This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 26 states:
XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.
The historical origin of this point of doctrine stretches back to the early 400’s in North Africa. Saint Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo and he was dealing with a sect of professed Christians (called Donatists) who had separated themselves from the Catholic Church and instated their own ‘purer’ church on account of the Catholics’ apparent leniency toward sin and apostasy. The specific issue the Donatists brought up was that if a clergyman caved under the pressure of government persecution and denied Christ or worshipped the emperor to save his own life, that man lost his status as a minister, and would have to be re-ordained if he repented of his wickedness and returned to the Church. Universal (Catholic) practice did not re-ordain penitent ministers, the Donatists did. In the end, after much debate, Donatism was ruled a heresy; ordination (like Baptism and Confirmation) was not a repeatable rite, and true confession and penitence was enough to restore a wayward Christian, whether ordained or not.
This point of doctrine and practice became a standard help in times and places where false teaching ran rampant, and in the milieu of the Reformation the anti-Donatist stance came in handy. For now in the 16th century there was a collection of clergymen of multiple perspectives: some were traditionalists, preferring the ways of medieval Catholicism; others were reformers, preferring the ways of the Lutherans in Germany and the Calvinists in Geneva. Others, still, were corrupt with worldly interests, seeking only the social privileges of the clergy.
Thus it became good and proper to rehearse this point of doctrine here in Article 26 – the minister’s ordination status is not lost on account of his sinfulness. And therefore the ministry he carries out in Christ’s name, however imperfect, is still valid for the people in the pews to receive. Just as a puritanical purge of the whole congregation is forbidden in our Lord’s Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-32), so too is a puritanical purge of the clergy a bad idea. After all, everyone is a sinner, and if every sin is a violation of our relationship with Christ, then (one would reasonably surmise) it would be impossible for anyone to remain an ordained minister for even a day if it were possible to lose one’s ordination over sin.
Of course, however, clergy discipline ought to be provided for, taken seriously, and enforced. The doctrine of the gift of ordination being irrevocable (at least by one’s own sinfulness) is a doctrine of grace and mercy for the sinful clergyman, and assurance for the congregation in his charge. Like any other instance of God’s grace and mercy, this is not meant to be a license to sin (Romans 6:1-2).
And so Article 26 finishes with an affirmation of clergy discipline, going as far as deposition from office. It may be worth clarifying a point of practice here: deposed clergymen have the privileges of ordination removed from them, not the fact of ordination. As we can say “once baptized, always baptized”, so we can also say “once ordained, always ordained.” But, as with either case, the privileges of those gifts can be removed in extreme cases of abandonment of the faith: the clergy may be deposed, the baptized may be excommunicated. And again in both cases, restoration is always possible via confession and repentance. And when that should happen, there is great celebration and a liturgical rite of welcoming, but never is re-baptism or re-ordination necessary.