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 priesthood, for form, the laying on of hands, for matter, the words “receive the Holy Ghost,” and for the object of the ordination, a baptized male. The state of the question has to do with the object of ordination, that is, who can receive the sacrament validly? Anything which impairs the validity of a sacrament is called a “impediment.”
Let’s use baptism as an example. For someone to be properly baptized they need to be a person who has not yet been baptized. If, for example, we had someone who had a baptism with a valid minister, intention, form and matter, baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity with water by a baptized person, yet the person “baptized” had already received a valid baptism we would say that there was an “impediment.” The person wasn't baptized twice, but received a washing of water the second time to no effect. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the matter, intention, form, or matter, but due to a defect of object the Holy Spirit did not work through these means to regenerate since such an act had already taken place.
Let’s go back to the original question of the ordination of women. Let’s say theoretically that such a rite happens with a valid minister, form, matter, and intention, the only possible impediment is the gender of the person being ordained. The question we must ask ourselves is “does God work through such a rite to give the gift of ordination to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments?” To know such a question we must know the will of the Holy Spirit, does He promise to be present in such an ordination?
We see here that the question of the liceity and the validity of ordination are intertwined. When it comes to those essential parts of the rite we cannot confidently say that the Holy Spirit is present when there is an improper object, any more than we could say that He is present when there is an improper form, matter, intention, or minister. The Holy Spirit speaking through the Canonical scriptures, the Sensus Fidelium, the councils of the church, the catholic consent of the Fathers, and the liturgies of the church speak with one accord on this issue (I will write on this more in an upcoming 8 part series which presents scholastically the case against women’s ordination’s liceity). Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, it is something which He does not permit. If He says that He “does not permit” it speaking through St. Paul, how could we confidently state that He will go against His revealed will and be present in such a perversion of Holy Orders? Does God contradict himself and effect what He does not allow? “God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar.”
An objection may immediately be raised “are you denying that valid, but illicit orders exist then?” I am not. What I am saying is that when it comes to those fundamental and essential components of a sacrament(al) there can be no valida sed illicita orders. The object of the sacrament is one of those essential components of a sacrament, therefore where illiceity is present, so also invalidity is present.
Against Those who Believe Holy Orders are Conferred
The argument for a true conferral of Holy Orders are in two groups. First, those who argue for it on the grounds of the liceity of Women’s Ordination (I will not deal with these set of objections in this article, for I have an upcoming 8 part series against Women’s ordination). Second, those who lay aside the question of liceity and argue based on the grounds of the efficacy of Holy Orders.
First, it is argued that the position I present tends towards Donatism. The argument runs thus, A. The Church catholic affirms against Donatism that the worthiness of the minister does not effect the sacramental act, B. I am teaching that the worthiness of the minister DOES effect the sacramental act (namely their gender), ERGO, c. I am teaching Donatism which is a heresy.
On the contrary, I am doing no such thing. For, Donatism is strictly concerned with the minister of a sacramental act, namely his uprightness. This is not to say that there are no impediments. For, if we are to extend the Donatist heresy to exclude any impediments of the sacrament we would be in big trouble. Eucharists done with grape juice would be acceptable for instance, because “well, the other parts of the sacrament are the same.” We could endlessly speculate the horrors of a situation which no impediments are possible.
To the contrary, the Donatist heresy has to do with ministers who fall into sin. This situation of a valid object of Holy Orders has nothing to do with such a question. In fact, our Articles teach that an invalid object of a sacrament can invalidate it's effect, as it states in Article XXIX,
“The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.”
Second, it is argued that, a. the power of orders is impressed on the soul, b. as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches “sex is not in the soul,” ERGO c. Gender is not an impediment to the reception of Holy Orders. To put it in another way, since we, as good complementarians, say that men and women are “ontologically equal, economically different” how could we say that women are incapable of receiving such a gift?
To the contrary, we do not say that women are incapable of receiving orders in an absolute sense (we could conceive of a world where women receive orders without God having to change the ontology of women or the nature of the sacrament). There is no defect of the soul which would “block” the grace of Holy Orders. What we are saying is that women would not receive the gift of ordination because of the will of God. God does not will to work through such a sacrament because there is an impediment.
If this logic was followed through then there would be no “impediments,” sacraments would be mechanical. Orders could be conferred on a newborn while they are sleeping, and they would be a valid, but illicit Bishop of the church catholic and they would not even know it! For, there is no difference in their soul as long as they are impressed with the seal of baptism. We would rightly see such a situation as foolish because implicitly we understand the concept of an impediment. It does not have to do necessarily with the object itself (God could theoretically if he wanted only confer orders on women), but it has to do with the will of God in relation to his actions towards such an object.
Further, capability and actuality are completely different questions. For example, I have argued that there is nothing inherently metaphysically impossible about Roman Catholic views of Transubstantiation, yet I argue against it's actuality. Just because something can happen does not mean that it does happen.
Third, it is argued based on the universal priesthood of all believers. A. A priest is a mere ministerial representative of the universal priesthood of all believers (as is taught by Luther in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church), B. Women participate in the universal priesthood of believers, ERGO C. Women, if chosen by the church, can validly represent the universal priesthood via their membership in the universal priesthood.
To answer this question we do not need to get into the debate over whether a priest is a mere representative of the universal priesthood of all believers or is something else. For, we all agree that there is a difference between the two orders. We all agree that what makes the difference between the two is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, that is, Holy Orders.
There would be no breach of the fact of a. The universal priesthood of all believers including women, and b. The representative nature of the priesthood, if we were to argue that women cannot be validly ordained. All we are saying is that those who are raised and empowered to represent this priesthood by an act of God in Holy Orders are only males. The Holy Spirit only gives the gift to men. Is ordination an act of God or an act of men? If it is an act of men, then any of those who are chosen to represent them validly represent them, but if ordination is a Divine act then there is no problem in saying that God would not effect such an act in the face of impediments.
In conclusion, as I have argued, women cannot validly receive Holy Orders. For, the Holy Spirit works inwardly in the sacrament on the basis of the express will of God. The implications of this argument either way are monumental. Those “priestesses” who fain to celebrate the Holy Eucharist really and truly administer mere bread and wine. Those “Bishopesses” who fain to confer Holy Orders on Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are truly conferring nothing. This is a serious issue. Those communions who practice such a thing have cut themselves off from the life giving sacrament which is the “source and summit of our faith” in these situations. Those communion who practice such a thing through the corrupting of their Apostolic succession with invalid “Bishopesses” and with invalidly consecrated male bishops (whether it be due to their consecration from female “bishops” or from their former ordination from a female “bishop”) are in grave danger of losing their orders. The Episcopacy must be preserved, the Eucharist must be preserved, we must not dance around this issue.