Misunderstanding Invalidity

Magazines tend to lie around our house for a long time before meeting the great Recycling God. And so I happened across a March 2006 edition of “The Lutheran” (my wife subscribes), in which I found a most interesting Letter to the Editor from a Lutheran clergyman. It is on our theme of apostolic succession:

I was part of a group of Lutheran and Anglican ministers exploring the relationship between our churches. One Anglican minister rose and ever so gently explained: ‘For Anglicans it’s essential that every minister is in direct succession from St Peter himself. You Lutherans don’t have apostolic succesion, so I have no choice but to declare your ministry invalid. I am unable to recognise you as brother ministers of Christ.’

I haven’t got the space to deal with the details here, but for the moment it is interesting to note how this Lutheran pastor remembered the Anglican’s words. Of course we know that no Anglican (or Catholic for that matter) could ever have put the issue exactly as this pastor remembers it. Let’s continue though with the letter:

This priest was not trying to put me down or hurt me. But despite his gentle tone, despite my head hearing him simply proclaiming the Anglican tradition, his words cut me deeply. Compared to him, I was nothing, a nobody. My 30 years of ministry, indeed, my life, a complete waste of time. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

You will agree that this is an interesting reaction, and I want to dwell on it a little. But let’s hear how the letter ends:

It hurts to be excluded, and that hurt crushes when the person is told that there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to make things any different. That’s not how Jesus treated people, and its not how we should treat each other.

I will resist for a moment saying that this is just another case of WTFWJD, because I don’t want to get sidetracked from addressing this brother’s “hurt”.

Most importantly, the Lutheran brother heard the Anglican brother to say that “lack of apostolic succession = invalid priesthood = Lutheran pastor is a nothing, a nobody = 30 years of ministry a complete waste of time.”

When I became a Catholic, I tried to explain to my brother Lutheran clergy that part of the reason was that I had become convinced that my “priesthood” (such as it was) was invalid. They too took this extremely personally. Was I saying that their ministry was worthless, that it was a “complete waste of time”?

On the one hand, we must point out that to say that an ordination is “invalid” simply means that according to the canons of the Church (the Church’s “law”) the ordination has not been properly carried out so that the sacrament of holy orders has been committed to the ordinand. There was something “irregular” (ie. against the rules) about the ordination. Thus, according to the canons of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches an ordination carried out by anyone other than a lawful bishop is “invalid”. There are many other ways in which an ordination could be invalid. It might be worth pointing out that, here in Australia, Lutherans would regard the following attempts at ordination to be invalid: the “ordination” of a woman, an “ordination” carried out by laypeople, an “ordination” without the permission of the President of the Church. Were anyone to be “ordained” under any of these circumstances, the LCA would cry: “Invalid”. So, really, to say that such and such an ordination is “invalid” is simply to say that it does not accord with the canons of a particular Church. Of course, such canons are not arbitrary, but are believed by those who uphold them to be according to the will of God for the right ordering of the ministerial priesthood. Nor should it come as a surprise that different Christian communities have different rules for ordination. This is one of those issues upon which the Christian Church is divided. It means that just because you are an ordained minister of XYZ Church doesn’t mean that you are regarded as such by ABC Church.

Okay, second point: Following from this it is also worth pointing out that we are comparing apples and oranges. As a Catholic priest friend of mine pointed out to a Lutheran pastor friend of mine, Catholic (we’ll put Anglicanism to one side for the mo) priesthood and Lutheran ministry are completely different sorts of animal. Well, perhaps not completely, but very different. They may look to be the same on the outside, but are not so underneath. Catholic priests are ordained to offer the sacrifice of the mass. Lutherans are not. And Lutherans are quite definite about this. (So for that matter are Anglicans, one reason why Leo XIII decided that Anglican orders were “invalid”). For Catholics (and some Anglicans), Holy Orders is a sacrament. For Lutherans, it is not. A Catholic priest is shares not only in the baptismal priesthood but also in the ministerial priesthood. A Lutheran pastor, on the other hand, is no more a priest than his parishoners. So to say that a Lutheran pastor is an “invalid priest” is a bit like saying an orange is an “invalid apple”. The orange need only be offended if indeed he has always been longing to be an apple.

Which brings us to the third point: To say that an orange is an “invalid apple” does not mean to say that the orange is ineffective at being an orange. Or, to bring it to the case in point, the Lutheran pastor who wrote the letter heard the Anglican telling him that his whole ministry was “worthless” because he would be considered “invalid” as an Anglican priest. Which is, of course, nonsense. If the Lutheran pastor had been doing his job as a validly ordained Lutheran minister (ie. preaching the Word of God and baptising and what not), then his ministry would have been most valuable indeed. Many would have come to saving faith through his ministry (even if not to the fulness of faith as a Catholic would regard it). A Lutheran minister should only become concerned about the validity of his ordination in the eyes of ministers of another communion if he has come to believe that the other communion possesses more of the essence of the ministerial priesthood than does his own. Of course, that is what I came to realise–which is why I am now a Catholic layman and not a Lutheran pastor.

So, finally, to the matter of this minister saying he felt his ministry was “worthless” and that there was “absolutley nothing that can be done to make things any different.” We know, of course, from personal experience that this is not so. There is something that can be done about it. Just as Jesus did not say to the sinner “Repent” without also offering absolution and full communion with the Father, so too we do not say “Your orders are invalid” without offering a “way out”. Only the “way out” remains insufferable to our protestant brethren, because it says: “Come on in! the doors open! Be one with us and we will be one with you!” The way out of an invalid priesthood is to enter a valid one. It is not an easy road to walk, but it is not impossible. It may mean (as it seems to have done in my case) that you were not called to the valid priesthood in the first place, but it certainly does not mean that you do not have a valid vocation in the Church. In fact, how could you ever find your true vocation if you continue in an invalid one?

Ah well. It just goes to show that when we do speak about “invalidity” to our protestant brethren with respect to their ordination, we need to be very careful to make it clear what we are and what we are not saying. Otherwise we will just cause a lot of hurt.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Misunderstanding Invalidity

  1. tonybartel says:

    Anglican priests are indeed ordained (according to their Church’s own self-understanding) to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York indicated in their response to Pope Leo XIII (Saepius Officio).

    “… we truly teach the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice and do not believe it to be a “nude commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross” … But we think it sufficent in the Liturgy which we use in celebrating the holy Eucharist, – while lifting up our hearts to the Lord, and when now consecrating the gifts already offered that they may become to us the Body and Blood of out Lord Jesus Christ, – to signify the sacrifice which is offered at that point of the service in such terms as these. We continue a perpetual memory of the precious death of Christ, who is our Advocate with the Father and the propitiation for our sins, according to His precept, until His coming again. For first we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; then next we plead and represent before the Father the sacrifice of the cross, and by it we confidently entreat remission of sins and all other benefits of the Lord’s Passion for all the whole Church; and lastly we offer the sacrifice of ourselves to the Creator of all things which we have already signified by the oblations of His creatures. This whole action, in which the people has necessarily to take its part with the Priest, we are accustomed to call the Eucharistic sacrifice.” Saepius Officio XI (http://anglicanhistory.org/orders/saepius.pdf)

    Now I am fully willing to debate the extent to which this does or does not disagree with Roman Catholic teaching and whether or not this is a adequate explanation of Eucharistic sacrifice according to the Roman Catholic Church.

    But it is simply inaccurate to assert that Anglicans are not ordained to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass (the sacrifices of the Masses, referred to in the Articles of Religion, being an entirely different matter).

  2. Peregrinus says:

    Hi David

    Your critique of the Lutheran minister’s recoillection of, and reaction to, the position of the Anglican minister is, I think, spot on. Anglican (and Catholic) reservations about Lutheran ordained ministry do not have, in Anglican and Catholic minds, the implications that the Lutheran minister seems to think they have.

    But I note that the encounter described took place in the context of a meeting of a “group of Lutheran and Anglican ministers exploring the relationship between our churches”. If this minister is involved in formal ecumenical dialogue, and given the theological formation that I assume a Lutheran minister to have, it seems very unlikely that the minister concerned would not know that Anglicans did not draw those conclusions from their own position.

    In other words, he may not have been saying that Anglicans viewed him as a nobody, and his life and miinistry as a complete waste of time. He may have been saying that that was how he felt when faced with the Anglican understanding of apostolic succession and priestly ministry.

    (Now, his closing remarks (“this is not how we should treat one another”) might suggest that he blamed the Anglicans for his own feelings. If so, I might part company with him, but I may be reading too much into that final point.)

    But, leaving that aside, even if it is not justified in Anglican or Catholic eyes, his hurt is an objective reality, and an important one. And I think there are some lessons that we can draw from it.

    Ecumenical encounters should be loving and joyful, and they should celebrate the revelation and the graces that Christians share. But if the ultimate objective is to unify the body of Christ, they must not only build on what we have in common, but examine fearlessly what divides us – such as, for example, differing understandings of priesthood and ministry.

    And we should expect this to be painful. It is, in a sense, poking and picking at the wounds in the body of Christ. However gently and lovingly we do it, it must still hurt.

    The real source of the Lutheran minister’s hurt was not that his Anglican counterparts dismissed his ministry, because they did not, and I suspect he probably knew that they did not. It was that he and his Anglican counterparts had such different understandings of what ministry could be, and ought to be. The pain he experienced stemmed from the gap between what he felt that a Christian minister ought to be and do, and what Anglicans felt that a Christian minister ought to be and do.

    I don’t think we can confront that gap without pain. At the same time we must, if we take ecumenism seriously, confront that gap, and that means we must face the pain. It’s part of the process.

    We are called to acknowledge the pain – not just our own pain, but our brothers’ pain. It may be – this is complete speculation – that in the meeting described the Anglican participant could have addressed the issue of ministry in a way that was more sensitive to his Lutheran friend’s pain, at least to the extent of acknowledging and sharing that pain. Perhaps – I just throw out the idea – a concept like ‘validity’ is not the best lens through which to examine the understandings that different Christian traditions have of the nature of ministry. But the bottom line will always be that we cannot ignore the wounds in the body of Christ; we are called to heal them.

  3. Lucian says:

    That’s not how Jesus treated people, and its not how we should treat each other



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *