Why sacramental assurance matters

28 July 2010

Simon Killwick explains why Catholics set such store by a priest’s ‘pedigree’

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory is mine!” Anglicans, especially Catholic An­glicans, find “blessed assurance” and a “foretaste of glory” in the sacraments of the Church. After the General Synod debate on women bishops, Stephen Barney wrote asking for an explanation of the doctrine of sacra­mental assurance (Letters, 16 July). Others have questioned whether sacra­mental assurance is an Anglican doctrine.

I would like to try to explain it, and to show that it is an Anglican doctrine. The doctrine of the Church of England is to be found particularly in “the Thirty-nine Articles of Reli­gion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal”, according to Canon A5; I will refer to these sources, among others.

Article XXV teaches that “Sacra­ments ordained by Christ . . . [are] effectual signs of grace”: they effect what they signify; they truly bring us the grace of God; they are the means by “which [God] doth work invisibly in us”. This gives the Church of Eng­land a Catholic doctrine of the sacra­ments.

The teaching of the Article is ex­panded in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, which states that the sacraments are “a means whereby we receive [grace]”, and “a pledge to assure us thereof”. We have therefore the assurance that we receive the grace of God in the sacraments, pro­vided that the right conditions are met.

Traditional Catholic teaching re­quires the use of bread and wine at the eucharist, and the presidency of a priest ordained by a bishop in the apostolic succession. Both the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship require the use of bread and wine, and the presidency of a priest ordained by a bishop. Article XXXVI refers to the Ordinal attached to the Book of Common Prayer, which re­quires that priests be ordained by bishops, as did the Act of Uniformity 1662.

The preface to the Ordinal makes it clear that the Church of England intended to continue the orders of bishops, priests, and deacons, as the Church had received them, going back to the time of the Apostles. In other words, the C of E explicitly intended to continue the ordained ministry of the Catholic Church.

The requirement of a priest, or­dained by a bishop in the apostolic succession, to preside at the eucharist is a requirement of Anglican for­mularies. One could cite various Anglican divines who took just such a Catholic and Anglican position — Jeremy Taylor, Lancelot Andrewes, John Cosin, and William Laud, to name but a few.

The problem for traditional Cath­olics in the Church of England is that we do not believe that in ordaining women, the C of E is continuing the orders of bishops and priests as the Church has received them. By “Church” here, we mean the un­divided Church of the past, together with the present-day Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and a number of other Anglican provinces.

The ordination of women to the priesthood therefore initiated a pro­cess of reception in the Church of England and the wider Church. Reception is not a new concept in the history of the Church: it refers to the reception of the decisions of Councils of the Church by the whole people of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Because the C of E claims that her orders are those of the whole or universal Church (Catholic, Ortho­dox, Anglican), the new development in the ordination of women must be subject to reception by the whole Church. Otherwise, our Church’s claim about her orders would be in jeopardy. Recognition of the need for reception underpinned theologically the provision that was made in 1992-93 for members of the Church of England not to receive the priestly ministry of women.

The introduction of women bishops would introduce a new phase into the process of reception, calling, theologically and practically, for provision for members of the C of E not to receive the episcopal ministry of women. According to Anglican ordinals, priests have to be ordained by bishops. Those who are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops cannot receive the ministry of those who have been ordained by women bishops, because ordination is an essentially episcopal ministry.

The problem then, particularly for lay traditionalists, would be how they can be sure that a priest presiding at the eucharist has been ordained by a male bishop, in a line of bishops and priests which is an explicit continua­tion of the orders of bishops and priests as the Church has received them. Without that assurance, they do not have the assurance of the grace of God in the sacrament.

This is not to denigrate the minis­try of women priests, or to say that the grace of God is not present when they preside at the eucharist. But it is to say that the same sacramental as­surance is not available when women preside at the eucharist, or ordain priests — because there is doubt that, in their ordination, the Church of England is continuing the Catholic orders of the universal Church.

Bishop Kenneth Kirk wrote in a paper for the Church Assembly in 1947 that “where the sacraments are concerned, the Church is always obliged to take the least doubtful course.” For this reason, we cannot receive the priestly or episcopal minis­try of women.

It is sometimes objected that Article XXVI says that the “un­worthiness of ministers” does not hinder the effect of the sacrament. If we read the Article in full, however, we see that the unworthiness referred to is not an issue about holy orders, but serious moral unworthiness: “wicked­ness”.

Indeed, the Article teaches the principle of sacramental assurance, namely, that the grace of God is present in the sacrament when it is rightly and duly administered, in accordance with the teaching and practice of the undivided Church. This requires the continuation of the orders of bishops and priests as the Church has received them, going back to the time of the Apostles.

Canon Simon Killwick is the Rector of Christ Church, Moss Side, Manchester, and chairman of the Catholic Group on the General Synod.

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