John Hunwicke considers the ordination services which will be beginning at the end of next month and looks for the solid core amid the froth and decoration, the proclamation of collegiality

Who lays on hands when a presbyter is ordained? And does it matter? I think it does. The answer to this question encapsulates why it is that we need a distinct ecclesial entity, which would enable priests and people to give a univocal answer to the question ‘Who is your bishop?’

When our rites of ordination were revised in the sixteenth century, a whole swathe of rituals was eliminated. What was retained was: ‘the Bisshoppe with the Priestes present, shall lay theyr handes severally upon the head of every one that receiueth orders.’ This represents the medieval rubric: ‘and all the presbyters who are present shall hold their hands over their heads.’ And that is taken from an early Gallican set of rules, the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua. Cranmer was not notorious for retaining irrelevant rituals from the dark ages. Why did he keep this one?

History of the tradition

Pretty certainly, because he regarded it as biblical, and one of his intentions was to employ what could be shown to be biblical in the rites of ordination (compare the formulae uttered at the imposition of hands in the ordination of presbyters and bishops). And 1 Timothy 4.14, referring to Timothy’s ordination, includes the phrase ‘with the laying on of the hands of the presbyterium.’ Although Cranmer did not know this, the same provision is made as soon as we have evidence of the rites of ordination, in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. It survived into the Sarum Pontifical, which also borrows from the Statuta the explanation that deacons do not receive this corporate laying on of hands ‘because they are not hallowed for priesthood but for deaconing (ministerium)’ (Vatican II quoted this ancient rubric). (Incidentally, there is no discernible theological difference between the simultaneous ‘rugger scrum’ joint imposition of hands and the modern Roman succession of individual impositions.) The Tridentine Roman Pontifical and the post-Vatican II rite also retain the rule that all presbyters present lay on hands, which is implicit in Cranmer’s rubric.

Why does this matter? Because the ordination of a presbyter is the admission of a man into a corporate body, what the writer of the Pastoral Epistles called the presbyterium. This is a corporate act done corporately. It is not some personal favour bestowed by a bishop and relating primarily to the personal status of the ordinand. The latter is becoming a member of a body; the bishop is its indeed president, but in an integrated and collegial and corporate way. Vatican II [Lumen gentium 28] teaches that ‘presbyters…constitute one presbyterium with their bishop,’ and Presbyterorum ordinis 8 states: ‘established in the presbyteral order by ordination, all presbyters are united among themselves in an intimate sacramental brotherhood. In a special way they form one presbyterium in a diocese to whose service they are committed under their own bishop.’

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quoted these statements and added: ‘the unity of the presbyterium finds its liturgical expression in the custom according to which, in the rite of ordination, the presbyters themselves, after the bishop, also impose hands.’ There is no doubt that this is the present position of the magisterium of the Western Church; and we have seen that it is a tradition going back to the New Testament itself. Indeed, Gregory Dix pointed out that it is older than the New Testament: ‘Every Jewish presbyter-elect was ordained by the laying-on of hands of the whole Council of his fellow-presbyters… the authority of the presbyterate is collegiate and corporate here, as in Judaism… the bishop is ex officio president of this Council, but ‘jurisdiction’ as we should say, lies with the council corporately.’

Unfortunate developments

Recent decades have seen much innovative thinking about episcopacy, diaconate, and the lay state. We presbyters have tended to be the Cinderellas; which is all the more unfortunate since we are the clergy whom most people both inside and outside our congregations see the most of. In Anglican thought the principle that a diocesan presbyterium is a significant corporate institution with a corporate being of its own has for some decades tended to fall upon hard times.

The rot was visible in the rubrics drafted in 1980 for the ASB. The restriction of the imposition of hands to certain presbyters vetted and selected by His Lordship and including one or two who ‘mean a lot’ to the ordinand – the Vicar, Uncle Fred, and of course the Archdeacon – has become increasingly common, and, if we do not get our free province, is likely to get even commoner as womenpriests become even commoner and bishops, with the best of intentions, try to keep the peace by fudging issues. Indeed, this ostensibly ‘merely ritual’ matter demonstrates the profound reasons why we need a distinct ecclesial entity. The other day a friendly bishop with whom I was in conversation referred to the laying on of hands by presbyters as ‘just a blessing.’ That is exactly and precisely what it is not.

Defending integrity

Could our Evangelical brethren help to defend this biblical, patristic, and reformed usage? Ordinations nowadays are often ‘enriched’ by medieval additions which theologically relate to the individual sacerdotal status of the ordinand – anointings of hands, presentings of instruments, vestings in chasubles. As a Catholic I certainly do believe in the character which the Sacrament of Order imprints upon the soul of the individual priest and I value such customs; but fussing around with all these little rituals while violating the biblical integrity of the central act of ordination is to dump the baby while making a fetish of the bathwater.

It represents the worst of what I think of as the ‘creative’ school of liturgy. I certainly shall not in future attend such goings-on. If a bishop wants to mangle the concept of corporate and collaborative ministry in this sort of way, I shall let him get on with his corrupt mumbo jumbo on his own. Although I suspect that, when the 1662 Ordinal is used, prelatical attempts to exclude any ‘priest present’ from the laying on of hands could be made subject to judicial review. Now that would be fun, from all sorts of standpoints!