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Hands on: it’s a bumpy ride

26 September 2014

Colin Podmore looks at the history of ideas about ordination

Rites of Ordination: Their history and theology
Paul F. Bradshaw
SPCK £19.99
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ORDINATIONS are important not only for what they effect, but also for what they represent. They remind the local or provincial Church of what she is: a eucharistic community of the baptised gathered around their bishop or college of bishops, a hierarchically ordered divine society. Paul Bradshaw's excellent survey is, therefore, not only important for students of liturgy: it also illuminates the doctrine of ministry and that of the Church.

The first four chapters lay out the scriptural and Early Church background. As with doctrine, ministerial structures grew gradually from New Testament roots, but by the end of the fourth century a familiar picture is recognisable. Bradshaw interrogates the limited early liturgical sources convincingly. His world-class liturgical scholarship is lightly worn, and his ac- count is clear and mostly highly readable.

Because of the Eastern Churches' more static understanding of tradition, their eight families of rites have changed little, and can be surveyed in one chapter. Western change and diversity fills the second half of the book.

The medieval West came to view priesthood exclusively through a eucharistic prism, and saw ordination not as providing a community with ministry, but as conferring powers on an individual. This altered the understanding and practice of ordination. For priests, the handing over of chalice and paten was seen as the essential act, conferring power to consecrate. The episcopate was now regarded by most theologians (though not by canonists) not as a separate order, but as a degree within the priesthood, to which men were "consecrated" rather than "ordained".

Only in the mid-20th century did Rome definitively correct these two aberrations. By contrast, the Preface to the 1550 Anglican Ordinal (which, unlike most Protestant ordinals, reformed abuses without overturning the fourth-century consensus) termed bishop an "order"; from 1662 bishops were "ordained and consecrated".

The Roman rites still embody an earlier departure from primitive practice, detaching the imposition of hands from the ordination prayer. And the bishop's address when ordaining priests and deacons still describes the congregation as their "relatives and friends" rather than as representatives of the local Church participating in ordering its ministry. (The common Anglican practice that a small, eclectic group of the ordinand's priestly friends and relatives supplant the bishop's college of presbyters in laying on hands at priestly ordinations reflects a similar misunderstanding.)

The fascinating medieval-theology chapter includes one over-simplification and one questionable opinion. Most later medieval bishops were indeed formally appointed by the Pope, but form sometimes masked reality: weak popes were obliged to appoint the nominees of powerful kings. And did the distinction between order and jurisdiction really "create more problems than it sought to solve"? It enables bishops to retire from office without relinquishing the character and sacramental powers of their order - and Catholic Anglicans to relate to female office-holders without compromising on validity and sacramental assurance.

The liturgical and ecumenical movements gave modern Western rites greater commonality and catholicity. Most are influenced by South India (1958), which reunited imposition of hands with the prayer. In a creative innovation, only the central petition with the imposition is repeated when there is more than one ordinand.

Disappointingly, only one sentence in this book, originally published in the United States, refers to the Common Worship Ordinal. SPCK are to be congratulated on re-publishing it for an English readership at such a reasonable price, but could they have persuaded the author to add a chapter showing how the rites he helped to shape as a member of the Liturgical Commission reflect the tradition he describes so expertly?

Dr Colin Podmore is the Director of Forward in Faith. He was Secretary of the Liturgical Commission when the  Common Worship Ordinal was produced.

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