What is ordination? What is the sacramental character of ordination?
Thoughts to provoke better thoughts.
We all receive Sacraments and some of us are the ministers of Sacraments. For a long time the western Church has said that a Sacrament conveys "character" [literally, "an engraved or stamped mark"] upon the human soul.
In this short essay I want to assert that Sacramental Character should be understood primarily to consist in a divine relation rather than in a divine quality. In doing so I do not deny that grace (in one or several of its many dimensions) may be imparted to the soul through the relation.
Over the centuries we have in the West thought of the effects of Baptism, or receiving Holy Communion, or being ordained as imprinting, or placing, or attaching "something" - a quality - on/to the soul, and thereby creating a private possession or special privilege of the individual person (which imposes a duty towards God and other people in much the same way as being wealthy or well-placed does).
However, this approach, that at best is to be seen the acquiring of an "adornment of the soul" and at worst seems to be a "materialistic and magical" acquisition, has always made Protestants, reformed Catholics (Anglicans) and many post Vatican II Catholics uneasy.
In contrast, if we think of the effects of sacramental action as being relational - placing the recipient in a relation to, or a deeper relation to, the Lord Jesus, the Holy Trinity or the Church as the Body of Christ - then we can proceed to think of the effects of Sacraments communally and in terms of fellowship (koinonia). And we can be more directly related to Scriptural themes and language.
Thus in Baptism we can say that there is created, by the action of the Holy Spirit a relation to the Lord Jesus and through Him to the Father. In the Eucharist, where the recipient is repentant and believing, there is the deepening of this relation with the Holy Trinity from the human side - we in Him and He in us (as Anglican liturgy has it) - and thus with fellow members of the Body of Christ. Of course this relation brings all kinds of benefits but these could not be without the relation!
As ordination is a constant matter of controversy (because of the debate over women's ordination and the ordination of persons involved in same-sex partnerships etc.) and as ordination is a sensitive issue when you have a large cluster of Anglican Continuing churches questioning the validity of some ordinations, let us reflect specifically upon the "character" conferred by ordination to the Episcopate and to the Presbyterate. And let us do so in terms of relation rather than quality.
So often the meaning of the ordination & consecration of a bishop has been seen to be that (a) he succeeds another bishop in a line of bishops and this line, & that of his consecrators, can be traced back to the apostles, and (b) there is a tactual communication of a new quality [of grace] to him.
In terms of relation, the meaning of ordination is rather different. First of all, as the essential background, the college of the apostles is seen as expanding into the college (community) of the episcopate (and this occurring of course in real historical circumstances which admit of differing accounts). Secondly, at his ordination and consecration a candidate enters into the college, the organic body, of bishops. He enters & he is received. Here the notion of succession (in terms of substitution) is replaced by that of incorporation.
This aspect of the Service of ordination & consecration was called the potestas ordinis. The pastoral episcope of the whole Church belongs to the total body of the bishops and thus, having been received into that body, the new bishop can be given what was called the potestas juridictionis, the pastoral office of a specific diocese. But theologically this comes after he is incorporated not before.
Professor Karl Rahner S J wrote: "An individual bishop is not the successor of an individual apostle. He is only in the line of succession from an apostle insofar as he belongs to the Church's episcopate, which in turn, as a body, succeeds the corporate apostolic college."
Analogous to (but not strictly identical with) the collegial nature of the episcopate of the Church is the presbyterate of a single diocese. The Bishop and the presbyters in one diocese form one organic collegium or body, and just as the bishop functions not as an isolated individual but as the local organ of the universal episcopate, so each presbyter, in his ministerial, pastoral, liturgical and teaching activities, functions not as an individual operator (and not even as a mere delegate of the bishop) but as the local organ of the diocesan presbyterate - where this presbyterate is seen as an organic body of all the presbyters with and under the bishop as their father in God. And the normal place of activity of the presbyter is the parish even as that of the bishop is the diocese.
Ordination to the presbyerate is in its immediate reference is the incorporation of the candidate into the diocesan presbyterate by the Bishop (normally acting with his presbyters). Yet, because the bishop is a member of the universal episcopate, ordination by him makes the presbyter to be a presbyter of the universal Church. So the ordained presbyter is a presbyter of the universal church but specifically a member of a diocesan presbyterate. He is not re-ordained if he is moved to another diocese to be joined to that diocesan presbyterate.
In terms of immediate practical application, this way of understanding ordination by relation rather than quality has implications for those who want "to regularize" their orders or to be sure that they are presbyters belonging to the universal presbyterate. It suggests that merely finding a bishop, who is said to be in apostolic succession, and having him lay hands upon you and giving you a certificate, will not suffice for this plan is not based on relation but on character as being material and/or semi-magical. Here you are looking for a quality to raise your status!
In terms of relation a person who is already reckoned to be a minister by some group and who wishes to be sure that he is a presbyter of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church must seek sacramental incorporation by a bishop, who is a member of the universal Episcopal college, into the specific presbyterate of his diocese. (Sacramental is used here to distinguish the nature of this act from all juridical, managerial, constitutional and administrative activity that many go on like getting a certificate or the majority vote of a committee or a letter saying this or that.)
In closing, I would note that there is a third type of organic body or collegium and this is the parish minister (presbyter) and his local flock. Together they form the local manifestation of the Catholic Church, the universal People of God. Yet if this becomes congregational in mind and practice then this relation to the Universal is in the long term negated or lost.
(For the inspiration to write the above I thank my former tutor, now gone to be with his Lord, Eric Mascall. The Revd Dr Peter Toon, Ascensiontide, 2002.)