Nicholas Sagovsky reports on ‘Sorores in Spe’: A Fresh Response to the Condemnation of 

Anglican Orders (1896)


At the Malines Conversations (1921-6), for the first time since the Reformation a handful of Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians engaged in frank discussion. In four short meetings, this little group of ‘friends’, brought together by Lord Halifax and Abbé Portal under the chairmanship of the much-respected Cardinal Mercier, identified and debated the key points that are still at issue between the two communions:


(1) The exercise of authority by the Bishop of Rome. The nub of this is the relation between the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome and the jurisdiction of all the bishops, both individually and collegially.


(2) The identification of new doctrines as ‘de fide’, to be held by all the faithful. Anglicans have been troubled in particular by the definitions of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), Papal Infallibility (1870) and, more recently, the Bodily Assumption of Mary (1950). 


(3) The condemnation of Anglican orders as ‘absolutely null and utterly void’ (1896). 


In preparation for the centenary of the Malines Conversations, the Malines Conversations Group, an informal group of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, has been meeting annually since 2013. The officially mandated Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has produced statements which cover the first two issues, but it has not been asked to address the third. As an informal group, the Malines Conversations Group chose to focus on this painful and divisive issue.

Last December, to mark the centenary of the opening of the Malines Conversations, the Malines Conversations Group published a statement entitled ‘Sisters in Hope of the Resurrection’: A Fresh response to the Condemnation of Anglican Orders’ (1896). ‘Sorores in Spe’, to give it its Latin title, calls for a re-examination of the condemnation of Anglican orders by Pope Leo XIII (which was re-affirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger in 1998). The full statement can be downloaded from the website of the Malines Conversations Group ( What follows here is a summary.

The document opens by referring to the shared tomb in Westminster Abbey of Queen Mary Tudor and Queen Elizabeth I, who were half-sisters. Mary was a faithful Catholic; Elizabeth is often regarded as England’s first Anglican Queen. On their tomb, they are called ‘sorores in spe resurrectionis’— sisters in hope of the Resurrection. Despite the condemnation of Anglican orders as ‘absolutely null and utterly void’ in Apostolicae Curae (1896), it is suggested that Anglicans and Catholics can now see our two communions as ‘sisters in hope of the Resurrection’. 

In a historical section, the reasons for Leo’s condemnation of Anglican ordinations according to the ordinals of 1550, 1552 and 1662 are laid out. There was said to be a defect of form because it is not made clear that the priest receives ‘the power of consecrating and offering the true Body and Blood of the Lord in that sacrifice which is no mere commemoration of the sacrifice offered on the Cross’. There is also a defect of intention because the rite was deliberately changed in a way that contradicts what ‘by the institution of Christ belongs to the nature of a sacrament’ (i.e. the Anglican ordinals expressed an intention other than that of the Catholic Church in celebrating the sacrament). The apostolic succession of Anglican bishops was considered to have been broken at the Reformation. A year later, in Saepius Officio, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York refuted the reasoning of Rome, arguing that it impugned not only Anglican but also Catholic ordinations because a number of early ordination rites, widely used by those in communion with the Bishop of Rome, could be said to have similar defects of form and intention. 

The historical section then briefly reviews the history of the Malines Conversations before turning to the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II and the move away from an ‘ecumenism of return’ (unionism). It discusses the creation of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC, 1970) and the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM, 2001). An important paragraph lists some of the symbolic gifts given by popes to Anglicans: Paul VI’s giving of his episcopal ring to Michael Ramsey; the stole given by John-Paul II to Henry Chadwick; the replica of the head of the crozier of Augustine of Canterbury presented to Justin Welby. The cumulative effect of these and other signs and symbols is to create a dissonance between the juridical Roman Catholic condemnation of Anglican orders and what is said by the language of signs and symbols. This urgently needs to be addressed. 

A second section focuses on hermeneutics. It notes the importance of the Liturgical and Ecumenical Movements which lay behind the approach of Vatican II. Use of the word ‘mystery’ (Gk: musterion) is commended in understanding apostolic succession, which, far from being guaranteed merely by the laying on of hands in the ordination of a succession of bishops going back to the apostles, requires ‘the faithful transmission of all the various aspects of ecclesial life which constitute the Church as a living communion. The believer is invited to participate in a mystery.’ Apostolic succession is a ‘succession in the gifts and ministries given to the whole Church by the Holy Spirit’. There is an intrinsic link between revelation and mystery. The Church is Christ’s mystical Body. The presence of Christ in the Church can be discerned in his tripex munus (threefold office) as prophet, priest and king in which all the baptized participate. A more generous epistemology, which is sensitive to symbolic realities, looks beyond the reductive epistemology of Apostolicae Curae to do full justice to the variety of ways in which God’s grace and salvation are at work within the world. 

A third section examines contemporary understandings of orders and ordination. It begins from the reforms in the Catholic and Anglican rites of ordination which render the judgment of Apostolicae Curae on Anglican ordinations out of date. In fact, the reformed rites show a convergence because of the use of the same sources in liturgical revision. Since Vatican II there has not only been a convergence in liturgical rites, but in underlying understanding of the ministry of the baptized as a participation in the ministry of Christ, in the renewal of the diaconate within both traditions, in an understanding of eucharistic sacrifice as both an anamnesis (living memorial) of the death of Christ and a participation in ‘the movement of his self-offering’ as explored by the ARCIC statement on Eucharistic Doctrine; in the relation between the ministry of the bishop within the local church and the collegiality of all the bishops. An important liturgical symbol of the bishop’s pastoral ministry, now shared by Anglicans and Catholics, is the bishop’s role within the footwashing of Maundy Thursday.

In an important aside, the document notes that the ordination in many parts of the Anglican Communion of women as deacons, priests and bishops has for Catholics and some Anglicans raised new questions about the authenticity of Anglican ministry. It argues that the adverse judgment of Apostolicae Curae on Anglican ordinations was made on grounds which were quite separate from those of later magisterial judgments, both Anglican and Catholic, on the ordination of women. Differences over this question should not be used as a reason for failure to address the judgment of Pope Leo XIII in 1896. Returning to the main theme, this section concludes by suggesting that ‘the recognition of Anglican orders does not ultimately depend on any kind of statement but on a reality lived among Christians – a reality received in faith, strengthened by hope, and apprehended through love’. 

The final section makes the case that a re-examination of the condemnation of 1896 is possible. Other instances of radical reappraisal are quoted: the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (1999); and the Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East (1994). The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism teaches that ‘our separated brothers and sisters also celebrate many sacred actions of the christian religion [which] most certainly can engender a life of grace’. It adds that, ‘among those [communions] in which catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to subsist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place’. Sorores in Spe adds: where such elements of the apostolic faith have been faithfully passed on for very many years and have manifestly borne fruit in the life of grace – including, and perhaps especially among Anglicans – this surely points to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the ordained ministry of that communion. 

The overall conclusion is this: ‘that the condemnation of contemporary Anglican ordinations because of perceived deficiencies of rites from the past needs to be re-examined’; also that ‘the implied judgment that the apostolic succession of the Church of England was lost at the Reformation should be re-examined in the light of contemporary ecclesiological and liturgical understanding of the variety of means by which apostolic succession takes place within authentic traditions of Christian life and worship’. The document ends by saying that ‘For both our communions, it would be nothing less than a recognition of our ecclesial experience if the condemnation of 1896 were to be seen as inapplicable to contemporary Anglican ordinations’. It would be ‘a significant step along the road on which we are rediscovering our commitment to one another as sisters in hope of the Resurrection’. 

  Sorores in Spe was hand-delivered to Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury on December 6, 2021, the centenary of the opening of the Malines Conversations. Both have responded warmly to the ongoing work of the Malines Conversations Group and encouraged us to continue our dialogue. The statement was also sent to a number of other Catholic and Anglican church leaders. We hope, of course, that it will be widely discussed in both communions and that it will point the way to a re-assessment of the blanket condemnation of Anglican orders. This would remove a significant ecumenical stumbling block and bring official Roman Catholic teaching about Anglican orders into line not only with common Roman Catholic practice, but also the teaching of Vatican II.


Nicholas Sagovsky, an Anglican priest, is a member of the Malines Conversations Group. He was a member of ARCIC from 1991 to 2017.