21 October 2001

Concelebration 2

Eucharistic concelebration is not the only type of concelebration in the immemorial tradition of the ancient and venerable Roman Rite (let us never forget its antiquity: Gregory Dix rightly used to emphasise how much older it is than the Orthodox rites which so many people wrongly assume to be older and unchanging). In the Rite of Presbyteral Ordination in the old Pontificals, 'all the sacerdotes who are present' lay on hands, of whom a representative minimum of three ought to be vested in chasubles if at all possible. The same rite was retained in the Church of England at the 'Reformation', where 'the Bishop with the priests present ' impose hands.

A recent complication has been the idea of a few Anglican bishops who, with the best of motives, have claimed that this rite is 'just a blessing'. It is not. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as Anglican Canon Law and ARCIC, make clear that this is a collegiate action; an act of shared ministry. The bishops concerned are trying to square the circle of not letting 'women priests' join directly in a sacramental action while simultaneously not upsetting them by excluding them. So the laying on of hands by the presbyters is to be shifted to later than the laying on of hands by the bishop: 'Look,' these bishops then cry, 'it's not the same imposition. After all, in the Roman Rite they don't have the old Anglican [and Patristic] rugger scrum of simultaneous imposition - the presbyters do it separately. It's only a blessing'. But this is nonsense. The Roman documents which teach that the action is corporate and collegiate are referring to sequential imposition by the presbyters after the bishop, and the Anglican sources treating the imposition of hands as an act of shared ministry by Bishop and Presbyterium do not distinguish between simultaneous and sequential imposition.

So what is happening here? The important fact about the Catholic tradition of Ministry is that, for us, the nodal minister is the Bishop. But, in the tradition of the Latin churches, the Bishop is not a solitary individual. He is the central figure of a corporate entity, the presbyterium. For example, in earlier centuries, the Bishop, while being the Minister of Absolution and of Ordination, was not allowed to administer either sacrament without the assent of his presbyterium. Gregory Dix, with that impish instinct for using scholarship to deflate prelatical pretensions, enjoyed pointing out that in those earlier centuries, while the Bishop was the sacramental minister, the presbyterium exercised what we would call jurisdiction: quite the opposite from what the structures of modern Church life imply .... and quite the opposite of the idea of episcopacy which twentieth century Anglicans have urged Protestants to 'take into their system'.

So what is going on when Bishop and presbyterium lay hands on those being ordained?

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