The consecration of the Church of England’s first woman bishop, Libby Lane, has stirred up a good deal of controversy, not least because it comes a week before the ordination and consecration of a male bishop, Philip North, chosen to minister to those who don’t believe that a woman can be a priest or a bishop. The controversy has deepened because no bishop who has ordained a woman is to lay on hands when Fr. North is ordained. Instead they will encircle him, pray for him, but not touch him, while three other bishops will represent the Archbishop of York and the Northern bishops in the laying on of hands, three “untainted” bishops (it should be noted that the Archbishop of York has rejected the claim that the arrangement is due to a “theology of taint,” though he suggested the alteration to the usual procedure).
I must here admit a bias. Some years ago, I too received the laying on of hands by three Anglican bishops, using the proper rite, the correct intention, with the laying on of hands, for an ecclesial group respectable enough to enter into conversations with the Episcopal Church. I now serve happily, however, in the Episcopal Church, the question of whether I became a bishop or not held in abeyance, perhaps until what I should wear for my funeral is decided. So when it comes to how I feel or how others feel about whether either of the bishops consecrated in the Church of England should be so recognized, I’ve been there.
I want to propose two reflections on the whole business of validity. Before I go there, I have to admit that I get a silly thought in my noggin, when considering the question of whether an ordination “takes” or not. I imagine the angel charged with validity gesturing to the Holy Spirit to indicate whether the Spirit should bestow grace or not in a given situation. Silly or not, there’s something to it.
Anglicans believe that all ministers are ministers of the Universal Church. They believe that whatever method chosen to select suitable candidates, God does the choosing, and God ordains through bishops. The problem is that, like William Temple, we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and regret it’s nowhere to be found. The traditional elements deemed to be necessary for a valid ordination get mixed up in church politics, history, inter-church conflict, and schism.
Now here it should be noted that no less venerable an institution than the Lambeth Conference 1920, in reference to nonconformist ministries, emphatically stated that God still uses such ministries as “effective means of grace” to serve God’s people (Resolution 9.VII), which of course was all very nice of them. Could we dare imagine that God refuses to be present among those whose ministers haven’t been ordained and set apart by bishops? Certainly, Christians have expressed themselves in such a way, whether they were Donatists, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, or even doughty Protestants abhorring the papal Antichrist and all his minions.
But I have reached a rather different conclusion.
Because no ordained minister in the Church here on earth at this moment represents the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and thus the unity of God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, but rather functions among separated congregations and jurisdictions, occupying (along with other similar functionaries) the same territory in space and time, in competition for the same population, objectively or subjectively selling the wares of their own traditions — all Holy Orders are tainted, defective, and irregular. All ministers are so tainted because they live into the taint of disunity, refusing to honor our Lord’s prayer that we may be one, as the Father is one.
But God does not deny his grace to his people. He raises up saints in every generation. He honors what occurs at the font and the communion rail, in marriage, at funerals, at the bedside, and in ordination. Yet until the Church realizes again its vocation to unity, bewails the taint of division, and stops placing stumbling blocks in the way of deep communion with each other, no church or group is in the position to cast stones. The question of validity is all about the nature of the Church. Holy Orders do not create the Church; the Church is built on those whom God calls, lay and ordained.
See a video on Libby Lane’s appointment here.