AMONG topics for conversation at the forthcoming meeting between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, and the Pope will be the long neglected but nevertheless ecumenically vital question of the validity of Anglican orders.
It must seem strange to many Anglicans that Catholics are so ready to engage with them in ecumenical endeavour at the same time as belonging to a Church which holds that Anglican ministry is "absolutely null and utterly void". It must also be slightly irritating for Anglicans to witness the growing tide of Church of England clergymen seeking to enter the Catholic ministry. In many such cases the Anglican minister is "re-ordained," as though his past ministry in the Church of England had been a pale and empty imitation of Catholic orders.
Our happy experiences of ecumenical prayer and action conducted jointly with Anglicans provide an insight into Anglican orders that has little to do with the sombre argument put forward by Leo X111 in the 1896 Bull Apostolicae Curae, which condemned them. We have come to learn that the justification for being at the head of a local church resides in the minister's capacity to identify and promote the action of the Holy Spirit in community, rather than in linear descent from the Apostles as the nineteenth century Bull would argue.
At grassroots level we do recognise Anglican orders. Catholics attend Anglican liturgies, address an Anglican minister as "Reverend" rather than "Mr", and generally share in the workings of the Holy Spirit manifested in the life of the Anglican church. If Anglican orders are null, why do they produce so much fruit? Why did the Pope bother to invite Dr Runcie to Rome at all? And why are we encouraged to pray for full unity with Anglicans?
Apostolicae Curae clearly was not the last word on Anglican orders, and it is evident that if we want relations with Anglicans to proceed beyond the present stalemate, we will need something a little more encouraging than this outmoded papal Bull to go on.