THE FINAL paragraph of Chapter III of the Porvoo Common Statement reads:

This summary witnesses to a high degree of unity in faith and doctrine. Whilst this does not require each tradition to accept every doctrinal formulation characteristic of our distinctive traditions, it does require us to face and overcome the remaining obstacles to still closer communion.

So we come to Chapter IV. The Chapter begins by saying, `There is a long-standing problem about episcopal ministry and its relation to succession’. Well you can say that again. It’s putting it mildly. One might say that this is the rock on which much ecumenical endeavour has foundered. So we shall need to look at this chapter in some depth. First, we need to be clear about the background.

Within their common identity, the Nordic and Baltic churches display a rich diversity, and one of the differences concerns the sign of the historic episcopal succession, by which I mean each bishop being ordained by bishops, in a succession of laying on of hands stemming from the time of the Apostles. At the Reformation, the Churches of Sweden and Finland (which were then one) retained this sign. Finland lost it when it was ruled by Russia, but subsequently regained it. Following their independence from Russia, in this century, Estonia and Latvia too regained the sign, as did the small Lutheran Church in Lithuania, when its first bishop was consecrated by the Archbishops of Estonia and Latvia twenty years ago.

On the other hand, in the Church of Denmark, and the Churches of Norway and Iceland (which were under Danish rule at the time of the Reformation), there was a break in the succession of laying on of hands, in that the first post-Reformation bishops were ordained by Bugenhagen, the Superintendent of Wittenberg, who although he exercised an office of oversight in the Church had not been consecrated bishop. It’s important to be clear about what happened. First, in Iceland and Norway the Reformation was imposed by the Danish king by force. Those two churches had little say in what happened to them. The situation of the Danish Church on the eve of the Reformation was poor. Five of the seven holders of episcopal sees were not actually in episcopal orders, because a dispute with the Vatican had prevented their consecration; several of them were very uninspiring. More to the point, the seven `bishops’ were the leading political opponents of the King who seized power in 1536 – they were politically unacceptable either as bishops or as consecrators of their successors. John Halliburton points out a number of key facts in his essay in Together in Mission and Ministry.

The Danish Reformation did not introduce a parity of ministers: the new bishops superintendents were ordained to a new ministry, rather than simply installed without further ordination. John studied all the present ordination liturgies to confirm that they are precisely that – ordination rites rather than installation rites.

They were not ordained by a simple presbyter, but someone who held an office of oversight. Their successors down to the present day were ordained not by presbyters, but by existing bishops. We are thus not talking about presbyteral ordination.

The new bishops were appointed to the existing historic sees (except that Roskilde was transferred to Copenhagen). The dioceses and sees of the catholic Church were not abolished in favour of new units.

What can we say about churches where, in the political turbulence of 1537, the succession in the laying on of hands at episcopal consecrations was interrupted, but where the new bishops succeeded to the historic sees of the Catholic Church, and consecrated their successors down to the present day? That is the very particular question which Porvoo had to address.


In seeking to resolve the problem of apostolicity and succession, the chapter begins in Section A with the Apostolicity of the Whole Church. (Note the order again – as in Chapter III.) `Apostolic tradition in the Church’, we are told in para. 36, `means continuity in the permanent characteristics of the Church of the apostles’. Crucially, as para. 39 states, `the primary manifestation of apostolic succession is to be found in the apostolic tradition of the Church as a whole’. Having noted that, the chapter goes on to note that `within the apostolicity of the whole Church is an apostolic succession of the ministry’ (para. 40).

Next, in Section B on Apostolic Ministry, comes an examination of the ministry of oversight, episkope, and how it is to be exercised. This includes the interesting, and sometimes overlooked, statement that `the personal, collegial and communal dimensions of oversight find expression at the local, regional and universal levels of the Church’s life’ (para. 45) – this acceptance of personal oversight at the universal level needs to be developed in response to the Pope’s call in Ut Unum Sint for discussion of his ministry of unity.

Only then, in Section C, do we come to `The Episcopal Office’ – note the formulation – `in Service of the Apostolic Succession’. Para. 46 deserves to be quoted:

The ultimate ground of the fidelity of the Church, in continuity with the apostles, is the promise of the Lord and the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the whole Church. The continuity of the ministry of oversight is to be understood within the continuity of the apostolic life and mission of the whole Church. Apostolic succession in the episcopal office is a visible and personal way of focusing the apostolicity of the whole Church.

Para. 47 goes on: `Continuity in apostolic succession is signified in the ordination or consecration of a bishop’, and at the end,

`The precise significance or intention of the laying on of hands as a sign is determined by the prayer or declaration which accompanies it. In the case of the episcopate, to ordain by prayer and the laying on of hands is to do what the apostles did, and the Church through the ages.’

You will notice how much use is made of the language of `sign’. We had to make it clear to the Lutherans that for us `sign’ is a strong word. We are not talking about mere or empty signs, but effective signs, signs which effect what they signify.

Para. 48 stresses this:

In the consecration of a bishop, the sign is effective in four ways: first it bears witness to the Church’s trust in God’s faithfulness to his people and in the promised presence of Christ with his Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the end of time; secondly, it expresses the Church’s intention to be faithful to God’s initiative and gift, by living in the continuity of the apostolic faith and tradition; thirdly, the participation of a group of bishops in the laying on of hands signifies their and their churches’ acceptance of the new bishop and so of the catholicity of the churches; fourthly, it transmits ministerial office and its authority in accordance with God’s will and institution [my italics]. Thus in the act of consecration a bishop receives the sign of divine approval and a permanent commission to lead his particular church in the common faith and apostolic life of all the churches.

That, I think you will agree, is strong language on the sign of episcopal ordination. There is no watered-down ecclesiology here. But, we are immediately reminded in para. 49 that `the continuity signified in the consecration of a bishop to episcopal ministry cannot be divorced from the continuity of life and witness of the diocese to which he is called’, and here the historic sees are relevant again.

Only now do we come on, in Section D, to the Historic Episcopal Succession as sign. Para. 51 is crucial:

The use of the sign of the historic episcopal succession does not by itself guarantee the fidelity of a church to every aspect of the apostolic faith, life and mission. There have been schisms in the history of churches using the sign of historic succession. Nor does the sign guarantee the personal faithfulness of the bishop. Nonetheless, the retention of the sign remains a permanent challenge to fidelity and to unity, a summons to witness to, and a commission to realize more fully, the permanent characteristics of the Church of the apostles.


What then of the churches of Denmark, Norway and Iceland, whose first bishops after the Reformation were ordained by a presbyter, albeit a presbyter who in his own church exercised a ministry of oversight as superintendent of Wittenberg? Para. 52 tells us that `faithfulness to the apostolic calling of the whole Church is carried by more than one means of continuity’. If you like, apostolic succession in the Church is like a rope of several strands. If one strand, such as the personal tactile succession, is broken, other strands, such as, for example, the continuity of historic sees, apostolic succession seen in this case as `bottoms on thrones’ rather than hands on heads, can hold it, even though the rope may be weakened.

This recognition means that a church like the Church of England is free to acknowledge an authentic episcopal ministry in a church like the Church of Norway which preserved continuity in the episcopal office, but at the time of the Reformation did so on one occasion by a presbyteral ordination – for the reasons I described earlier.

According to this understanding, as para. 53 points out, `the mutual acknowledgement of churches and ministries is theologically prior to the use of the sign’, and its resumption `does not imply an adverse judgement on the ministries of those churches’ which previously did not use it. This frees churches such as the Church of Norway to embrace the sign, without denying their past apostolic continuity, as para. 52 says. (We had to learn what a strong word that word `free’ is for the Lutherans the freedom of the Gospel it means that they are liberated to do it; it doesn’t mean `take it or leave it’).

The argument is summed up in paras 55 and 56, leading to the conclusion in para. 57 that `those churches in which the sign has at some time not been used are free to recognize the value of the sign and should embrace it [my italics] without denying their own apostolic continuity’, and that those in which the sign has been used `are free to recognize the reality of the episcopal office and should affirm the apostolic continuity of those churches in which the sign of episcopal succession has at some time not been used’. You have to read the `should embrace it’ in conjunction with commitment (vi) of the Declaration, which commits these churches to take on the sign of the historic succession, and you have to read the commitment in the light of para. 57, which shows that in allowing our bishops to participate in their consecrations, the Norwegian and Icelandic churches are deliberately and explicitly embracing the sign of historic succession. It is, of course, that intention into the future which gave many in the Church of England the confidence to approve the Declaration.

Some may, of course, still believe that there is a degree of anomaly in recognizing the orders of those ordained by bishops in Norway and Iceland. To them, I can do no better than quote from the Church Union Theological Committee’s statement on Porvoo.

`In the context of commitment to ecumenical convergence (shown already in the action of the Norwegian Church in inviting Swedish bishops to take part in consecrations), wise pastoral economy, and a recognition of a wider theological understanding of the historic succession, there are good grounds for Catholic Anglicans supporting the Porvoo statement.’

The Committee pointed out that

The intention of Porvoo is one of convergence. Unlike the ordination of women to the priesthood, where an innovation was adopted which it was clearly recognised would result in a greater disunity and divergence, the commitment is to serve the unity of the church.

To complaints of anomaly one could add that the disunity of the Church is itself anomalous. The Reformation was an extremely untidy business and to expect the restoration of unity to be achieved with complete tidiness is totally unrealistic. But this is to explain how some leading catholic Anglicans were able either to approve Porvoo or at least to feel unable to oppose it – such considerations do not, of course, form part of the argumentation of the text.


So then to the Declaration, which has been approved by ten of the twelve churches. (The Danish bishops were unable to approve it, and the Latvian Church has deferred its decision.) The structure of a Common Statement which is the report of the Commission and a Declaration which the churches are invited to adopt is, of course, based on the Meissen Agreement. The churches adopt the Declaration on the basis of Chapters II-IV, as the preamble states, so they need to examine the theology, but in adopting the Declaration they are not committing themselves to every last jot and tittle of the Common Statement as a whole.

Approval of the Declaration by the churches has established a communion of ten episcopal churches, most of them historic national or folk churches, stretching across Northern Europe from Ireland and Iceland to the Baltic States. This involves commitments affecting all the members of our churches, laity as well as clergy (and those which affect the whole Church are mentioned first, before moving on to those specifically affecting the clergy). Again, the ministry is seen in the context of the whole Church. To comment on just a few of the commitments:

(iv) says that once we are in communion, our chaplaincies in the Nordic countries and theirs in ours will need to be in a structured relationship with the local bishop and the local church.

(v) establishes an interchangeability of ministries on the same terms as exist between the Church of England and other Anglican churches, covering all who have been ordained by a male bishop in one of the participating churches. On the basis of what is said in the Common Statement, that would apply whether or not that bishop was himself consecrated in the tactile succession of the historic episcopate. It is important to stress that all of the clergy covered by the Declaration have already been episcopally ordained in episcopally ordered churches. The Porvoo Declaration does not provide for the recognition of non-episcopally ordained clergy without re-ordination.

The forms of collegial and conciliar consultation, consultations of representatives and contact group provided for by (viii)-(x) are essential bonds of communion which will give our new relationship of communion a structured shape. A Contact Group has been established, consisting of a staff member from each of the churches and one from the Diocese in Europe. The Co-Chairmen are the Bishops of Oslo and Grimsby, and I am the Church of England member and Anglican Co-Secretary. We are planning a church leaders’ meeting (of bishops and synodical representatives) for March 1998. The Primates of the Porvoo churches held their first meeting on Monday 2 September, after the first of three celebrations of the Agreement, held in Trondheim (Norway). The second celebration was in Tallinn (Estonia) and the third took place in Westminster Abbey on 28 November, in the presence of H.M. The Queen.

Paras 60 and 61, after the Declaration, are often overlooked. Porvoo is particular to the churches involved, but it is not an alliance over against the rest. These paragraphs remind us that it must be seen as a contribution to wider unity.

The establishment of a communion of ten Anglican and Lutheran churches across Northern Europe, churches which not only have a common history but also face common challenges in similar social settings, is an historic event the full significance of which, I believe, is only gradually dawning on the Church of England. The Porvoo Agreement is certainly the most significant ecumenical agreement the Church of England has ever made. Thank you for coming today to study and discuss it.

Colin Podmore, is a church historian, and Assistant Secretary of the Church of England Council for Christian Unity and the Anglican Co-Secretary of the Porvoo Agreement Contact Group.

This is an abridged and revised version of part the presentation he gave at the Cost of Conscience John Keble Conference held on 11 November 1996 at Pusey House, Oxford.

Details of further John Keble Conferences projected for 1997/8 are available from the Hon. Secretary, 79, Maze Hill, London SE10 8QX Please send a