The subject of apostolic succession is back in the ecumenical limelight. A Jesuit theologian, who has been a member of ARCIC I and II, examines a new agreement between the Church of England and Nordic Lutheran Churches, which is to be debated in the General Synod today. He finds it likely to have a negative effect on Roman Catholic-Anglican relations.
It is of the nature of the Anglican Communion that each of its provinces, being autonomous, is free to establish its own ecumenical relations. The 1988 Meissen Agreement between the Church of England and the German Evangelical Churches, which established a limited interchangeability of ministries, was one example of such regional Anglican ecumenism. Another example is the statement which came from the meeting at Porvoo in Finland in 1992, in which the partners were the four Anglican provinces in the British Isles, on the one side, and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches, on the other. The statement has now been published by Church House, with supporting essays, under the title Together in Mission and Ministry (£8.50).
These Lutheran Churches, like the Anglicans, maintain the office of bishop. There is, however, a vitally important difference within the histories of these Lutheran episcopates: while, despite the Reformation, Sweden, Finland and Estonia preserved an episcopal succession, into which Latvia and Lithuania entered in the twentieth century, that succession was and remains interrupted in Denmark, Norway and Iceland, where all bishops derive their orders through Bugenhagen, a German Lutheran presbyter of superintendent rank, though without episcopal orders, who consecrated seven bishops in 1536. In Denmark indeed, though the title of bishop was retained, the office seems to be understood in organisational rather than sacramental terms; according to the essay on episcopacy in that country, the bishop differs from the priest not in any "new ministry", but in his "responsibility for a wider area" and his "oversight over his fellow pastors".
The irregular roots of episcopacy in the Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic Churches has so far prevented Anglican recognition of their episcopal orders. Whereas the Church of England has already reached agreements with the Swedish, Finnish, Estonian and Latvian Churches for eucharistic hospitality and mutual participation in episcopal ordinations, relations with the other three Churches, though allowing a degree of intercommunion, have stop ped short of a mutual recognition of ministries.
The Porvoo Statement, after setting out an agreement on the main Christian doctrines, including those concerning the Church and "episcopacy in the service of the apostolicity of the Church", concludes with a declaration acknowledging that "the episcopal office is valued and maintained in all our Churches", affirming that all ministers episcopally ordained in one of the Churches may be invited to officiate in any of the others (thus going beyond Meissen), and committing the Churches "to invite one another's bishops normally to participate in the laying-on of hands at the ordination of bishops as a sign of the unity and continuity of the Church".
Assuming that the Churches decide to endorse Porvoo, the last of these recommendations will in time restore episcopal succession where it is lacking. The doctrinal section of the statement, however, makes it clear that the existence of a valid apostolic ministry does not depend upon this: the essential continuity is that of the "apostolic life and mission of the whole Church". Succession in episcopal office is "a visible and personal way of focusing the apostolicity of the whole Church". Ordination of a bishop in the historic succession is a "sign" of the Church's "care for continuity in the whole of its life and mission". It follows that "a Church which has preserved the sign of historic episcopal succession is free to acknowledge an authentic episcopal ministry in a Church which has preserved continuity in the episcopal office by an occasional priestly/presbyteral ordination at the time of the Reformation". The volume clarifies this conclusion in a number of informative historical and theological essays.
There are thus two quite distinct justifications offered for the recognition of the episcopal ministries of Churches which do not enjoy an unbroken episcopal line of succession. First, continuity in ministerial authority is preserved in an unbroken succession of presbyters (John Wesley's establishment of an episcopal ministry in the United States rested on a similar foundation). Secondly, the local and universal Church can preserve continuity extraordinarily without the "sign" and "focus" provided by continuity of ordained ministry.
The first justification can claim support from customs and theories found in certain circles in the early Church. In Alexandria there is evidence for the consecration of bishops by presbyters; besides, St Jerome (perhaps for polemical reasons) held that the difference between bishops and presbyters was due to administrative need rather than sacramental consecration. Moreover, there are many medieval examples of authorisation given to presbyters, especially abbots and missionaries, to confer orders including the priesthood. The Council of Florence's definition that the bishop is the ordinary minister of ordination seems to imply the possibility of other ministers of the sacrament.
It is true that any uncertainties in the Roman Catholic position were removed at Trent. The triple hierarchy of bishops, presbyters and deacons is now said to be of "divine ordination" (and therefore not just an administrative convenience); the power of bishops to ordain is not shared by presbyters. Nevertheless, the Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic Churches would not see themselves bound by the Tridentine and subsequent Roman Catholic decisions. They could base their claim to presbyteral orders on medieval precedent; they can even invoke ancient Alexandrian custom in justification of their episcopate.
The second argument, that apostolic succession survives in the whole Church even without the focus and sign of a continuous ordained ministry, must be judged in the context of the growing understanding of the Church, and of the function of bishops within it, in terms of communion. This perception of episcopal continuity within an ecclesiology of communion is prevalent both inside and outside the Catholic Church, as well as in such ecumenical agreements as the Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission and the Munich Statement of the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue. Confirmation is to be found in the Vatican Response to the Final Report, which adds however the need for communion with the Pope. Few theologians would now wish to defend a narrow "pipe-line theory", which would base the bishop's authority on the historical succession of episcopal ordinations alone without reference to the succession maintained by the Churches themselves; few would attempt any theological justification for episcopi vagantes (clandestinely consecrated bishops without recognised sees).
When episcopal succession is seen in this way in the context of the apostolicity of the Churches, the question arises whether the latter can supply extraordinarily for any breach in the former. Some Catholic theologians, such as Hans Kfing and Karl Rahner, have ventured an affirmative answer. The Catholic members of the French ecumenical Groupe des Dombes, suggested (speculatively, as if "throwing . . . a bottle into the sea", according to one member) that if a Church without episcopal succession retained an "apostolic succession in faith", God would grant it "a ministry of the Word and sacraments, the value of which is attested by its fruits". In recognition of this fact it would be for the bishops of the Catholic Church to link this other Church to "the normal sign of episcopal succession", which in Catholic doctrine is necessary for the "perfect signification of the plenitude of the ministry".
It is therefore an oversimplification to attribute the Porvoo declaration to the influence of Protestant theology in the Anglican Churches. (In fact three of the explanatory essays in Together in Mission and Ministry are from the Anglo-Catholic side of the Church of England.) All the same, the declaration does exemplify a fundamental difference between Anglican and Roman Catholic understandings of the Church.
Among Catholics the "extraordinary route to episcopal office" remains a tentative suggestion; the tradition that certainty is required in matters concerning the sacraments is likely to prevent the Church from recognising orders without episcopal succession, even on the accepted principle of ecclesia supplet (the implicit action of the Church makes up defects in the administration of sacraments). The Porvoo signatories, on the other hand, are much more confident, wishing to commit their Churches to the interchange of ministries even before the sign of episcopal succession has been re-established. They consider themselves justified in taking such an unprecedented step, feeling "free" to acknowledge "authentic episcopal ministry" even if there is no unbroken line of bishops, on what can only be the balance of theological probabilities. A similar boldness was in evidence in the Church of England's decision to ordain women priests.
The declaration has thus important implications for Roman Catholic-Anglican relations. If Roman Catholics could accept the Porvoo principle, many of the objections to Anglican orders would be nullified. If on the other hand, as seems more probable, they are bound to reject it, a new and important disagreement on the doctrine of ministry will have emerged.