Giles Pinnock tackles the often thorny issue of (re-)ordination into the Roman Catholic Church for former clergy of the CofE and offers a far more positive perspective than is usually taken

Absolutely null and utterly void’ was Pope Leo XIII’s verdict on the validity of Anglican orders in his 1896 l Bull, Apostolicae Curae. In essence, it argued that the CofE failed at the English Reformations to maintain Apostolic succession and therefore cannot validly ordain bishops, deacons or priests. The archbishops of Canterbury and York responded in 1897 with Saepius Officio, but it remains the official position of the Catholic Church that the CofE (and by association the Anglican Communion) cannot have validly ordained bishops, deacons or priests. Therefore, when a CofE clergyman is received into the Catholic Church, he may be ordained but no formal acknowledgement of his former ordinations is made. Readers of ND will in all likelihood know a number of former priests of the CofE who have made this journey.

One may hear from time to time that so-and-so was ‘conditionally ordained’. The veracity of such rumours is difficult to establish; if true, they are exceptional. And what do they mean? In essence, the sacrament of Order, like the sacrament of Baptism, is once and for all. It cannot be undone. It cannot be repeated. If there is doubt that someone may already have been validly ordained, words of the form ‘If you are not already ordained…’ will prefix the words of ordination. No such formula is required in the case of priests of the CofE. Their orders, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, are not in doubt; they are null and void.

A personal obstacle

Because of this, ND readers will in all likelihood also know priests of the CofE for whom the prospect of (re-)ordination presents a near-insurmountable obstacle to being received into the Catholic Church. For them, and for many of the laity whom they have served, such (re-)ordination seems nothing other than a completely unacceptable denial of the preceding years of dedicated and faithful priestly ministry.

This has an inescapably personal dimension. Priestly ministry can be spiritually costly as well as rewarding. Many priests have ploughed through the disappointments and the frustrations alongside the successes and the celebrations, believing that they are doing what God has called them to do, faithfully serving their parishes and communities, teaching the Faith and administering the sacraments. In the context of Apostolicae Curae, to submit to (re-)ordination seems to admit that all that has been fake, that they have been firing sacramental blanks and leading the innocent astray. Spiritual and psychological integrity, if nothing else, would make that a very bitter pill to swallow.

Seeking reconciliation

As the appointment of women to episcopal office in the CofE approaches, there can be no hope that the Catholic Church will embark upon a formal reassessment of the conclusions of Apostolicae Curae. The purported ordination of women in the CofE since 1987 can have served only to convince the Catholic Church that the CofE does not truly regard itself as sharing with it the Catholic orders of bishop, deacon and priest, despite what it has formally protested to be the case.

For much of the CofE, this does not matter one iota. But for those of us for whom the raison d’etre for any structural ‘new province’ arrangement is the assurance of valid sacraments and progress towards corporate reconciliation with the Catholic Church, it is a live issue. In essence, would the bishops, priests and deacons of any ‘new province’ that sought corporate reconciliation be required to accept (re-)ordination? It is very likely that they would. But would they accept it? What can be said to those for whom that apparent denial of’my priesthood’ is a step too far?

We could look to the arguments deployed in support of our claim that what we need corporately in the event of the appointment of women to episcopal office is a structural and episcopal solution that would provide ‘sacramental assurance’. In short, to date in the CofE, when one sees a male celebrant, one should be able to assume that he is validly ordained. We argue that we need a discrete structural arrangement because we need to know that bishops are bishops, deacons are deacons, priests are priests – and the sacraments are the sacraments.

The need for certainty

If we are to seek corporate reconciliation with the Catholic Church, it needs also to be assured that if its clergy and laity approach our altars, the man at the altar is a priest and that the sacraments that he administers are valid. While (re-)ordination may seem a denial of what has gone before, perhaps it would be better seen in the context of where we hope to be, as an assurance for all of what is to come. The very fact that individual priests of the CofE – particularly those who are married – have regularly been received and ordained by the Catholic Church indicates that their previous ministry in the CofE is not regarded as fake, but that nevertheless there must be absolute certainty as to the validity of the ministry they are to exercise in their new context.

Also, while acknowledging the inescapably personal dimension to the objective validity of the ministry to which a priest has dedicated his life, we need to be wary of the CofE’s over-personalization of the nature of priesthood itself so often displayed in the ‘pain cited by ordained women when ‘their’ ministry is not accepted. Holy Order is not a function of personal merit, but of the authority of the Church.

It is not the property of the ordained minister, but of the Church. As we seek to heal to the greatest extent we are able the breach between our ecclesial community and the Catholic Church, it is surely proper not to think of (re-)ordination in terms of the denial of ‘my priesthood’ but as endorsement of future participation in the Church’s priesthood, at the Church’s calling and by its authority.

For those of us for whom the advent of women as bishops will inescapably signal the end of Catholic life in the CofE, the question of (re-)ordination will not go away, especially for those priests for whom a continued priestly ministry may be envisaged. We should not see it as a bitter pill to be swallowed, but as another tier to the sacramental assurance which we already know the whole people of God need.