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The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter VI. Holy Orders

IN the famous passage in the First Epistle to the Corinthians where St. Paul likens the Christian Church to the Body of Christ, he presses the argument that just because those who believe in Christ do make up this mystical body, therefore they cannot all exercise the same functions. The very unity of the body is secured by the diversity of the functions and powers and "gifts" of its different members. There must be eyes, hands, feet, ears and all the other necessary parts. The feet must not desire to see, nor the eyes to walk. Yet all are, in their proper stations and offices, necessary nay indispensable in order that the body may function properly. And having developed this thought, St. Paul concludes with a series of rhetorical questions, "Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Have all gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?"--The answer to all these questions is obviously not "yes," but "no."

It is just as obvious in human society as in the human body, that diversion of functions, powers and responsibilities is necessary if society is to go on at all. The more civilized the society, the greater this differentiation of function. The postman, the baker, the butcher, the cook, the publisher, the plumber and the policeman are all essential to our modern life, but the functions of these different offices are seldom if ever exercised by the same person.

Again, in an army there must be one commanding officer, with subordinate officers under him, and again privates. It would scarcely lead to order or efficiency if all the members of the army were commanding generals. But the importance of the general does not mean that the private is of no account. Both are essential to the conduct of war and to the well-being of the organization. This universal principle of differentiation and subordination of function is manifested in the Christian Church by the various orders of sacred ministers, each with its special functions and duties, differentiated in turn from the order of the laity. The graded ministry of the Church with its Bishops, Priests and Deacons is but the development within the mystical Body of Christ, of a principle the validity of which is elsewhere universally admitted.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, in an excessive reaction from a too exclusive insistence upon the rights and privileges of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with the Pope at its head, there was a tendency to repudiate in theory this common-sense differentiation between the functions of different members of the Christian Church. The "priesthood of the laity" was so insisted upon as to make it appear that any special order of Priests, Bishops, or Deacons with special functions within the Christian body, was a violation of Christian liberty and spiritual freedom. In practice, however, Protestant bodies felt the necessity of setting up some sort of a ministry which should be responsible for such things as the conduct of public worship, preaching, and the regulation of Church discipline. And a new conception of the ministry, in which the powers and functions of the office came to be thought of as acknowledged by the congregation in virtue of the personal abilities and qualifications of the minister, rather than because of powers and gifts received from the great head of the Church, Jesus Christ, resulted frequently in producing in the new ministry an absolutism worse than that from which the Protestants were seeking to escape. It was but too true, both as to the derivation of the words and the actual working out of the system, that "New presbyter was but old priest writ large." It is far from the thought of true Catholicism to deny the real priesthood of the laity. Those who are ordained to the holy offices of Bishop, Priest, or Deacon are conceived of as exercising their functions only because of and through their connection with the whole body of the Church and its Head, Christ Jesus. Just as the Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is a special pledge and symbol of His universal presence in the Church, just as the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is a special pledge and symbol of the universal fact that all men are God's children, so the Holy Orders of the Christian Church are a special pledge and symbol of the universal priesthood of all believers. And just as we do not cease especially to value the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, though indeed He is everywhere; just as we do not cease especially to value the real adoption as a child of God effected through Holy Baptism, though all men are God's children; so we will not cease especially to value and cherish the ancient ministry of the Catholic Church, though in a sense all believers constitute a "royal priesthood" unto God. A word which is intended to be disagreeable and really is question-begging has been hurled at those of us who value the Catholic ministry. We are called "sacerdotalists." "If it be sacerdotalism," writes Canon T. A. Lacey, "to say that the priesthood of Christ, operating in the priesthood of the Church is the appointed means of salvation, we are sacerdotalists. If sacerdotalism means a denial of any other divine operation, sacerdotalists we are not." ["The Anglo-Catholic Faith, p. 137.] In the appointing and ordaining of the Twelve Apostles our Lord laid the foundation for what was to develop into the ministry of the Christian Church. Dr. Gavin of the General Theological Seminary, assures us that ordination of pupils of a Rabbi by laying on of hands was common in contemporary Judaism. He thus describes the ordination of "elders" (Zekenim) as employed by Judaism during the first Christian Century. "Three men laid hands upon the ordinand, and the official function thus given was two-fold: the authentic exposition of the Law, and the, judicial function of pronouncing judgment. What was done in ordination was the transmission of the spirit by the ordainer to the ordinand, in strict succession from Moses and mediated by the intervening generations. Had not R. Judah ben Baba been willing to forego his life rather than break the succession, the official discipline of Israel--i.e. the authoritative administration of the Law--would have been forfeited." [Unpublished article. Kindly put at my disposal by Dr. Gavin.]

These conclusions of Dr. Gavin's seem to me to be of the utmost importance in any discussion of the conception of the Christian ministry. It has been too readily assumed that the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, that is to say, the belief that the powers and functions of the Apostles, in turn derived from Christ Himself, are transmitted to succeeding generations by the Sacrament of Ordination through the laying on of the hands of a Bishop, the representative and successor of the Apostles, is a late importation into Christianity and without primitive warrant. But if Dr. Gavin be correct, this conception must go back to the very beginnings of Christianity, for it is in turn derived from Judaism. The idea of the transmission of spiritual powers and functions through the laying on of hands, declared to be a Catholic or even an Anglican invention, was undoubtedly familiar to our Lord and His earliest disciples.

We read in the Book of Acts that Paul and Barnabas during missionary journeys "ordained elders in every city" and it seems altogether probable, in view of current Jewish belief, that this ordination was what we should call truly sacramental in character, the laying on of hands being thought of as accompanied by the gift of the Spirit for the purpose of the office conferred, with power in turn to transmit this gift of the Spirit to others.

"It is evident unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church;--Bishops, Priests, and Deacons." So declares the Preface to the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer. As regards Holy Scripture, the evidence as to the three-fold ministry is somewhat confusing. The terms Apostle (apostolos), Bishop (episcopos) Elder, Presbyter or Priest (presbuteros) and Deacon (diakonos) all occur within the pages of the New Testament, but in particular the terms "Bishop" (episcopos) and "Presbyter" (presbuteros) seem sometimes to be not clearly differentiated.

A clear example of this lack of differentiation is found in the 20th chapter of Acts when at Miletus St. Paul calls to him from Ephesus the elders (presbuterous) of the Church. He addresses them, and in the course of his address speaks as follows:--"Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops (episcopous), to feed the Church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood." St. Paul summons to him the "elders" of the Church whom he later addresses as "bishops."

Again in the opening of the Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul writes "to all the saints that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." Here there is no mention of the "elders" or "priests," and there is apparently more than one bishop. It seems probable, therefore, that the words "bishop" and "elder" were in New Testament times synonymous, and the so-called monarchial episcopate in which a local bishop was in charge of a number of priests had not yet developed. The stages of this development are somewhat obscure, but as early as the first decade of the second century the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch bear clear witness to the existence of the three-fold ministry with the so-called "monarchial" bishop at its head, which was thereafter universal in the Christian Church until with the Protestant Reformation, the ancient conception of Holy Orders, and with it, the office of bishop was abolished in some quarters.

The references of St. Ignatius in his letters to the three-fold ministry and his insistence upon its necessity are striking and emphatic. One of the most famous occurs in his Epistle to the Smyrneans:--"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the Apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a valid (or proper) Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid." [Chapter viii.]

In view of much such evidence as this from the second Christian Century and later, and in view of the evidence that a belief extremely similar to the sacramental view of Holy Orders, and of transmission of the Spirit through a succession of laying on of hands existed in the Judaism of the time of our Lord, we may be more than thankful that the Anglican Church preserved the three-fold ministry unimpaired at the time of the Reformation. And, be it said in all charity and love, it is idle to suppose that the Anglican Church will ever abandon her insistence upon episcopal ordination as a necessary part of ordination to the ministry, in order to secure reunion with any Christian bodies which have rejected it.

It is the official teaching of our Church, whatever may be the views of individuals, that episcopacy is, as Ignatius declared it to be, necessary for the very existence of the Church. And whatever obscurity may still surround the origins of the three-fold ministry, the custom of the Church from the earliest times in insisting upon episcopal ordination as necessary to the validity of the Holy Orders conferred, having been brought about by Divine guidance as we believe, cannot be treated as of no importance. As the Prayer Book declares, "no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest or Deacon, in this Church, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions except he ... hath had Episcopal Consecration or Ordination."

It is with our conception of the "validity" of Holy Orders or of other Sacraments that the pious Protestant has difficulty. "It is not yet widely enough recognized," writes Canon Quick, ["The Christian Sacraments," p. 137.] "how distinctive of Catholic thought is its conception of validity. This notion of validity arises from the belief that we have sacramental reality not merely when something outward is the expression and instrument of some inward and spiritual good, but also, and in a special sense, when some particular outward thing has been specially appointed by Divine authority to be the expression and instrument of some inward and spiritual good, so that, when the appointed sign is performed, the spiritual good is embodied and conveyed through it. It is in the appointedness of its outward element that the official or ritual sacrament differs from what may perhaps be called a 'natural' sacrament, i. e. the sacramental reality which exists wherever the Divine Spirit uses either the material world or human action to be the expression and instrument of His goodness. Thus we have a 'natural' sacrament in every beauty of nature and of art and in every act of human love. But the external element in such sacraments is not in any special sense appointed or authorized or fixed. We do not admire a sunset, a landscape, because we think that Providence has decreed that this one particular combination of form and color should be beautiful; nor do we reverence the heroism of a man who plunges into a dangerous current to save another from drowning, because we believe that the same authority has attached a special value to the act of jumping into deep and rapidly moving water. These things are undoubtedly true Sacraments, since in them the divine goodness uses outward means of expression and action towards man; but, inasmuch as their outward element is not fixed by appointment, the question of validity does not arise in regard to them. In the same way no question of validity can be asked in regard to the supreme and single Sacrament of the life of Jesus. We may ask pertinently whether He is in fact and in power the Incarnate God, but to ask whether he is so validly would be to talk nonsense.

"But when we believe that our Lord, whether by His own lips in the flesh or through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Church, has appointed a certain use of water and bread and wine to be the means of His gracious action and self-expression toward man, then immediately the question of validity becomes real and relevant. 'Is the sacrament valid?' we ask: and that is equivalent of asking, 'Has the appointed outward sign been duly performed?' If so, the sacrament must, because of the divine authority appointing it, be a real sacrament. If not, either the sacrament has not been celebrated at all, or else it has been performed in a manner so gravely defective as to render its reality doubtful. 'Valid' therefore, is a term applied to a sacrament of which the divinely appointed sign has been duly performed, and to which therefore is necessarily attached the divinely promised gift."

For us, "valid" ordination is episcopal ordination. Likewise the validity--the assurance, that is, that we have the Divine gift because of conformity with the Divine appointment--in the case of all the other Sacraments, save alone Holy Baptism and possibly Matrimony, is dependent upon our assurance of the validity of the ordination of the minister who performs it. And that is why we insist so strongly upon episcopal ordination. We do not deny or doubt that God may and does give His gifts and graces through other ministries or even without the intervention of any minister to those who through no fault of their own and acting in good faith strive to draw near to Him. But that does not and cannot minimize for us the importance and necessity of the divinely-ordained three-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons as it exists among us and in other parts of the Catholic Church.

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