Much has been said about Priestly Ordinations as of late and how critically important the role of ordained deacons and priests is within communities, everywhere. Commentary and opinion vary, depending on which Church or Denomination is being referred to in any given discussion. It is only natural, considering Holy Orders ministries take on variable characteristics from one Church to another. Thus it is not surprising that Roman Catholics focus sharply on questions such as Celibacy and Male-only admissions to their Holy Orders, or Anglicans focus on matters such as LGBTQ access to Holy Orders, or the role of ordained women, for example.
Indeed, it can be said that contemporary debate causes areas of focus to overlap. Comparative analysis of Holy Orders across Churches is increasingly informing Public Debate, prompting Public Opinion – including non-believers – to raise their expectations of very high standards.
General conduct and sexual behaviour take the lead in Public Opinion and I believe the reader does not need explanatory commentary in this regard; we all know only too well the scandalous effect of ordained ministers’ misdemeanours, wrongdoing and abusive – not to mention criminal – conduct.
Public Opinion’s razor-sharp focus on these matters takes precedence or so it appears, over Faith, belief, liturgical proficiency, ritual precision and so forth. In other words, what seems to matter more over anything else is that Ordained ministers (and their churches and denominations) adhere to strict standards of propriety and sobriety, dignity and general conduct, regardless of which Church, colour or flavour they actually represent.
“Comparative analysis of Holy Orders across Churches is increasingly informing Public Debate, prompting Public Opinion – including non-believers – to raise expected standards”
However, the core in the Public Debate seems to orbit around mainstream, larger Churches and Denominations. Media and the Press refer essentially to expected standards in the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Orthodox churches, and then infrequently, the Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist churches, not much else. But the One Church of Christ is far larger and much more complex, because, as Pope St. John Paul II once noted back in 1995, “separated Churches and Communities (…) have by no means been deprived of significance and value in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”.
I should point out that within context cited above, “Catholic Church” means far more than the Roman Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church at large, again citing Pope John Paul II, “the One Church of Christ”, that is, the Latin Rite (Rome), the Church of England, many Catholic Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox, the Anglican Communion, and many many more, often autonomous Churches, independent from the Jurisdiction of Rome, but sharing the same Sacraments (or at least some), the same or similar values, the same Creed, etc.
As we can see, the largest mainstream Churches recognise – they do know this, actually! – that a great deal of shared unity between them and the hundreds of smaller churches relies on and stems from shared values and shared sacraments, for example; and among them the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And although not all churches agree on the centrality of the events leading to and culminating in the Cenacle on Pentecost Day (see fig. above), and its consequences for what we call Apostolic Succession, the fact is that Apostolic Succession – the Holy Spirit received at Pentecost, and later transmitted from the Apostles to the first Deacons, Deaconesses, Elders (Priests) and Bishops at point of ordination or consecration – is central to many, if not almost all independent Churches able to claim it (valid Apostolic Succession).
Apostolic Succession is an interesting point of contention occasionally, because many Roman Catholics erroneously believe they have it in exclusive, but Pope John Paul II wisely demolished that myth in 1995, when He declared that “although these Churches are separated from us, they possess true sacraments, above all — by apostolic succession — the Priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in a very close relationship”. The Pope was right, of course!… Since the very early days in the History of Christianity, Jesus’ Apostles and Disciples split and went in all directions, and founded numerous early Churches, communities, where they appointed new leaders. These leaders continued their respective lines of succession, passing the Received Spirit to the next generation of leaders.
In June of 1993, in the course of a courtesy visit to the Holy See, both the Venerable Abuna Paulos, Patriarch of the Church of Ethiopia, and the Holy Father, both recognised the facts:
“We share the faith handed down from the Apostles, as also the same sacraments
and the same ministry, rooted in
the apostolic succession …”
This is an important point, because it replicates widely. The multiplicity of the many routes of Apostolic Succession is a reality, which has grown exponentially and organically over the last two thousand years, in a manner comparable to the exponential growth of genealogical family lines. These lines reached eventually all Churches which currently validly claim to maintain lines of Apostolic Succession.
Thus, autonomous and independent churches -so-called “autocephalous”– do possess valid Apostolic Succession, though many in the Latin Rite still argue today that being valid may be true, but it remains “illicit”… Those who so argue depart from a Roman Canon Law perspective, but this is frankly nonsensical, because autocephalous churches are regulated by their own Canon Law and not Roman Law.
So, now that I have woven some essential points – shared values, shared Sacraments, shared Creed, shared Apostolic Succession (a 2000-year Legacy inherited since the days of the Apostles), it makes sense to ask how all this relates to the issue at the centre of my present rumblings herein? Well… This piece’s Title will make a little more sense in a minute…
I started my piece by discussing just briefly the issues with Public Opinion pressure in the modern age and this contemporary world of ours… I should like to think my reasons are clear. And I have added the shared points of unity which make us a very big Sancta Madre Ecclesia!… The said One Church of Christ I have alluded to earlier. Now – these realities add considerable weight to all Churches, of all sizes, colours and flavours! Let me repeat!… There is considerable weight, and with it added responsibility. Let’s not fool ourselves in beginning to think that size matters and by inverse logic, the smaller any Church is, the less exposed it will be to stormy weather of rather ferocious proportions, affecting the Public Image of the One Church of Christ. For all intents and purposes, it matters not whether a Priest incardinated in a huge Church misbehaves, or that Priest is incardinated in a small autocephalous Church. The bottom line is this: The smack across the chops always lands on the loving face of our Lord Jesus Christ!… Public Opinion is a big dinosaur, with a very big mouth, very sharp teeth and a huge appetite! Feed it and it will always come back for more, and the more rotten the feed is, the better!
Smaller Churches of all sizes and Christian persuasions, sharing a heavy responsibility in light of shared values, sacraments and Apostolic Succession, have a shared DUTY in making sure new Seminary candidates are vetted to the full extent allowed in Law (that is, the National Law of the Host Nation-State), their education and preparation is of sufficient quality, is attended to properly, tested timely; and that their training includes intimate familiarity with Legislation regulating Safeguarding, working and dealing with all categories of Vulnerable Persons, Sexual Conduct and what constitutes Sexual Abuse, what constitutes Sexual Misconduct, what to do, and most critically, what NOT TO DO! The right approach, which is to say, a strict adherence to best-practice rules, and this means to work collectively in each Church and stepping up interrelations with other Churches, to make sure a Church does not step over the rules of another. In Great Britain, a clean-slate Enhanced DBS Disclosure, freshly obtained for the purpose of Ordained Church Ministry must be a mandatory requirement. Corresponding Criminal Clearance Certification in the rest of the World offering full equivalence to United Kingdom standards must be obtained.
Clergy in charge of Seminaries in smaller Churches and Ecclesial communities and the Bishops presiding over them must surely be well aware that the current grotesque misconduct of some Clergy in certain Churches is not just the result of mistakes such as mandatory Celibacy or poor understanding of what reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit means. Prayer is required and confidence in the Holy Spirit is necessary, not to leave it in God’s Hand, but to inspire and inform Church Leadership, in order to act in the best interests of the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit is not our personal “valet”, but rather the light to show those in charge what is the best path. It is our DUTY to ensure the Holy Name of Christ is not soiled by wrongful leniency, simply because we hope everything will turn out alright on the night, as it were. That’s been tried elsewhere and we all know the train-crash outcome in several Churches.
Candidates and applicants to join Seminary also need to heed the best advice… Notwithstanding the necessary support, love, accompaniment and brotherly Charity all Ordinands must receive from Church Leadership and Seminary Staff, such as Deans, Rectors, Spiritual Directors, etc; Seminary is not weekend cookery class. Seminary is Boot-Camp!… And that’s often cookie stuff by comparison to the demands and pressures of everyday life with Ordained Ministry on top.
Above all, autocephalous, autonomous Churches are not a shortcut – and any Church worth its salt should not wish to appear so either – so Seminary is a Journey, an opportunity to get to know one another, backed up by due process in vetting, but a journey that entails both brotherly Love in Christ, alongside fairness in discipline. Ordained Ministry in the modern age requires a degree of stamina, a spine to keep oneself straight and on-course, because these are qualities necessary in the Priesthood as in life generally.
Ultimately, Churches and ordinands should aim at arriving to Ordination Day, both sides confident that those who are to receive Holy Orders are Men and Women fit-for-purpose! Self-reliant! Comfortable in their skin! Happy! Fulfilled! Secure! Safe! Trustworthy! Passionate! Compassionate! Loving! Big-hearted but self-aware! All-in-all, Men and Women who will make the communities they serve, feel happy and lucky to have them.