David Nichol continues the discussion about the presbyters’ laying on of hands at ordination services and insists that it cannot be allowed to become a bogus symbol of unity in a fractured church

There is a cloud like a (wo)man’s hand visible on the horizon, and a fear that it will grow into a storm. There are many on both sides of the divide seeking irenic formulae to express what is known as the ‘highest possible degree’ of communion when the fateful division comes. What subtle expressions of unity are even now being devised to paper over the yawning chasms that will emerge in the new style CofE with women bishops?

One such doing the rounds – in discussion that is, rather than practice – is the plan to have a woman priest join in the laying on of hands at priestly ordinations in what would otherwise be entirely orthodox celebrations of the sacrament. It is suggested that this would in no way undermine the validity of the ordination, but might prove to be a valuable and inclusive gesture of unity in a fractured church.

About being nice

What harm could there be in it? Would it not be churlish to refuse this tiny gesture of goodwill to the vast majority within the CofE, who have been so generous towards us? You can imagine the forms of persuasion that might be used; and how such a ‘tiny gesture’ could grow to become the most important/contentious/newsworthy element in such priestly ordinations. So, what harm is there?

Fr John Hunwicke explained the corporate nature of this laying on of hands at priestly ordination in May’s issue [p.7] and had clearly got wind of this new wheeze. ‘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.’

The practice of the Western Church whereby [BCP 1549] ‘the Bishop, with the priests present, shall lay their hands severally upon the head of every one that receiveth [priesthood]’ stretches right back, beyond the medieval Sarum rite, to the writer of the Pastorals [1 Timothy 4.14 ‘when the council of elders laid their hands upon you’].

Dix traced the practice still further back: ‘The presbyterate is by origin markedly the organ of the local church. It seems to derive directly from those elected councils of elders which managed the community affairs of every Jewish congregation… The institution of these presbyteries in Jewry was ascribed to Moses, inspired by the prophetic Spirit [Numbers 11.24f] and every Jewish presbyter-elect was ordained by the laying on of hands of the whole council of his fellow-presbyters for the reception of the Spirit of God’ [Holy Order, pp.18–19].

Doing it together

The post-Reformation Church of England continued the old English way of doing this, whereby all imposed hands simultaneously, and our modern Canon C 3.4 (‘shall together with the Bishop lay their hands’) appears to refer to this. The post-Tridentine Roman rite, on the other hand, provided for this to be done serially, as does the post-Vatican II Pontifical.

It seems to be coming fashionable in Anglican circles to abandon the so-called ‘rugger scrum’ and to incorporate the laying on of hands by presbyters in the Roman way; that is, serially, after the bishop has imposed his hands. If Anglican bishops are determined to Romanize in this way, there must be a presumption that they intend the meaning of what they do to be the same as the meaning attached to it by Rome. Only if an Anglican bishop were publicly, formally and solemnly to declare that he excluded that Roman meaning, and attached his own different meaning to the practice, would one assume that it had a different meaning.

Rome’s teaching is clear and simple. ‘The unity of the presbyterium finds liturgical expression in the custom of the presbyters’ imposing hands, after the bishop, during the rite of ordination’ [Catechism 1568]. Anglicans agree; the ARCIC 1973 statement on ministry and ordination asserts [§16], ‘In the ordination of a presbyter the presbyters present join the bishop in the laying on of hands, thus signifying the shared nature of the commission entrusted to them.’

Clearly, the ceremony is corporate and has a corporate significance, performed by a bishop with his united presbyterium, and as an expression of the unity of that presbyterium. It constitutes the induction of the new presbyter into the ordo presbyterorum in the Universal Church, and especially into that of the local church. There is no way in which it can be glossed as ‘just a blessing.’

Forget the technical

It is, of course, obvious that the validity of the rite of ordination is not affected if women priests take part in the laying on of hands. The traditional and minimalist Western teaching is that if a validly ordained bishop with an adequate intention employs an adequate Form and Matter, the sacrament of Order is validly conferred. On the one hand, he does not need (for validity) any other person to share the laying on of hands; on the other hand, participation of others cannot detract from the validity of what he does (so that if he invites the Methodist superintendent or the churchwardens or a couple of Imams to join in, the basic technical validity of the rite is unaffected).

Such technical and minimalist arguments, however, miss the point. Ordination services are not, usually, hole-in-the-wall affairs; they are deliberate expressions of mission, and part of the public self-understanding of the Church. They carry meaning and send out signals, in part because of the meaning attached to them by all those present and those who hear about them.

So, what harm is there? Our concern is quite simply put. By associating women priests with himself in this solemn, formal, public and sacramental way, the bishop who does so would be performing an act which has intrinsic meanings. He would in effect be declaring, ‘These women truly are priests,’ and doing so just as effectively as if he admitted women priests to concelebrate eucharistically with him.

By all means, let there be expressions of unity, inclusiveness, shared mission and prayer at ordination services, but not this one. The presbyters’ laying on of hands has its own distinct, ancient and crucially important function within the whole. It is not a piece of decoration that can be altered to fit another agenda.