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Women’s Ordination and Apostolic Succession

Updated: May 29, 2021

Note: This article presupposes that the practice of women's ordination is unlawful. For such a defense see: North American Anglican's new work No Other Foundation (which is a steal at less than 5 dollars). Further, I will soon be writing a lengthy series which scholastically presents the case against women's ordination and refutes the arguments of the opposition.


The question of the validity of apostolic succession within those bodies who ordain women has been placed within my mind due to a number of factors these last few weeks. First, from the practice of my own province, many dioceses in which women are ordained. The question of the validity of our bishops and priests has been raised by those within the Continuing movement, causing me to reflect and respond. Second, from a questioner(s) who raised a question to River (New Kingdom Blog) and I over the validity of women who are ordained within the communion he is a part of. Although this is NOT a response piece to River (who differed from me here), I figured that I too would take a shot at answering this tricky question.

Views within Anglicanism

There are three conclusions which are drawn about the status of Apostolic succession within those churches who ordain women to the priesthood. First, the Continuing Anglican church who split from the Episcopal church over this issue in 1977. It is their belief that such a novel practice within a communion causes a loss of valid orders within that communion as a whole (all orders are lost, even of male clergy validly ordained), thus when the Episcopal church planned to start such a practice the continuing churches had to “preserve” apostolic orders by leaving (see: The Preservation of the American Episcopate).

Second, the general view of those against Women’s Ordination. This view teaches that the orders of those males who are ordained by valid male Bishops are valid, even within such a communion that practices female ordination. There are only two situations where orders are not conferred, first, when women attempt to be ordained or consecrated and second, when “ordained” or “consecrated” women try to confer orders which they do not have. A third horrendous situation can be imagined within those churches who elevate women to the episcopacy, that is, those males who were invalidly ordained to the priesthood by a woman and thus cannot receive episcopal orders (for one must be a priest or deacon to receive episcopal orders according to the ancient practice of the church). It is easy to see how those churches will tend towards a loss of orders, yet in this view it is incorrect to say that orders are really “lost,” moreso they are not conferred because of impediments.

Third, there are some who see no impediment to orders in this situation, this is not necessarily those who are in support of women’s ordination (which is a completely different issue), but can be even those who are against the practice.

Against the Continuing View

The Continuing view of the status of Holy Orders within the communions who ordain women must be rejected. For, this tends towards the heresy of Donatism. Donatism affirms that the theological beliefs of those in Holy Orders sustain one’s Orders. This is explicitly denied by the Articles of our Church,

“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.” (Article XXVI)

The Western tradition of sacramentology has viewed the mark which is placed on the ordained/consecrated as indelible, that is, that it cannot be effaced by novel or wicked practices. The giving and sustenance of Orders is based on nothing within the ordained, but is on the promise of God. Otherwise, we could have no hope of the validity of orders or the validity of sacraments within our church. The orthodox and catholic view of our church can be summed up thus “once a bishop/priest/deacon, always a bishop/priest/deacon.”

The Non-Conferel of Holy Orders to Women

St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica answers the question, “Whether the female sex is an impediment to receiving Orders?” in Supplement, Question 39, Article 1. The Common Doctor answers this question in the affirmative, quoting 1 Timothy 2:12. Further, he explains the difference between the “validity” and “liceity” of orders, the former being disagreed upon (whether or not women can theoretically receive orders) and the second being universally agreed upon (whether or not it is lawful for a woman to receive orders). These two are separate issues, as recognized by the Angelic Doctor and must be kept so. He even refers to those of his day who taught the theoretical possibility of a woman receiving orders. It must be said that it is possible to disagree with Women’s Ordination and agree that there is a conferral of orders.

St. Thomas, writing in his time, kept this as a theoretical possibility, because as the church has always taught and as was the practice of his time, there were no women priests at all. It is a mere academic question in the mind of St. Thomas. We now need a more robust answer than St. Thomas gave in this short response, for what was theoretical then has become an actual practice today.

To have a “valid” sacrament(al) there needs to be five things: minister, intention, form, matter, and object. For Ordination the minister is a validly consecrated Bishop, for intention, the intention to ordain someone to the pries