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Charitable Apostolicity

As a chaplain, I find myself worshiping and serving during the week more often in contexts outside of my own tradition than I do within. Weekly I face the question of whether a non-catholic1 minister’s orders and, thus, the sacraments she or he presides over are valid — partially or otherwise. At the onset of this project, I described my main concern as finding a path towards a generous orthodoxy. A generous orthodoxy is a path that allows me to maintain my Anglican ecclesiology and theology in the context of the non-Anglican ministries I find myself a part of. Specifically, I sought to find a way of resolving my personal theological conflict with the sacramental validity of the ministers and chaplains I work alongside.

The question of my view of other Christian ministers is very real for me. Every Thursday I worship at a service in the prison led by Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ minsters. In each service, I’ve pondered whether the cracker and grape juice consecrated by one outside of the apostolic tradition, consecrated as a mere memorial rather than an actual transformation is Communion. No doubt the Holy Spirit is there. No doubt there is meaning and grace conferred by God. But, is it Communion? Does God take an action happening outside the order received by his Church and make it valid for the sake of his innocent children?

At times a Baptist lay person has presided over the worship service in the jail. A person who doesn’t even claim ordination, presided over the Lord’s Table. What am I to make of that? Were I visiting this worship service and not in a place of authority, I would decline the wafer and juice. But, as a chaplain and now member of this parish, I feel the greater sin would be rejecting the invitation to Communion.

My heart wants to extend the validity of the sacraments to all Christian traditions and all Christian situations regardless of whether they are orderly ordained, hold “orthodox” sacramental theologies, or preside “rightly” over the table — orthopraxy. At the same time, my theologies of ecclesiology, sacraments, and liturgy are well-developed and central to my understanding of God and his relationship with and towards humanity. The personal stakes in this issue are high.

To rightfully engage this complex issue, I will need to look at it from several angles. First, I will need to analyze the root of my desire to resolve this question for myself and others. Second, I will need to understand why the historic episcopacy and valid orders are so important to my Anglican ecclesiology. Next, the sacrament of Holy Communion will need to be engaged within the context of ecumenical relations with non-catholic churches. Finally, questions needing action for resolution will need to be identified for constructive engagement.

My view of the ecumenical movement prior to researching my place within it all was not entirely positive. Anglican ecumenical conversations with the Orthodox and Roman churches, in my estimation, was simply a matter of building a historical case for the continued apostolic succession of Anglican bishops and working past the ordination of women. Outside of the catholic spheres of Christianity, I generally saw ecumenical dialog as poorly thought out theological compromises made by large committees. This initial understanding of the last several decades, even centuries, of ecumenical work could not be further from the truth.

The ecumenical movement, I think, follows a similar trajectory to my internal reasons for seeking clarity in how to live charitably within my own orthodoxy in the face of other Christians. Through understanding and deep theological work, the ecumenical movement doesn’t seek compromise, per se, but rather a path forward for deeper Christian unity. This, I have discovered, is the deeper draw of my own engagement with questions of validity of orders and sacraments. My initial uncomfortableness with the question stemmed from a misunderstanding of what it meant to question another’s views. To question is not necessarily to critique or judge, but to seek understanding. I truly wish greater unity with other Christians. In seeking answers, I am not judging them less than my own viewpoint, but am honestly seeking a path forward where we both can understand the core boundaries of our theological viewpoints and find a shared path where we can work as closely together as possible.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 and 1888 has been the driver of Anglican ecumenical engagement for over a hundred years. In its simplicity it gives the foundations for where conversations about ecumenical engagement and eventual Church unity can begin. The first three articles affirm basic, orthodox Christian boundaries establishing Holy Scripture as containing everything humanity needs to understand for our salvation, the Apostles’ and Nicene creed as containing the foundations of Christian belief, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion as being established my Christ for the continual service of his Church until he returns. The fourth article is the focus of the majority of Anglican ecumenical conversations; the affirmation of the need for the Church to have the “historic episcopate.”

Anglicans are deeply tied to the historical episcopate. Bishops in apostolic succession from the early Church is an identifier to Anglicans of our catholic roots and places us mentally and in reality in the via media between Protestant movements and Roman Catholicism. For me, the question of whether a sacrament or another’s orders are valid stem directly from this core theological and ecclesial belief of Anglicans. In my Anglican worldview, holy orders are only valid by the laying on of hands of a bishop within the historic succession of the apostolic tradition. If a Baptist or Presbyterian minister were to seek union with a diocese and wish to do the ministry of a priest in said diocese, she or he would need to be ordained — regardless of her or his ordination in the Baptist or Presbyterian tradition. From my uninformed perspective, the case seemed to be black and white. Non-catholic orders were not valid. Case closed.

The ecumenical movement, however, has nuanced and clarified the Anglican position. Apostolicity is owned by the Church as a whole — laity and clergy. It is possible for holy orders in non-catholic traditions to be valid and apostolic without apostolic episcopal ordination. The critical consideration in Anglican ecumenical dialog seems to be that some signs of the historic oversight exercised by bishop is present in the non-episcopal communion and that the non-episcopal church does not reject the validity of the historic episcopacy. Further, the non-episcopal body should be open to receiving the gift of this sign for the unity of the Church.

Reconciliation and ecumenical relationships between churches, then, are bi-lateral. The burden doesn’t sit with a single party and definitely does not sit with me alone. In my previous engagement with the question at hand, I felt like I was unchurching fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. This was farthest from my intent! To see, however, the conversation towards unity has two sides and requires bi-later engagement, is a great personal relief to my theological task.

In the Anglican tradition, Holy Communion is the central focus of our worship. All things in our Sunday liturgy point to the Table. Anglicans affirm that Christ is fully present in Eucharist and that true, transformative grace is imparted. Embracing the holy mysteries of God, Anglicans do not define the how or precisely what of Holy Communion other than to reject the Roman formulation of Trent, transubstantiation, as the definitive explanation. Eucharist is God inviting us to his table, Christ being physically in our midst, and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit feeding us his grace to empower us for the praxis of Christian life in the world outside of worship.

Non-presbyters cannot preside over the sacrament of Holy Communion in the Anglican tradition. In Eucharistic Presidency2 the English House of Bishops draws multiple theological reasons why this is incompatible with the Anglican understanding of the Church. It is all rooted in our understanding of who the Triune God is and what his purposes for the Church are. The validity of orders, then, for an Anglican clergy person becomes critical to understanding when one can co-celebrate3 Eucharist with another minister and when one cannot. Outside of co-celebrate something which is not celebrated in the first place — lay presidency — to co-celebrate outside of the historical, apostolic, episcopal tradition and the signs/tokes (bishops) of the Church, is to break communion with the history and timelessness of the Church. Co-celebration requires communion and a type of unity not found when the mutual affirmation of apostolic orders are not shared.

Bishops in apostolic succession are for Anglicans a sign and token of our intent as a catholic body. To hold to the historic episcopacy is to point to the unity of the Church in the past and the unity we know we will experience in future under Christ’s reign. As a semi-Protestant Church, we see the episcopacy as a gift we hold and offer for the entire Body of Christ. Unity with the Roman and Eastern churches cannot happen with the sign of the historic episcopacy. Though we do not necessarily see the historic episcopacy as the esse of the Church, we hold it as the bene esse of her witness. For Anglicans, ministry outside of the historic episcopacy is valid because the whole Church hold the apostolic witness. However, not having a sign or token and rejecting it entirely, are two different things.

In Anglican engagement with other traditions, full communion came only after the non-episcopal body accepted the sign of apostolic bishops. In these engagements, non-episcopal ordained ministers continued to be seen as valid as the intent at their ordination was that they were ordained as ministers to the universal Church and not a particular sect. In accepting the episcopacy, future ordinations would return to the good order received historical by the Church and unity in both action and reality would be achieved.

The resources for constructive theological engagement towards a charitable orthodoxy are plentiful. With more research, a clear synthesis can be developed that will give Anglican clergy and laity a clear understanding of our charitable stance beside the great Christian traditions. To the Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist churches Anglicans respect the apostolicity of their traditions, the validity of theirs orders and sacraments, and seek full unity under the historic episcopacy. To the Roman and Orthodox, much work is still to be done, but some recognition of orders already exists, the path is simple towards a more charitable way of living in to our disagreements and misunderstandings until visible unity is achieved. For Congregationalists, Restorationists, and other radically reformed movements, the path is less clear. More work needs to done.

In all, the present reality is that there are times when Anglican co-celebration cannot occur and — potentially — when an Anglican clergyperson cannot commune at another’s Table. This, I think, is the next major constructive project for my analysis. Given the constructive theological work of the ecumenical movement over the last many decades an ecumenical praxis must emerge. Like the ecumenical movement itself, this praxis must show outwardly the inward desire for Christian unity. It must show love. It must show a willingness to learn. It must also be bi-lateral and allow everyone involved to maintain their own stance to what is or is not happening.

When one cannot commune at another’s table, how does one show a desire for unity and understanding within the worship service? When one cannot co-celebrate, how does one embody the recognition of another’s holy orders and the validity of the sacrament they are presiding over? As is often the case, the work of theology often stops on the pages of an ecumenical statement. My desire is to analyze the work existing on paper and move it forward into clear, practical, praxis.


Works Referenced

An Anglican-Methodist Covenant: Common Statement of the Formal Conversations between the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Church of England. London: Methodist Pub. House and Church House Pub., 2001.

Anglican Consultative Council. Into All the World: Being and Becoming Apostolic Churches : A Report to the Anglican Consultative Council and the World Methodist Council by the Anglican-Methodist International Commission for Unity in Mission AMICUM 2014., 2014.

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Faith and Order Paper, no. 111. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982.

Church of England, and House of Bishops. Apostolicity and Succession. London: Church House Pub., 1998.

———. May They All Be One: A Response of the House of Bishops of the Church of England to Ut Unum Sint. London: Church House Pub., 1998.

———. The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity. London: Church House Pub., 2001.

Draper, Jonathan, ed. Communion and Episcopacy: Essays to Mark the Centenary of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Cuddesdon, Oxford: Ripon College Cuddesdon, 1988.

Episcopal Church, and House of Bishops. Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement. London: Church House Pub., 1997.

Tucker, Ansley. “The Historic Episcopate in Anglican Ecclesiology the Esse Persepctive.” Consensus, The Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Dialogue, 12, no. 1 (November 1, 1986): 99–115.

Woolverton, John F. “THE CHICAGO-LAMBETH QUADRILATERAL AND THE LAMBETH CONFERENCES.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 53, no. 2 (1984): 95–109.


  1. Little-c *c*atholic here refers to those historic churches that trace their origin — through apostolic succession of bishops — to the unified Church of East & West and the shared theology, councils, and Fathers of the same. E.g. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Coptic, etc. [return]
  2. Episcopal Church, and House of Bishops. Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement. London: Church House Pub., 1997. [return]
  3. Consecrate and bless the elements of Holy Communion with another minister [return]