This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 23 states:
XXIII. Of Ministering in the Congregation
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.
And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.
In the milieu of the 16th century, when these Articles were written, many people were preaching in public and holding Bible Studies in private, teaching various contradictory doctrines and competing with one another for converts and power. This was threatening to destabilize the entire Church in England, and was causing a great deal of contention between various factions: traditionalists who favored Roman custom and doctrine, moderate reformers such as those loyal to the teachings of Luther or Bucer, more drastic reformers like Calvin, or even radicals such as the Anabaptists. As a matter of good public order both in parish life and in secular life statements like Article 23 had to be made: nobody can make himself a teacher on his own authority. I suppose this Article could have quoted the words of our Lord in John 5:30 – “I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
Throughout history, to this day, rules like this are found in virtually every denomination and tradition of Christianity. Only the radical fringes, such as the Brethren, the Quakers, and the modern House Church Movement reject the biblical and apostolic practice of having ordained pastor-teachers to preach and minister the sacraments in the Congregation. Thus, one might expect Article 23 to be a very “ecumenical” article of faith – one which Anglicans share with the rest of the Christian world.
However, where push comes to shove is the second half of this Article. Valid ministers are recognized by having been ordained “by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers.” Again, at first glance, this may seem like a point we have in common with all other Christian traditions. But where this gets specifically Anglican is when we address the question of who has public authority to ordain ministers. This question is answered in the Ordinal, the book that contains the liturgies for ordaining ministers, which is now normally printed as part of the Book of Common Prayer.
The answer is Bishops – they are the men who have sole authority to ordain Deacons and Presbyters (Priests) and Bishops. Anglicans who take this seriously thus conclude that the rites of ordination as practiced by all other Protestants (a very few Lutherans excepted) is insufficient for apostolic ministry. To this day, when ministers switch from another Protestant tradition into Anglicanism, they get ordained by an Anglican Bishop; and when ministers from the Roman or Eastern churches become Anglicans, they are not ordained, but their Roman or Orthodox ordination is received and affirmed as valid.
There is debate among Anglicans (usually along “high church” and “low church” lines) about whether having Bishops is essential for valid ministry or simply beneficial for valid ministry. But however one deals with that question, the fact remains that we have Bishops, and we insist on their role of passing the ministry on to others.
A related (and perhaps less palatable) question is how we are to view the sacraments of churches without Bishops. It is popular among Protestants today to practice “Open Communion” – sharing the Communion Table with all Baptized believers. This affirms a common underlying faith in the Gospel, which is a good thing, but this also tacitly affirms the validity of one another’s Sacrament of Holy Communion. If we were to take Article 23 strictly, and judge ordination without a Bishop to be invalid, then we must also conclude that the sacramental ministry carried out by such Protestant ministers also to be invalid, and therefore we could not allow ourselves to receive Communion from them! This is the opinion of many Anglicans to this day, if no longer a majority view in this time and place.
Incidentally, this is part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox criticism of Anglicans and all Protestant churches – that our sacraments are not valid because our ministry orders are not valid. Whether it’s a lack of fealty to Rome, or the practice of ordaining women, or the rejection of certain liturgical or doctrinal standards, they find fault with our Bishops and ordinations, and thus our sacramental ministry, and thus they forbid their people from receiving our sacraments.
It’s not a matter of being ornery and stuck-up, but of being faithful to what one believes, and is bound to believe. There are times and places for friendliness and leniency, but we all have to be thoughtful about where we draw the lines between what we truly share and where we truly differ.