I am occasionally asked why I became a Catholic (not often–many Catholics seem to think that conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism is the most natural and self-obvious decision in the world). The question usually arises when one doesn’t have the luxury of sitting down for a two-hour conversation, and so my first response is usually that of John Henry Newman’s: “It is not something that one can easily explain between the soup and the fish course.”
But I do have a short simple answer upon which I could expound at length given time. Three words: Authenticity, Authority and Continuity. Of course I rarely have time to expound as necessary, but, dear Reader, I am going to attempt just that, ever so briefly, here in this blog.
Although first attracted to catholicism (small “c”, as Lutherans would say) in the 1980’s, I only really began to seriously question Lutheranism in the 1990’s. Two factors influenced me here: the invasion of “Church Growth” methodologies (for those of you who don’t know what the issues are here see this statement from the LCA(PDF)) and the start of the Lutheran Church of Australia’s long struggle with the issue of the ordination of women. The first raised the question of authenticity–of the Church and of the Liturgy and of Ministry, and the second raised the question of authority. It was not until my journey began in earnest in Easter 2000 (see my “Year of Grace” blog) that I became aware of the importance of continuity for understanding both authority and authenticity.
To counteract the growing attack upon confessional Lutheranism, the question of authority (or more strictly “authorisation”) became accute in the LCA in the 1990’s. Not without some controversy, the office of “President” was slowly, by successive synods, redesigned to look more and more like the office of a bishop, although the adoption of title “bishop” never received enough support at Synods to get through. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1990’s, Lutheran Presidents in Australia were to all extents and purposes Lutheran bishops, complete with pectoral crosses, but minus mitres. The Presidents exercised an ever growing authority within the life of the Church. The “President of the Church” (national president) took over the role of chief ordinator, and ordinations began to be held in single ceremonies for the whole graduating class presided over by the President.
At the same time, the authority of the Office of Pastor was clearly deliniated. No one could act as a minister of Word and Sacrament without being “rightly called” as the Lutheran Confessions required. The practice of “commissioning” lay people to a ministry of word and sacrament to serve part-time in remote areas was abandoned; from now on even these were to be properly and fully ordained, despite the lack of seminary training. The pastor received his authority from Christ through the public rite of the Church at the hands of the President and other ordained pastors. No lay person was allowed to participate in the ordination ceremony (despite there being a precedent for such things in the history of Australian Lutheranism). Anyone who tried to assume the role of a pastor without ordination was jumped on with big heavy boots from a very great height.
You get the picture. All this emphasis on authority was in order to maintain the authenticity of ministry. Don’t get me wrong. Lutheran ministry was not “authoritarian”. But Lutheran pastors had a good and healthy sense when they woke up in the morning that they were indeed authorised by Christ for the ministry of word and sacrament. They were as certain about this as they were about their baptism. They were (and still are) certain about this–not because they received a “letter of call” from a congregation–but because they had been ritually authorised for their role through the laying on of hands by those authorised to do so. Whenever a Lutheran pastor absolves someone they do so expressly as a “called and ordained” servant of that Lord. That is their charter.
Continuity of authority provides authenticity of ministry. It is important to understand that anyone bucking this system–anyone presuming, for instance, to take matters into their own hands and to claim the right to either exercise this ministry without being called and ordained to it or who claimed the right to ordain or commission others to it–would be rejected as schismatic by the LCA community.
BUT, and there is a very big BUT, anyone at all sensitive to the history of the Church knew that this was exactly what Luther did when in 1535 he finally buckled to pressure and did what other reformers had already done: he ordained a man to the ministry of Word and Sacrament on his own authority. No one had ever given Luther the authority to do this. Only the fact that Luther was aware that he had not been given this authority by the Church could explain his long hesitation. Nevertheless, in the end he convinced himself that Christ, through God’s Word, did in fact authorise him to act in this way.
So there is a radical disjunction between the attitude of the modern Lutheran Church and the actions of their first and foremost teacher, Dr Martin Luther. Actually, probably not that great, since even Luther himself insisted on someone being duly called and authorised. He could not abide the Enthusiasts who claimed authority for themselves. But that is what makes his action even more surprising. He went against his own better judgement in the act of ordination. If only someone called and ordained to the role could preach and administer the sacraments, then surely only someone called and ordained to ordain could ordain. Luther wasn’t and deep down he must have known it. He must finally have decided that as a leading pastor (he was never accorded the role of bishop) among the evangelical churches, he must have the same authority as the bishops of the Catholic Church to ordain. That was a very questionable decision. However Luther may have justified it to himself, or however modern day Lutherans may justify Luther’s action, it was this act–the act of ordaining a presbyter in 1535–which marks the definitive break between the Church of Rome and the Evangelical Churches, rather than the 1517 nailing of the 95 theses.
Lutherans then and today may like to cite 1 Tim 4:14, or the opinions of St Jerome, or the isolated and obscure examples of presbyteral ordination throughout the history of the Church, but that fact of the matter is that since the second century (when the roles of bishop, presbyter and deacon within the one sacrament of orders reached clear definition), the Church as a whole had decided that presbyters were not authorised to ordain. There is good reason for this. The bishops were regarded as the real “pastors” of the flock and the successors to the apostles. The presbyterate and the diaconate were, in their individually distinct ways, a sharing in that ministry, but not in the fullness of it nor in the fullness of the authority that backed it up.
And so there are two laws at work here. The first is that one cannot give an authority that one has not a) received, and b) been authorised to pass on. This is followed by a second law–a law for which I must thank Pastor Fraser Pearce for bringing it to my attention–authority within the Church is transmitted incarnationally. The meaning of this is simple: Authorisation is not a “spiritualised” gift that arrives through the spiritual ether, like an arrow shot from the bow of Christ/Scripture to land on a distant individual without touching the ground. The authority of Christ is given and received and passed on through and by concrete human beings who give, receive and pass on the ministerial office and mandate.
That mandate and office does not come through some disembodied “Word of God”, ie. a passage of scripture that an individual might choose to apply to himself, but from and through the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ authorised his apostles to act in his name and in his stead (“he who hears you hears me” Luke 10:16, “All Authority is given to me, therefore you go…” Matt 28, “As the Father sent me so I send you” John 20, etc.). Having received this authority, the apostles acted in the name of Jesus by authorising others to exercising all (in the case of new presbyter-espiskopoi) or some (as in the case of the diakonoi) aspects of their own ministry. Those to whom they gave a full share of their authority also received the authority to pass this authority onto others, again in full or in part.
This “incarnate” transmission of the authority of God’s Word is treated by disdain by many today (“the magic touch”!) but then so is the idea that the physical elements of bread and wine could be capable of bearing the substance of Christ’s body and blood, or that a physical washing with water could effect the spiritual washing away of sins. The physical act of laying-on-of-hands is not “magic” but is a clear incarnational act of authorisation by the Word of God. This is why the Church has called it a “sacrament”.
Bringing both these threads together, one must say that the continuity of authentic and authorised ministry has been maintained in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, in a way in which it has not been retained by the ecclesial communities of the Reformation. Our local ordinary, Archbishop Denis Hart, was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop etc. etc. etc. all the way back to the bishop who was ordained by the apostle who was “ordained” by Christ. In short, Catholic and Orthodox ministry is continuous, therefore authorised, therefore authentic. The ministry of the Lutheran, not to mention all the other Reformation and Post-Reformation communities, is not.
Footnote: Lest Pastor Weedon et al be tempted to weigh in here with some idea that presbyters have an inherant or scriptural right “by virtue of their office” to ordain and thus pass on the authority to exercise the ministry of word and sacrament to others, they should be aware that by the time of the Reformation presbyters were not so authorised (regardless of whether they had or had not been at earlier times). In their rite of ordination, the fullness of the apostolic ministry and authority was not passed on to them. Those to whom it was were called bishops, rather than presbyters! Even if it could be argued that presbyters in the apostolic Church were also authorised to ordain, nevertheless, by the time of the Reformation this authority had long since ceased to be given to them. Luther and the other Reformers therefore acted with an authority which they did not have, could not give, and were not authorised to give.