Reflecting on Jeffrey Steel’s post here, I began to realize some of the deeper disagreements with Anglicans over women’s ordination. It comes down to the fact that Anglicans do not necessarily understand ordination to be a sacrament. Whether there are seven sacraments or two is one of the areas that Anglicans are happy to leave unresolved. If you are an Anglo Catholic you accept all seven. If you are Evangelical you only accept two (Baptism and Eucharist) and even then your understanding of  them is not what Catholics understand as a sacrament.

As a result the typical Anglican understanding of ordination has (as Jeffrey reminds us) more to do with the function of the priest. Anglicans discuss ordination in terms of ministry and ‘call.’ This is a Protestant understanding based in the individual’s subjective experience of a ‘call’ and a utilitarian understanding of their suitability for service. The ordination service is the formal recognition of that call and a kind of ‘blessing for service’. For most Anglicans there is also an awareness of the Apostolic ministry and being joined with a priesthood that is bigger and wider than their own individual call but this usually remains vague or undefined.

 Now, there is nothing wrong with these levels of understanding about ordination as far as they go, except (and this comes as no surprise for Anglicans do not universally believe that ordination is a sacrament) that there is no talk of the sacrament of ordination. This website which claims to outline Anglican beliefs speaks of other ‘sacramental rites’, and this is it’s definition of ordination: Ordination is the rite in which God gives authority and the grace of the Holy Spirit to those being made bishops, priests, and deacons, through prayer and the laying on of hands by bishops.

They speak here of a ‘sacramental rite’  and refer to ordination as a ‘rite’ because Article 25 of the 39 Articles of Religion allows for only 2 sacraments, and specifically repudiates the other five. Any formal statement of Anglican belief can still not contradict the Articles of Religion. Furthermore, this language of ‘sacramental rite’ is used as a fudge so that both the Anglo Catholics and Evangelicals can sign up. ACs will emphasize the ‘sacrament’ part. Evos will deny that it is a sacrament.

But Catholics do not speak merely of a ‘rite’ but of a sacrament, consequently we believe much more is going on in ordination than merely recognizing a person’s call for service and going through a ceremony that recognizes his qualifications and gives him the authority to call himself ‘Reverend’, wear clerical dress and start leading worship and ministering. In fact there is much more going on than also having the paperwork to show that the ordaining bishop is ‘valid’.

The Catholic Church teaches that ordination is a sacrament, and that the symbolic levels of understanding are activated and made real. The sacrament ‘effects what it signifies’, and what it signifies is that the man is being configured to Christ in a new and radical way. Through the sacrament of ordination there is an ontological difference in the man ordained. He does not simply represent Christ as a symbol at the altar. He is actually given a new character which is configured to Christ’s priesthood in a new way. Whether women can be so configured to Christ is what is of concern for Catholics–not whether  particular individuals have been called to service or whether they would be good at the job.

Some will argue that this ontological change, this new configuration to Christ is possible for a woman, but the teaching of the authority of the church has said this is not a possibility. This is not because the Catholic Church is misogynistic, but because it does not have the authority to change the matter of a sacrament–even for what seem good reasons.

It is not a baptism unless water is used. It is not a Eucharist unless wine and bread are used. Likewise it is not an ordination unless a man is used. One could argue that in a culture where bread and wine are unknown and the staples are, say, manioc root and coconut beer that it would make better sense to use manioc root and coconut beer for the Eucharist. This might be pastorally sound, but it would not be a Eucharist. Likewise, there may be very good societal reasons for ordaining women, but the Catholic Church can’t do it even if it feels good.

The underlying reason is something that I believe many Anglicans and Catholics have overlooked, that Catholics regard ordination as a sacrament and Anglicans do not.  At best they may hold such an idea as a pious opinion if one is catholic minded.

In the end, this is also the foundational problem in the continuing discussion of the validity of Anglican orders. The Catholic position is that Anglican orders are not valid despite the fact that they have cross fertilized their episcopal strain from the Old Catholic succession. The underlying reason that they continue to be invalid is because the Anglican Church does not intend to do what the Church does in ordination. The Catholic Church celebrates a sacrament when a man is ordained. How can the Anglican Church intend to do that when it still formally denies that ordination is a sacrament?

Therefore, when Dr Williams asks “is this really such an important matter?” Catholics have to come back and say, “I’m afraid so. Because it points out that we haven’t really agreed on what ordination means in the first place.”

Jeffrey Steel writes further on this issue here.