Andrew Burnham is puzzled by a simultaneous process of convergence and divergence

ON 13 SEPTEMBER 1896, Pope Leo XIII issued an apostolic letter pronouncing Anglican orders invalid. “We pronounce and declare that ordinations performed according to the Anglican rite have been and are completely null and void” 1, was the verdict, a hundred years ago. Invalidity, in Leo’s view, was in respect of defects in both “form” and “intention” in the Edwardine Ordinals (1550 and l552). The defect in “form” was the omission from the ordination formula, “Receive the Holy Ghost”, of any mention of the distinctive characteristic of the Catholic priesthood, namely to consecrate the holy eucharist and to offer the eucharistic sacrifice. The defect in “intention” was inferred from this omission. By omitting to mention what was the distinctive characteristic of the Catholic priesthood, the Ordinal was embracing a different doctrine of Holy Orders from that of the Catholic Church, whose Orders had been handed down in unbroken succession from the apostles. The omission from the Edwardine Ordinal of what was regarded as the distinctive characteristic of the Catholic priesthood gave to the Ordinal what Leo XIII called a native indoles ac spiritus – an innate nature and spirit – which was Protestant and not Catholic.

Much material in the apostolic letter is historical. Thus small differences introduced into the Ordinal in 1662 serve for Leo only to demonstrate the defects in the 1550 and 1552 versions. Similarly the consistent practice of re-ordaining Anglican clergy who convert – a practice which Apostolicae Curae traces back to the accession of Queen Mary in 1553 – provides historical evidence that the Holy See has never accepted Anglican ordinations as being Catholic in character.

Anglo-Catholics of a certain age remember the thunder of, for instance, the convert Sir Henry Slessor’s Catholic Truth Society pamphlet against Anglican Orders, the careful reply to Leo in the eighth and subsequent editions of Vernon Staley’s The Catholic Religion (1896) and Gregory Dix’s magisterial discussion in The Question of Anglican Orders (1944). They know about, and will probably have read, Saepius Officio (1897), “Answer of the Archbishops of England to the Apostolic Letter of Pope Leo XIII. On English Ordinations.” The title, one notices, does not read “Anglican Archbishops” or “On Anglican Ordinations”. Though the Archbishops’ reply refers in its text to Anglican ordinations, the claim of the Roman Church to be the Catholic Church in England is not conceded and, by referring to “of England’ and “English Ordinations”, the Archbishops proudly assert the “Branch Theory”. There is even a rebuttal of the papal claims: “We also gladly declare that there is much in [Leo XIII’s] own person that is worthy of love and reverence. But that error, which is inveterate in the Roman communion. of substituting the visible head for the invisible Christ, will rob his good words of any fruit of peace.”

It is evident that both Apostolicae Curae and Saepius Officio show their age. Apostolicae Curae antedates certain significant ecclesiological developments. Full Communion between the Church of England and Old Catholics (since 1932) and the participation of Old Catholics in the consecration of Anglican bishops is a significant development on the Anglican side. Fruits of that have included the conditional priestly ordination (rather than re-ordination) in Germany of Fr John Jay Hughes (a campaigner for the orders of his former communion to be recognized), and in England of Dr. Graham Leonard (formerly Anglican Bishop of London). The Second Vatican Council and its rethinking of the priestly ministry within the whole People of God is a significant development on the Roman Catholic side. The Liturgical Movement, with convergence of eucharistic rites and ordinals, is a significant development on both sides, as have been the remarkable convergences on eucharist and ministry of ARCIC.

Saepius Officio was a scholarly response to Apostolicae Curae. It made the point well, for instance, that if the 1550 and 1552 Ordinals are not as well developed as the 1662 ones, then the same could be said about the ordination rites of Hippolytus, Leo, Gelasius and Gregory as compared with the Tridentine rite. If an under-developed Ordinal leads to the invalidity of Anglican Orders, then under-developed Ordinals must have meant that Roman Orders too were invalid. Moreover, since liturgists these days have looked back together to antiquity for resources and Rome too has adapted Hippolytus for its renewed ordination rites, Leo’s point about “form” looks even weaker. As is well known, “intention” is the vaguest and most benign of the requirements of sacramental theology. One must intend what the Church intends and not necessarily understand correctly what that intention is. This doctrine must have rescued many a village liturgy from invalidity!

A further development is the availability of documents from the Commission which advised Pope Leo XIII on Apostolicae Curae. These have been collected by Fr Rambaldi in Ordinazioni Anglicani e Sacramento dell’ Ordine nella Chiesa (Gregorian Pontifical University, 1995). From French, Italian and Latin originals they are being translated into English and will appear later on in this centenary year as Anglican Orders: the Documents in the Case, edited by Christopher Hill and Edward Yarnold and published by the Canterbury Press. They should make fascinating reading. Here is Abbe Louis Duchesne on the word sacerdos:2 ‘sacerdos characterized neither a particular order nor even order in its generic sense but rather a function common to the two highest orders’3 Thus, even though the Edwardine Ordinals might have meant presbyterus and not sacerdos when they use the English word “priest”, this need mean no more than that Anglicans, like Roman Catholics, distinguish between the order of bishop (episcopus) and the order of priest (presbyterus). Like the Commission which advised Pope Paul VI on Humanae Vitae (1968), the Commission which advised Pope Leo XIII on Apostolicae Curae contained several members who were urging the pope to come to different conclusions. Half of the Commission members, unhappy with the condemnation of Anglican Orders, disagreed sharply with what became its interpretation of the historical evidence.

In other words, as well as what we have called significant ecclesiological developments since 1896, there is reason now to think that, even within its own terms of reference, Apostolicae Curae was flawed. At issue is the consistent practice of re-ordaining Anglican clergy who convert, a practice traced back by Apostolicae Curae to the accession of Queen Mary and to the instructions given to Cardinal Pole. Members of the Commission inclined to support Anglican Orders, we now know, believed that some priests of Mary’s reign, though ordained according to one of the Edwardine Ordinals, were not re-ordained.4

To see Apostolicae Curae entirely in an historical and theological context, however, is to ignore Roman and English church politics. Saepius Officio, as we have already noted, rebutted the papal claims and, asserting the “Branch Theory”, clearly saw English Catholicism as being under the jurisdiction of the ancient metropolitical sees of Canterbury and York. If a theological defence for this view could be made to prevail – and Anglicans have worked hard on this – the “Branch Theory” would remain nonetheless immensely problematic for Rome politically. After all, England had been part of what both East and West would describe as the Western Patriarchate. It would be no exaggeration to say that the non-theological factor in 1896 – an acute political issue – was the existence of the newly-founded Roman Catholic hierarchy in England (Anglicans used to refer haughtily to them as “the Romans”). The need for what popular Anglican polemic disparagingly called “the Italian Mission to the Irish”, as any more than the denomination for certain ethnic minorities, might have been called into question by the recognition of Anglican Orders. The newly-founded hierarchy in England was not about to surrender its claim to be the Catholic Church of the English.

The politics have now undoubtedly lost their edge: Anglican supremacy has melted and pluralism has become a virtue. Anyway, there are more Roman Catholics at mass in England than there are Church of England folk at church nowadays on a Sunday. Not only that but the inculturation of Roman Catholicism as the Catholic Church for the English, in modern no less than mediaeval times, has progressed greatly. If it were ever possible to describe Roman Catholicism in England as Irish, it certainly would not now be possible. Moreover, Anglicans have always underestimated – and perhaps not really known about – the proud recusant tradition. So far we have looked at changes and changes of perception which might contribute to a reappraisal of the verdict of Apostolicae Curae. Communion between Anglicans and Old Catholics, the liturgical movement, ecumenical convergence, the ARCIC conversations, the counter-attack in Saepius Officio, newly emerging doubts as to the accuracy of the historical perspectives of Apostolicae Curae, cultural pluralism and a new sensitivity in Anglican-Roman Catholic politics: all these have tended to make Apostolicae Curae feel less and less like Rome’s final verdict on the subject of Anglican Orders.

Many will remember the pope’s visit to Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 and the sense of anticipation that pope and archbishop praying together at the tomb of St. Thomas Becket might lead to the eventual reconciliation of ministries. Yet all has not been gain these last 100 years. New factors of an adverse kind must also be considered, factors which might make it unlikely that the recognition of Anglican Orders by Rome is much closer than it was a hundred years ago. New factors include the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, which the pope has described as pre-empting and blocking ARCIC-II’s study of ways forward towards the mutual recognition of ministries.5

Though the ordination of women to the sacerdotium is for some, including the present writer, the largest adverse factor, there is the contrary view that, supposing it were possible for women to be ordained priest and bishop (and assuming for the sake of argument that Anglican Orders are valid), then Anglican women priests and bishops might be catholic priests and bishops no less than their male colleagues. The contrary view does not quite work, though, for the question has to be asked (for instance by theologians who can see no theological objections to the ordination of women but who nonetheless feel that Anglicans have proceeded in practice in an uncatholic way) in what circumstances women would be admitted to the Catholic sacerdotium, as Roman Catholics and Orthodox understand it. If possible answers (e.g. “after an Ecumenical Council has agreed to admit them”) all seem to be unduly procrastinatory, then a clear choice has to be made between Catholic consensus, always achieved by caution, and Protestant schismatic action, often achieved by haste. By admitting women to the order of presbyter but not bishop certain Anglican provinces have introduced further confusion, at least temporarily. How could a sacerdotium, which included women amongst the order of presbyter but excluded them from the order of bishop, be a Catholic arrangement? Are gender differences to be treated as similar to questions of marital status, such as Orthodox conventions on married priests and celibate bishops?

It is for this reason (and not for political gain) that “Forward in Faith” leaders have annoyed many fair weather supporters of women priests (and sometimes perplexed their own followers) by urging the Church of England not to practise a groundless sexual discrimination within its sacerdotium. It is even possible that an Ordinal devised or adapted for the novel purpose of admitting women to Holy Orders will be judged by the Holy See to betray “alive indoles ac spiritus – an intrinsic nature and spirit – which is Protestant and not Catholic. This will depend partly on what force “intention” continues to have: the intention to ordain to a sacrificing priesthood – the emphasis placed on it by Leo – or the intention to preserve tradition – the emphasis placed on it by Saepius Officio, which quotes the Preface to the 1552 Ordinal: It is evident unto all men, diligently readinge holye Scripture and auncient aucthours, that from the Apostles tyme there hathe bene these ordres of Ministers in Christ’s Church: Bishoppes, Priestes, and Deacons:…… And therefore, to the entent that these orders shoulde bee continued, and reuerentlye used and estemed, in this Church of England …….

This is indeed a statement of Catholic and Apostolic “entent”, The “nature and spirit” of Anglican Ordinals will also depend on whether admitting women to the sacerdotium, against the urgent advice of those parts of the Church whose Orders Anglicans have always claimed to share, is nonetheless in continuity with Catholic and Apostolic tradition. The evidence suggests that those whose Orders Anglicans have always claimed to share were sympathetic, in a non-committal way, to the Anglican rediscovery of the female diaconate. It remains a moot point whether such deacons should be regarded as being “in Holy Orders”. East and West remain far from sympathetic to the Anglican claim that women may be admitted to the sacerdotium.

Another factor is the zeal for lay presidency which afflicts some parts of the Anglican Communion (and not always those which are most short of priests). Like the ordination of women this doctrine serves to buttress the arguments of Apostolicae Curae and not to weaken them, It can scarcely be claimed that consecrating the body and blood of Christ and offering the eucharistic sacrifice are intrinsic to the ministerial priesthood if those who are not ordained are also authorized to preside at the Eucharist. A third factor is the new prominence of the Evangelical constituency in the Church of England, a constituency which would subscribe more readily to the 1988 Evangelical Open Letter on ARCIC than to the consensus reached by the ARCIC documents themselves.6 Further, many Evangelicals, one presumes, are more than happy if Anglican Ordinals, Edwardine or otherwise, depart from the Roman Catholic understanding of priesthood. It is possible that the desire of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for clarifications and elucidations of ARCIC documents is fuelled not least by its perception that the ARCIC documents do not have the enthusiastic support of Anglicans of all traditions.

Not unrelated to this is the fourth factor, and perhaps the root problem, the ascendancy of liberalism within Anglicanism in the last generation, though perhaps now declining. Moral relativism, biblical and credal scepticism and ecclesiological pragmatism have together begun to turn Anglicanism into a set of liberal propositions, doctrinally and morally, which are dogmatic about nothing except the need not to be dogmatic. There are ironies besides the illiberalism of liberalism. Among these is the irony that the less compulsion there is to believe specific things – the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, sexual abstinence outside marriage, the right to life of unborn children – the less people seem to be convinced of anything. Benign liberalism has never impressed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the relativism of liberal statements makes detailed negotiation with those who make those statements almost impossible.

A fifth, and for this discussion last factor, is the new doctrine of apostolic succession forged by the British and Irish Anglican Churches in conversations with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches7 To call this doctrine “new” is a little rude and ungrateful but it certainly reflects what has been the ascendancy of liberal pragmatism. Undoubtedly the continuity of the witness and worship of congregations in historic sees and churches has an authenticity which the antics of episcopi vagantes in Surbiton sitting rooms lack. Undoubtedly also bridge-building between episcopal and non-episcopal churches – for instance Anglicans and Methodists – will benefit from breakthroughs in the understanding of apostolicity. Yet, as Edward Yarnold has pointed out, the likelihood of Anglican Orders receiving Roman recognition is not enhanced by Anglicans moving away from a particular understanding of apostolic succession – “continuity of episcopal ordination” – which Anglicans have shared with Roman Catholics.

In conclusion, then, changes and changes of perception which might contribute to a reappraisal of the verdict of Apostolicae Curae have been many in the last century: the Old Catholic input; the liturgical and ecumenical movements; ARCIC; doubts raised by Saepius Officio and the newly available documents from members of Leo Xlll’s Commission; pluralism and a new Anglican-Roman Catholic neighbourliness. Nonetheless other factors have balanced out this gain. Whatever their intrinsic merits, these five factors – the admission of women to the sacerdotium, lay presidency, the new influence of evangelicals, liberalism, and a new doctrine of apostolic succession make the recognition of Anglican ministries by Rome less likely than one might have hoped. After a hundred years, and despite the promising developments of the first 90 of those years, Apostolicae Curae is unlikely to be revoked or replaced.

This conclusion, sad to say, would have seemed improbable only ten or so years ago.

Andrew Burnham is Vice Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford


  1. The translation from which this is taken is published by SPCK and printed at the back of ed. Franklin, Anglican Orders: Essays on the Centenary of Apostolicae Curae 1896-1996, Mowbray, 1996
  2. 1 am grateful to Fr Edward Yarnold SJ for the quotation from Duchesne.
  3. The Latin translation of the Preface of the draft Ordinal of the Anglican-Methodist Unity Commission (see Anglican-Methodist Unity: Part I line Ordinal, SPCK and the Epworth Press, 1968 pp 36ff) speaks of sacerdotium episcoporum et presbyterorum. An explanation of this is in the Ordinal’s commentary (p 9).
  4. See R William Franklin, “Introduction: The Opening of the Vatican Archives and the ARCIC Process” in ed. Franklin, op. cit., pp Sff.8 See “A New Context: ARCIC and Afterwards” in ed. Franklin, op. cit., pp 64ff. See also Fr Yarnold’s article on Porvoo in The Tablet, 9 July 1994.
  5. Replying in 1989 to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter of August 1988. The text of the correspondence is conveniently available in ed. Watts, Through a Glass Darkly: A Crisis Considered, Gracewing, 1993, pp 168ff.
  6. For the text see eds Hill and Yarnold, Anglicans and Roman Catholics: The Search for Unity, SPCK /CTS, 1994, pp 283ff.
  7. See Christopher Hill’s Introduction to “Essays on Church and Ministry in Northern Europe” in Together in Mission and Ministry: The Porvoo Common Statement with Essays on Church and Ministry in Northern Europe, Church House Publishing, 1993, pp 45ff.