Reading DW #4: Where Are We on Ministry?

This question is not only central to the construction of the Declaration on the Way (Church — Ministry — Eucharist), but is central to the ecumenical question. We recognize God’s work in the churches of the other, we can say that God’s grace is active in the liturgical actions of the other. But ministry, how we conceive of it, who is properly called, and how we know, is a question that not only divides confessions from each other, but has been divisive within them as well.

In DW, Lutherans and Catholics agree that ordained ministry is essential to the church (#13), and that “the common priesthood of all the baptized and the special, ordained ministry enhance one another” (#14).  This ordained ministry is instituted by Christ, (#15) and subordinate to him (#16). Its primary task is the preaching of the Gospel (#17), but also must assemble the community through word and sacraments (#18).

The churches say together that ordained ministers bear authority for the sake of the community, which places them both within and over-against these communities (#19-20). Ordination is unrepeatable, and is given by prayer and laying on of hands by another ordained person (#22-23). The call to ordained ministry is divine, but must be recognized by the church (#21).

They can also agree that ordained ministry is exercised within one office, but at a variety of levels, some of which bear oversight (episcope) over others. This ministry serves the worldwide koinonia of the church (#24-26)

Despite this agreement, DW notes that there are many differences regarding ordained ministry some of which “appear to be particularly intractable” (III.B.) Where these differences lie will probably not be a surprise to most readers. DW notes six areas of difference in particular:

  1. The church’s apostolicity and its continuity among ministers,
  2. how the priesthood of the baptized relates to the ordained priesthood,
  3. whether ordination is sacramental,
  4. who may be ordained (especially women),
  5. the distinction between bishops and pastors/priests
  6. the necessity for a universal ministry and the role of the Bishop of Rome

Each of these points to the work of previous dialogues and outlines both the nature of the agreement that has been reached, the areas of difference, and considerations for the dialogue moving forward.

These differences are of different levels of severity. So, differences on the relationship between the baptismal and ministerial priesthoods are “not church-dividing” (III.B.2) Similarly, on the sacramentality of ordination, the document states, “it would seem possible to assert officially that [this] teaching. . . is not church-dividing.” (III.B.3).

On the other hand, the question of who may be ordained constitutes “a significant difference in theology and practice between the two traditions, and it has not been determined how church-dividing these issues might be or how the questions for further discussion might best be articulated” (III.B.4).

The conversation about apostolicity, the distinction between bishops and pastors/priests, and the necessity of a universal ministry each falls somewhere between these points. They are not yet able to be named “not church-dividing,” but there is much more commonality than there is on the question of who may be ordained. The differences between the traditions are understood and may not prove to be incommensurate. DW proposes that on these issues a kind of partial recognition may be possible already now, while we continue together on the way.

Of course, much hangs on ministry, especially from a Catholic viewpoint. Without a full agreement on ordained ministry and a full recognition of ministers, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the Catholic church to recognize the eucharist celebrated in other traditions as Valid (even if it may “give access to that communion in which is salvation” UR 3, Tanner Translation), or constitute churches in the fullest sense.

But, there is a lot to celebrate here. Declaration on the Way makes the differences clearer, helps to clarify where these differences are or are not divisive, and proposes some paths for conversation and action going forward.

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