Mark Burkill takes an evangelical look at Apostolicae Curae

WHEN OUR FAMILY goes on holiday, a question which troubles us greatly is that of which church we should attend on a Sunday. I have to confess that several unfortunate experiences have occurred where I have emerged from a service in a worse spiritual state than that in which I entered. This has sadly led us to the practice of not going to any church unless we have found good evidence that it will have some links with the original apostolic variety of Christianity. The denominational label on the notice board is not to be taken as good evidence of what will be found within. I am sure that our experience is a common one, given the notable demand for good church guides after the events of recent years.

This is the practical side of the questions raised by reflection on the centenary of Apostolicae Curae. In this document Anglican orders were famously described as ‘absolutely null and utterly void’ by the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, and since then, this has been a cause of considerable heartache to the Anglo-Catholic community. Of course that has not been the case amongst evangelicals, who are probably secretly relieved that such a large obstacle has stood in the way of any moves towards incorporation within the Roman Communion over the last 100 years.

In the Apostolicae Curae document Leo XIII focuses on the defect in form and intention of the Anglican Ordinal as being the problem. In the Roman Church’s eyes this made the ‘sacrament’ of ordination invalid. At the heart of the document (sections 7 & 8) the Anglican Ordinal is discussed in some detail, and evangelicals will be inclined to observe that the Pope has perfectly understood what the Reformers were doing. Cranmer had no intention whatsoever of ordaining men to a sacrificing priesthood and framed the form of the Ordinal accordingly. However the centenary of Apostolicae Curae does remind us all (evangelicals included) that the Roman Catholic Church then, and now, has a concern to define truth and error which is frequently lacking in many quarters of Protestantism. The document at least takes the injunction of Jesus to beware of false prophets seriously.

The danger, in reflecting on Apostolicae Curae and its aftermath, is that we do so too narrowly. We can easily discuss the document simply in the terms of reference which are established by the Roman Catholic response to the entire question. To some extent the response of the Anglican Archbishops at the time (Saepius Officio) may be said to have done this. Anglo-Catholic discussions of it (such as Andrew Burnham’s in New Directions Vol. 1 no.15) inevitably do this since shared assumptions about the nature of ministry are held by both sides. At this narrow level the Archbishops of a hundred years ago did make some telling comments, such as that noted by Andrew Burnham in his article. If the Anglican Ordinal is defective in form and intention, then so are various patristic rites!

However my intention is to stand back and take a broader look at the questions raised by this controversy. As I indicated in my introduction, this whole matter invites discussion of how an ordinary Christian can seek out and find authentic Christian leadership and ministry, and then participate in the life of a truly Christian congregation. To my mind, behind the issue of whether Anglican orders are valid or not, lies the question of how one maintains apostolicity in the Christian community. An important subsidiary question of this is then how authentic Christian leadership may be recognised.

Sadly, apostolicity is not a concern of many within Western Christianity today. If it was then issues of gender and morality would not be debated with such a mind-boggling lack of concern for what Scripture and 2000 years of Christian tradition have to say on the matter. Nevertheless, unity is something which does stir the hearts of many. Our consciences are rightly pricked by the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in John 17. The proper concern of course should be for apostolic unity, but whether Christians are concerned about apostolicity or unity the same mistake is easily made. That mistake is to think that apostolicity or unity is to be found through human beings or through human organisations such as denominations.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury has been a recent and surprising subscriber to the doctrine of ‘ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia’. Yet it is a false hope to think that the presence of a bishop guarantees the presence of a real Christian community. It is a false hope to think that a bishop inevitably provides a focus of unity between many Christian congregations. As Western Christianity fragments and disintegrates, it is very tempting to hold things together in unity through a person or a common organisation. It is also tempting to take refuge in antiquity and the definition of ‘valid’ sacraments, as the means by which apostolicity will be acquired and assured. It needs to be clearly stated that these are vain hopes, and the last few years have been gradually revealing them to be so. Liberalism has gradually eaten away at the Church of England and other Protestant denominations, so that they now contain a staggering variety of congregations under the same label. Despite valiant attempts to maintain a pretence of apostolic unity, that is now breaking down. As anarchy breaks out, many are tempted to take refuge in the Church of Rome with its claim of apostolic continuity (and Petrine leadership) and its formidable appearance of unity. However, I believe that one day the same pressures will reveal themselves within the Roman Communion also. Ultimately we need to learn the lesson that no human being or human system of administration is capable of guaranteeing authentic Christianity. While human beings and systems of organisation have an important place in church life simply because we are social beings, it is a grave mistake to rely upon them to dish up authentic apostolic Christianity.

The truth is that authentic Christianity can only be found through submission to Jesus Christ who is the Head of the Church. Furthermore Jesus Christ exercises his authority as Head of the Church through the Word of God. Apostolicity is important because it is the apostles who are communicators of the truth about Jesus Christ. Apostolicity is only guaranteed when we submit to the teaching of the Scriptures.

In other words we can only find apostolic pastoral care and direction (apostolicae curae) in a Christian community which is prepared to obey the Word of God. If that willingness is not there, then no matter how clever the schemes and how forceful the personalities are, authentic apostolic Christianity cannot be guaranteed. Without submission to the Word of God, the Christianity will become absolutely null and utterly void, even if the leaders claim 1400 years of continuity and seek to purge the organisation of any dissent. The ordination of women, and even more so the issue of homosexuality, is the acid test of whether the Church of England will be in the business of authentic Christianity in the long run. If you cut yourself off from the apostles then you cut yourself off from Christianity.

The subsidiary but vital issue raised by Apostolicae Curae is that of recognising authentic Christian leadership. Authentic Christian leadership is vital to the health of the Christian community and the practice of authentic Christianity. If the holiday maker wants to find out whether a church practises apostolic Christianity, he or she will naturally focus attention on the vicar or minister. It is the leadership which ultimately shapes the life of the congregation.

In this matter too we find that no human system of ministerial recognition or ordination can guarantee the right leadership. The Church of England used to, and the Roman Catholic Church still does, operate a tight ship as far those it ordains. It does not lightly lay hands on people. But no human system can guarantee authentic ministry. That is why it is wrong to focus too much on matters such as the form and intention of the Ordinal. It is not the Anglican Ordinal or the Roman one which guarantees the validity of Christian leadership. It is the candidates who are ordained and the manner of leadership they seek to exercise which determines the validity of the Christian leadership. It is only to that extent that form and intention are relevant.

The Pastoral Epistles show us the way to secure valid and proper Christian leadership of the Christian community. In 1 Timothy ch3 vv1-7 Paul focuses on the behaviour of the prospective elder, along with the gift of being able to teach. He sees these as being determinative for the apostolic care of God’s people. When an already ordained elder, Timothy himself, is urged to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4v16), Paul is saying much the same thing. There is no mention here of management or administrative skills. Neither is there mention of an ability not to rock the ecclesiastical boat. Such attributes do not guarantee authentic Christian leadership. Nor, pace Apostolicae

Curae, is there any mention of a sacrificial priesthood.

It should be noted that these concerns for apostolicity and authentic Christian leadership are all to be found in the 39 Articles and the Anglican Ordinal. Scripture is sufficient (Article VI). The Church must not insist on things which are contrary to Scripture (Article XX). The Church itself is located where the pure Word of God is preached and the Sacraments duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance (XIX). Christian leadership is seen in the same terms (Article XXIII). The Ordinal is riddled with the same understanding, and it is noteworthy that the validity of the ministry is to be founded upon the bishop having found the men he has ordained to be of ‘virtuous conversation’ and ‘sufficiently instructed in holy Scripture’.

There is a place for debate about the details of ordinals and there must be some thought given to practical arrangements for relationships between denominations. However I do believe it is important in current circumstances not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. At the back of our minds we still think of the words ‘Church of England’ on a noticeboard as conveying a certain form of Christianity. Yet the truth which we all must face is that the days have long since gone when the 1662 Prayer Book guaranteed an instantly recognisable and biblical form of service in which to meet with the Lord Jesus Christ. What is worse is that the days have gone when clergy anguished over whether they could subscribe to the Creeds or the 39 Articles. One suspects that the day of the denomination may be over. And therefore the official forms and intention of Ordinals mean very little. This is easier to see in the Church of England, but I do believe that even the Roman Catholic Communion will not be immune to these problems.

If Western Christianity and the discipline of its denominations is collapsing then we must get used to going back to first principles in order to discern apostolic Christian communities and authentic Christian leadership. Andrew Burnham is correct to note how the first 90 years since Apostolicae Curae contained promising signs for improved relationship between the Anglican and Roman Communions. However his astonishment and dismay at the way all that has changed in the past ten years is absolutely right. I would suggest that the grenade tossed into ecumenical relationships by the ordination of women is not simply a temporary setback which can be overcome some day. It is the sign of something far more profound. Neither Apostolicae Curae nor the English response in Saepius Officio envisage a situation in which a denomination with varying degrees of enthusiasm cuts itself loose from apostolic Christianity. In such circumstances we will be forced to search for apostolic Christianity by the means I have suggested above. As the Kellogg’s advert reminds us, we will have to remember not to be fooled by the presence of a label stating ‘cornflakes’. The genuine article is only to be found where there is real Scripture in the pulpit!

Mark Burkill is Vicar of Christ Church, Leyton, in the diocese of Chelmsford