Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sacramental Validity and Apostolic Succession

What does Sacramental Validity mean?

According to C.B. Moss, an Anglican scholar of the early Twentieth Century, for a Church to pronounce a sacrament valid simply means it recognises that it was "performed in accordance with her law" (The Christian Faith, p.334). Similarly, he says that a sacrament is said to be invalid when "something which the Church requires is lacking" (ibid. p. 334). Moss emphasises the legal connotations of the word and even goes so far as to say "There is no such thing as absolute validity, for 'validity' means recognition by a particular society" (ibid. p. 337) While this is strictly true as a matter of verbal definition, it runs the risk of reducing validity to a merely human construction of relative and nominal significance.

However, Moss balances this perspective by also noting that Churches do not have plenary authority to arbitrarily change or set the "rules", such as by substituting different elements to bread and wine for Communion or accepting non-episcopal ordination as valid. He mentions "our Lord's institution" and what is "universally accepted" in these contexts, implying thereby that these are the reasons that certain conditions for sacramental validity are necessary in a more than legal sense. Indeed, a more satisfactory definition of sacramental validity from a Catholic perspective emphasises God's promise to offer grace when certain kinds of symbolic actions and prayers are made in accordance with His revealed design and will.

Common misconceptions

It is often assumed that if a sacrament is pronounced invalid, that this is equivalent to stating it is certain that the sacrament was no sacrament at all and ineffectual. This is incorrect. To say a sacrament is not valid is to say that God's grace, which is guaranteed if we follow his covenanted means, cannot be presumed to be present because those covenanted means were not practised. However, God can and does act outside His normal sacramental means. Therefore, in the same way we cannot assert (based on the purported sacramental action considered in itself) that the relevant grace was granted, we cannot say for certain that it was not. At least, this is the normal position taken by ecumenically informed Catholic theologians.

What is Apostolic Succession?

Apostolic Succession (AS hereafter) has generally been given three related meanings. Firstly, it refers to a faithful succession of teaching and believing through the Church's history that conforms to the Apostolic Faith. Secondly, it refers to the succession of bishops who do the teaching (with the help of the other clergy) and also succeed to the Apostles' roles as chief rulers in the Church. Thirdly, AS refers to the means by which pastoral authority is passed down from bishop to succeeding bishop (and to other clergy): by episcopal ordination. As we will see, while the first connotation is the more fundamental one, it is the others that Christians get stuck on and thus are the subject of controversy.

Indeed, a number of theologians have claimed that while the first connotation is absolutely essential to the Church, and the second legitimate but not intrinsically essential, the third is a relatively modern (or at best late mediaeval) invention. It is seen as designed primarily to provide a reason for "unchurching" Protestant communities by denying the clerical status of their pastors and considering them as bodies consisting solely of laity. And it is not just Protestant theologians who see the third meaning of AS as illegitimate. Roman Catholic scholars (e.g., Burkhard) and Anglican theologians have questioned this concept of AS and its associated dogmatic denial of sacramental validity for Protestant ordinations. One of the best arguments against AS-via-ordination was written by the Rev. Arthur C. Headlam, an Anglican Professor of Divinity in the early 20th Century. His Bampton Lectures of 1920 became the book The Doctrine of the Church and Christian Reunion. In this work the author makes the following assertions about Apostolic Succession and related matters:

1. Apostolic Succession (AS) is primarily a matter of faithful succession in correct teaching by clergy and secondarily a matter of bishops succeeding the Apostles in their office and role.

2. The third sense in which AS is commonly understood, that is, succession by ordination, with a passing down via the laying on of hands of Apostolic gifts and authority, is not taught by the Church Fathers and is in fact a relatively novel theory.

3. It is for the Church community to determine how ordinations are carried out and this is how the rule of episcopal ordination came to exist, there being no dogmatic necessity for it and no consensual Catholic testimony to its divine origin or universal use.

4. All that can be claimed as absolutely necessary for valid ordination are prayer and the laying on of hands, with the graces received being direct from God and not from the ordainers. “Tactile” succession is not necessary.

5. Both the Cyprianic and Augustinian theories on sacramental validity of orders are insufficient.

6. The Anglican rejection of the validity of Protestant orders is just as offensive as the Roman rejection of the validity of Anglican orders.

Much of Headlam’s case for points 2 to 4 rests on an argument from silence. He claims that there is simply no explicit evidence for the AS-by-ordination theory in the Early Church, or even until much later. Regarding the sixth assertion, he appeals to the clear evidence of gifts and fruits of the Spirit in the “Non-Conformist” Churches to demonstrate their inclusion in the Church and the genuineness of their pastoral ministries. If our theologies do not fit the facts, then we need to modify our theologies, he argues throughout.

While I agree with elements of this approach, it has some serious flaws. For a start, the argument from silence ignores the possibility that the AS-by-ordination teaching is present implicitly and that the reason it was not explicated at an earlier stage is that the contrary error had not arisen (as even the heretics practised episcopal ordination in the main). Also, the balance of the Patristic evidence will not support the idea that the Church had that much flexibility and power to “create” its authoritative and ministerial structures. Even if there were rare exceptions to the rule of episcopal ordination, the nature and circumstances of these exceptions do not support an autonomous freedom for each congregation or region to order things as they saw fit. And there is evidence that a distinction between presbyters and bishops was of Apostolic origin, despite some nomenclatural overlap in the first two centuries. In addition, assertion number 4 above relies on a false dichotomy. The fact that God is the efficient cause of what happens at ordination does not prevent the bishop from being an instrumental cause, nor does it disprove an essential link between what the ordaining/consecrating bishop is and has and what the ordinand will become. Finally, I believe it can be shown that, even within the AS-by-episcopal-ordination paradigm, it is possible to make room for an appraisal of Protestant pastoral ministers that does not reduce them to mere glorified laymen.

I will expand on these arguments in the my next post.


Anonymous said...

I thought Moss's point was excellent, as he hits the Apostolic position (still held by the Eastern Churches).

Indeed, if the Church universal recognizes a local Church, through its episcopal representative, as holding the true Faith and being organically connected to the New Testament Church, then that local church is valid as is its succession. Otherwise not. In other words, scholastic rules of tactile succession are actually irrelevant even if the attendant ceremonies are historically normative.

The kernels are (1) a community holding the Apostolic Faith at present, and (2) that community having organic connection to the Church universal. Given those, the Church catholic has perennially recognized (without futher ado) the "validity" of the local church, regardless of formal irregularities or past doctrinal error.

From the Eastern perspective, its all very easy. Were the Methodist to sincerely embrace St. John Damascene's Exposition of the Faith and perhaps regularize its episcopacy along historical models, the Eastern Church would soon embrace and recognize it as valid without any ceremony -- as the Methodist are definitely "of" the Apostolic Church and have always held Faith in the Trinity. End of story.

IMHO, the Eastern way, apart form representing the most acient practices of the Apostolic Church, is so much more simple and focuse on what really counts than the hocus-pocus Western Scholastic analysis.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Death, it is dangerous to oversimplify the Eastern position by ignoring varieties of opinion within it, and then choose whichever opinion is most inconsistent with the Western one.

E.g., "Were the Methodist to sincerely embrace St. John Damascene's Exposition of the Faith and perhaps regularize its episcopacy along historical models, the Eastern Church would soon embrace and recognize it as valid without any ceremony".

There are Eastern theologians who have said that Protestant communities without the tactile succession could have the validity of their Orders recognised (or produced?) by simply accepting the Orthodox faith. However, this is not the majority position and many EO theologians have argued forcefully that the tactile succession is much more than a merely canonical requirement. Also, there is no official precedent for recognising (or even considering for such recognition) by economy Orders outside the tactile succession in separated Churches, but plenty of precedent for separated Churches with the succession.

Few Easterners would analyse Sacramental Vaildity precisely in the Western terms of Minister, Matter, Form, Subject and Intention. However, their analysis in terms of overall Orthodoxy of Faith, particularly with reference to whichever sacrament is being considered, and in terms of conformity to Tradition in outward actions, really amounts to something very similar. The latter conformity corresponds roughly to the categories of Minister, Matter and Subject. The former (orthodoxy) relates more to Form and Intention.

More to the point, what all Catholics (Eastern, Western or Anglican) agree upon is that God can and does work outside authorised sacraments and that validity and effectualness are not necessarily identical.