latin Church. Edward Yarnold, a very ecumenically positive Roman member of ARCIC, has emphasised that “for the Catholic Church …in its insistence on certainty where sacraments are concerned, episcopal succession remains indispensable, even though it must be seen within the context of the ‘other means of continuity’”.

A very real question arises about the urgency with which such an important matter is being pushed through. Rumour has it that the speed with which the dioceses were made to respond was not the design of those who actually worked on Porvoo or of the Council for Christian Unity of the General Synod. They, it is reliably reported, proposed a slower pace for discussion and possible reception, precisely because there are big issues here. They themselves do not seem to know why the Standing Committee of the General Synod insisted on accelerating the process. As Private Eye puts it, We should be told.

Out into the Cold? Another piece of context is provided by the Papal initiatives inherent in two recent Encyclicals which press for RC-Orthodox unity sooner rather than later and on the basis of theological work already done between Rome and Orthodoxy. That work includes a 1984 agreement on Episcopal Succession: “The Bishop receives the gift of episcopal grace in the sacrament of consecration, effected by bishops who have themselves received this gift, thanks to the existence of an uninterrupted series of episcopal ordinations beginning from the holy Apostles.” It may even be that the Encyclical of May 2 was specifically and carefully phrased to exclude Porvoo: “…an uninterrupted line, guaranteed by the apostolic succession through the laying on of hands…”

At first sight, Porvoo contradicts this. Perhaps the appearance of contradiction is deceptive; but we should be sure about this before we find that we have unintentionally opted out of an important process of convergence between the ancient major Christian Churches and into a chilly, pan-Arctic huddle.

Ask them! The present writer admits to taking the simplistic view that the best way of finding out what Romans and Byzantines mean by what they say is not by discussing among ourselves what their words mean, but by asking them.

Thin Ends of Wedges Paranoia and conspiracy theories are temptations which it is important to avoid. But it is the proponents of Porvoo themselves who have talked about Porvoo “opening the way for a wider definition of ’ apostolicity’ than the crude and mechanistic ‘pipeline’ theory; and into a more forward-looking and experience-related concept of ‘apostolicity’ – what makes a church an authentic Church. If accepted …it could provide a basis for a new attitude to the ministry of the Free Churches in this country”. [Ecumenical Officer of the Diocese of Chichester]

And why not? ‘Broader’ and less ‘crudely mechanistic’ views of episkope will enable it to be perceived in Nonconformist moderators, chairmen and superintendents. (Porvoo imagines that since superintendent and episkopos are semantically identical we can treat these office-holders as equivalent). ‘Broader views of Apostolicity’ will enable it to be discerned anywhere the Liberal Establishment chooses. This will create a definite barrier between ourselves and a Roman Church which remains committed to the decrees of Vatican II. Vatican II (without, mercifully, specifying exactly which ecclesial groups in the West had valid orders and which didn’t) made very clear its assumption that the great bulk of Reformed Western Churches had orders not ‘valid’ by Roman Catholic criteria.

Bathwater? It looks, then, as though Porvoo will take us out of convergence with Rome and Byzantium, and instead commit us to convergence with Western Protestant groups. Those who, for whatever reason, favour this have everything to gain by backing Porvoo. Those who favour a broader ecumenical strategy which does not exclude Rome and Byzantium will prefer a rather slower advance: one which involves Rome and Byzantium in the discussions (the official representatives of Roman and Orthodox teaching, that is; some Anglicans are all too ready to assume that the words of whatever maverick RC theologian are an expression of “what Rome will come round to saying as soon as the present Pope is dead”.); and one which makes sure that we don’t throw out the bathwater without being quite sure that the baby isn’t still in it.

Grave Problems But it is the present writer’s opinion that Porvoo is not only inopportune but has every appearance of being flawed. Space makes it impossible to pursue at length the many grave problems which Porvoo throws up. A few will have to be briefly listed.

1) Sacramental Commitment It is true that the Church’s apostolicity is something very much broader than a ‘crude’ notion of ‘tactile’ episcopal succession – who had whose hands laid on whom. But that doesn’t mean that Episcopal Consecration is unnecessary. There is more to Baptism than sloshing water around; but we properly require the use of water if Baptism is to be held valid.

At the heart of Catholic theology is the assumption that God is not bound by his sacraments, but we are. The early generations of the Christian Church left us with a canonized structure of sacramental practice, just as they left us with a definitive Canon of Holy Scripture. It is a very grave matter – and one likely to create new divisions between Christians – to advocate disregarding the sacramental structures which emerged from the sub-apostolic period: arguably, we have no right to do this at all; even more arguably, we ought only to do it in agreement with our major ecumenical partners in dialogue. To base our inter-Church relationships on the view that Nordic disregard for the ‘sign’ of Apostolic Succession is not, in the last resort, a problem, is to proclaim in a very solemn way, our lack of commitment to the sacramental structures which are the common inheritance of Catholic and Orthodox. We shall be saying that we prefer these structures to be maintained, but when they are not we are happy to grin and bear it.

2) Lost and Found If it is better to analyse the Apostolicity of a whole Church rather than to ask ‘crude and mechanistic’ questions about specific episcopal ‘consecrations’ then there are disturbing questions to be answered.

The advantage of what is ‘crude and mechanistic’ is that it enables us to say that there may be a lot wrong with the theology and practice of a certain Church (as for example with the Church of England at certain periods before, during and after the Reformation) but that since the essentials are validly present, recovery and reform are possible and likely. A ‘broader’ analysis might not always yield the results which ecumenical enthusiasts desire or expect, accustomed as they are to act as though it is a matter of basic courtesy to assume that any Christian group with which we are in dialogue has preserved “Apostolicity”.

Two examples: (a) The Swedish idea that Church membership depends, not on Baptisma and Pistis but on secular citizenship, is a gross perversion of the New Testament teaching. (b) Oaths of fidelity ‘to the preaching of Luther and the Creeds’ should disquiet us. We should call upon the Nordic Lutherans to commit themselves instead to the Gospel and the Great Paradosis, and to renounce confessionalism.

3) Bugenhagen’s Trousers. What is a bishop? One of the Porvoo contributors argues that Bugenhagen, from whom the Danish bishops inherit such ‘succession’ as they have, really does count as a bishop, although technically he was merely a man in priest’s orders acting as “superintendent” in the reformed church in Wittenberg. Why should such a man be deemed sufficiently ‘episcopal’ for his consecrations of others to the episcopate to be held ‘extraordinary but valid’? Because, we are told, he was ‘exercising a superintendent style of ministry’, which means essentially ‘a ministry of unity and pastoral care of the clergy’.

If this is the criterion whereby we adjudge whether a man is a bishop, then Bugenhagen, perhaps, rules OK. If, however, a bishop is something really rather different, then it is far from clear that Bugenhagen gets his nose over the finishing line. If a bishop is the Priest and Charismatic of his Church, offering the holy gifts in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and if he is the source and origin of all its sacramental ministries, then the criteria which Porvoo applies to Bugenhagen are irrelevant. If a bishop is the Apostle of his Church, who has received his charism through a new outpouring of the gracious and potent Spirit of God in his own consecration to his see, then Bugenhagen is nowhere. If the outpouring of the Spirit in the Episcopal Consecration is done sacramentally through representative members of the world-wide Episcopal Collegium so as to maintain and uphold the local Church in the communion of the Una Sancta and so that its new bishop’s ministry is inserted into the Catholicity of the Church of God, then Bugenhagen, frankly, has lost his trousers.

It is true that Lutherans are not the only people to have seen episcopacy as no more than a system of regional managers with a particular care for the clergy; and let us also accept that the late medieval Danish bishops failed to live up even to that modest job-description. But traditional Western sacramental theology – aridly technical though it may seem – has distinct advantages. It affirms that where the administration of a Sacrament fulfils minimum technical requirements, there, by the Lord’s promise, the wholeness of that sacrament is effectual, however much any or all of those present understand – or misunderstand – that sacrament.

Doing things the other way round – dreaming up a definition of episcopacy and then shouting “Bingo! Bugenhagen and the Nords have got it!” – simply does not deliver the goods. It makes the whole question of sacramental validity depend on whether we were lucky enough to get that definition right. If we weren’t…

So it has to be asked: Why are they pushing this one so fast? Why are they so scared to ask Rome what it thinks?

John Hunwicke is Head of Theology at Lancing College