Roman Catholic and Anglican Orders:
Redrawing the Boundaries
This paper is an attempt to examine the issue of Anglican orders and consider
how they are recognized by the Catholic Church. For the sake of brevity and
convenience, I have used the following terms:
||"Anglican" to refer to the Anglican Communion, represented by the
historical tradition deriving from the Church of England.
||"Catholic" to be taken as synonymous with "Roman Catholic" rather than
"Old Catholic" or like schismatic traditions.
||"Orthodox" to be taken as the "Greek" or "Russian" orthodox traditions,
which it should be noted are not quite as uniform in authoritative
structures as the Catholic ones.
||"Orders" to refer to "Holy Orders" and the rite of ordination.
Roman Catholic and Anglican Orders - Redrawing the Boundaries:
The classic position of the Catholic Church is that stated by Pope Leo XIII
in 1896, in which he proclaimed the matter settled once and for all that
Anglican orders lacked validity. The main reason behind this was that the rite
by which priests are ordained is not correctly performed. (There was also a
question of "intentionality", but the arguments on that are much weaker) This
statement was intended to be the "final declaration" on the matter. Yet as with
the Fundamentalism dogma of inerrancy in the Bible, this dogmatic statement
faces innumerable problems in practice. Catholicism holds that such a dogmatic
statement is binding, but statements are made of words, and if we give the words
the semantic referents so that they still hold good, and yet allow what is
permissible in practice, there is, I believe, considerable room for maneuver. In
order to do this, I would like to consider in brief the grounds for this
The pronouncement upon the validity of Anglican orders was made from within a
given problem situation: how were Anglican orders conveyed. The statement upon
the validity, then, is justified if and only if the Anglican orders condemned
are as portrayed. If there is variation, however slight, between what was
portrayed and the actuality, then the matter must be reconsidered from the
start. That is a matter of strict logic.
As an analogy, fundamentalism generally attacks liberal theology according to a
particular model, and it is taken that all kinds of non-fundamentalist
theologies can be made to fit the model. However, the model is crudely drawn,
and based upon an amalgam of just a few kinds of liberal theology, making a kind
of "straw man", easily mocked. It does not fit a theology such as that of Karl
Barth or Jurgen Moltmann without stretching its concepts and meanings to
breaking point, and the arguments marshaled against, for instance Harnack's
theology simply do not and cannot apply to these others.
Now the investigation before Leo's declaration was more thorough, but bears the
same demands: it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the kind of orders
declared invalid were equivalent to the Anglican rite as practiced. That is a
matter for theological investigation, and for historical investigation, and the
matter cannot be closed, despite the apparent finality of Leo's words, because a
different interpretative understanding of Anglican orders is always possible,
and might well be superior. When Leo declared the matter closed, what was closed
was the problem situation which he solved, and he did not take into account
other possibilities, so his declaration cannot be said to bear on that.
Having laid the ground for a change in perspective, I would next like to
consider the validity of Anglican orders in relation to Catholicism and
Orthodoxy, and the implications therein. Because of the ruling by Leo, as
currently understood by the Catholic church, an Anglican priest who converts to
Catholicism is required to be ordained in the Catholic church, in what seems in
form to be a second ordination (and I will return to that problem), but in fact
is taken as the first, because the Anglican ordination is not recognized.
If an Eastern Orthodox priest converts to Catholicism, he is automatically
recognized as a Catholic priest, and no further rite of ordination is necessary.
If a Catholic priest converts to Orthodoxy, he is granted recognition under the
policy called church "economy".
Now the interesting fact is that when an Anglican priest converts to Orthodoxy,
he is generally granted recognition by the bishops under "economy", and no
further rite of ordination is necessary. This could, in
theory (though unlikely in practice) give rise to the following situation: an
Anglican converts to Orthodoxy, and later converts to Catholicism. Should he
require an additional rite of ordination?
As a member of the Orthodox church, he should be granted the privileges that
Catholicism grants to Orthodoxy as any priest with orders recognized as valid
under Orthodoxy. Yet there is also an argument for saying that in this case, the
order cannot be recognized as valid. But that is to differentiate between the
validity of orders within Orthodoxy, and the right of Orthodoxy to pronounce
upon the validity of their own orders. It also raises the question of why
Orthodoxy and not Catholicism is prepared to accept the validity of Anglican
orders - this opens again the hermeneutical problem raised above. Yet if the
priest is accepted as a valid order, there can be no good grounds for not
reconsidering Anglican orders, and again the hermeneutical problem resurfaces.
I would now like to look at two incidents, and comment upon the possible
implications. Pope Paul VI gave the Archbishop of Canterbury an Episcopal ring,
and John Paul II gave Rowan Williams, the current incumbent, a pectoral cross,
and kissed the ring of the Archbishop in their recent meeting together. These
are symbols of ecclesiastical authority, and are not given to laymen dressed up
in bishop's costumes, which the declaration of Leo XIII would seem to imply to
be the case with Anglican orders. These are gestures, and not words, yet they
seem to indicate that the declaration of Leo may be open to reconsideration, and
that covert recognition of Anglican orders does exist.
Returning again to Leo XIII, the failing of Anglican orders - as described in
his Papal Bull - was upon the grounds that they did not use a rite in which were
reserved all the essentials of validity as instituted by Christ. It was noted
that the text may differ, but the essential character of the "forms" must be
entirely alike. I would point out the following matters arising from this:
First, this neatly solves the problem of language. It is clear from a reading of
history, that the forms of ordination in the early church would most likely have
been in the common language of Greek, and not in Latin. The text would have
needed, at the very least, translation into Latin, at some stage, and this text
would differ to some degree, because no translation is ever identical in
meaning, and range of meanings to the original.
However, this does open up the problem of "text" and "forms". Modern semantics
sees meaning embodied in text - change the text, and the meaning changes. "Text"
and "form" cannot be split apart and because different terms have different
semantic groupings (or sets of meanings), to alter the text is, however subtly,
to alter the semantic referent - what Leo would term the "form".
This means that to accept changes in the text is to accept a certain "looseness"
in the "form"; we may think of the "form" better as a kind of semantic boundary,
if we accept, following Leo, that the text can change and still be valid. Now
none of these kind of developments from linguistics were known in the original
arguments, so again, the situation is more fluid than previously noted.
I should also note in passing, as has been noted from the Anglican side, that
the text or texts of the original forms of ordination have not survived; there
is no early documentation - for example - for the first Bishop of Rome ordained
by Peter. The earliest appearance in writing is the "Leonine Sacramentary" of
the sixth century, and the traces of obsolete but different forms employed in
parts of Gaul, but not persisting, suggest that historically there are good
grounds for Leo's decision to split "text" and "form", in that the earliest form
could not be substantiated in the historical record, but only by surmise and
Taking up the idea of valid orders, the Catholic church also has a more open
stance on orders which has been explored less historically. There are not just
"valid" orders and "invalid" ones, there is also the class of orders deemed
"doubtful". This class of cases arose under the reign of Queen Mary I of
England, regarding Edwardine orders. In such cases, prudence demanded that
re-ordination is required, to safeguard the validity of the orders.
In conclusion, in declaring Anglican orders invalid, item forty of Leo's
judgment was an intent to make his words the final that could be said on the
subject, that "it shall be now and for ever in the future valid and in force".
But that still leaves open the following matters which I have discussed:
The judgment is given against a definition or model of Anglican orders; it is
open to argument whether the model is accurate. The text does not make a
statement about this meta-argument.
The judgment does not take into account the difficulties with the Orthodox
acceptance under "economy" of Anglican orders, which again throws into question
the model, with the added question of why Orthodoxy was prepared to act this
The "form" of ordination needs re-examination in terms of the semantic
boundaries of different text, to see how much common ground there is, and if
this is adequate.
Finally, there is a substantial case for the merits of considering that Anglican
orders, if the model differs sufficiently from that opposed by Leo, should be
placed in a third category of "doubtful". This would resolve the problem
with Orthodoxy, in that Catholicism would simply differ in church discipline in
acceptance of Anglican orders - Orthodoxy granting "economy", Catholicism
It would justify as acceptable the significance of the actions of the Popes with
the Archbishops of Canterbury, and it would open the way towards the means of
removing the doubt.
The idea of "doubtful" (as valid but irregular and in schism) rather than
"invalid" would also mean that the idea that Anglican priests were not "proper
priests" would no longer be the case. It would be that "the jury was out", and
while church discipline would not permit full communion, it also would no longer
permit a crude condemnation, especially by the Catholic laity, as has occurred
thoughtlessly in the past.
I would like to end with a story, which I think reflects both the situation as
it now pertains, and my arguments for reconsidering Anglican orders.
A man arrives at a household, and claims to be a member of the family who live
there. The family discuss this, and decide that they cannot just accept him on
his word, but will need to be furnished with proofs that he is a member of the
family. He has some documents, but they are incomplete. There is also a family
resemblance which is noticeable, but that is not proof either. For the meantime,
the family will let him stay, because it would be a terrible mistake to reject
someone from your family wrongly. He may even receive birthday presents, which
recognize that he has a place in the household for the time being. He can join
in various shared occasions. But he cannot share in any of the important
decisions made by the family, because he might be there under false pretences,
and that would not do
How can he join the family in such a way as to legitimize his claim beyond all
doubt? The only sure way would for him to be adopted by the family, then
whatever his legitimacy or otherwise, he would be part of the family one way or
the other. That is the family's decision, and it is final.
However, this final decision were made before the advent of genetic testing, and
did not rule out this because it was unknown at the time. So now genetics opens
up new, unheard of ways, for the problem of legitimacy to be reconsidered.
Copyright © 2004 by "Tony"
Originally posted: 2004-NOV-11
Latest update: 2004-NOV-11