Valid Orders

Orthodox America, Issue 88, Vol IX, No.8, March, 1989
Within the first five minutes of any casual social conversation with many non-Orthodox clergymen, the question is sure to crop up: “Do you think my orders are valid?” To avoid offense and controversy, since the matter is a touchy one among most of the sects claiming any kind of historic continuity, the only possible reply is: “If your church says they’re valid, then they’re valid for your church. If you are a loyal member of it, where else could you possibly want to use them?” It is almost impossible, while holding a coffee cup in a social gathering, to lay adequate doctrinal and historical ground work for such a discussion; though for Orthodox Christians there is a definite and uncompromising answer and position which must be held. The following thoughts may help one to formulate a charitable reply for the next occasion.

The Orthodox Church, continuing the principles which the Apostles and early Fathers taught and which the Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church defined in precise terms, holds that the Church of Christ is One and cannot be divided. All divisions and separations from it therefore are from that One Church, not within it. One who breaks away from the Faith or from the continuing organic structure of this Church ceases to be a member of it, no matter what position he may once have held wihin it; he leaves with nothing. A U.S. citizen who leaves the country and becomes a citizen of some other country can no longer claim to be still a U.S. citizen or to vote in American elections – this is true even if he once held some high office like a judge, senator or governor. Orthodoxy teaches that Orders and Sacraments belong to – that is, they are the Property of – the Church, not to the individual person, and can be bestowed, held and exercised solely within its organic structure.

By “The Church” Orthodoxy has always meant that single worldwide body of mutually believing, mutually recognising, sacramentally united Christians founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ and descending directly without break from the Apostles: who are openly and visibly “in communion with” one another and with their united hierarchy. All the early Church Fathers and Councils made it abundantly clear that this Unity of believers is absolutely essential, and that any one who leaves that Unity, for whatever reason is an apostate, a schismatic, and outsider; no longer participating in the sacramental Life of the Church or entitled to the privileges of its membership, unless he returns to the Unity and renounces his errors. This was the unity prayed for by Christ in the Gospel; it was and still is far more essential in determining whether one is or is not a Church member than any “lines of episcopal succession” or high-sounding titles.

Therefore any person who has ever broken from this Unity, beginning with the early Christological heretics and culminating with Rome in 1054, LEFT the actual, continuing Unity of the One Church founded by Christ, and became an apostate. Bishops who leave the Church cease being bishops, whatever they may continue calling themselves. They may (many do) invent new, unscriptural ecclesiologies which seek to justify their separation while continuing to claim that they somehow “keep their Orders” and “perform valid Sacraments,” which of course, like a lamp unplugged from the source of electricity, they cannot do. Thus the Orthodox Church maintains that when Cardinal Humbert walked out of Saint Sophia in 1054, having put the Pope’s bull of excommunication on the altar, he left as an ordinary layman; since he (and his superior in Rome, and all who remained in communion with him) ceased being in open, formal communion with the rest of the Christian Church which continued holding Apostolic doctrine and polity. All who joined themselves with that group of men who left voluntarily the Unity of the continuing Church have remained apostates and schismatics ever since, no matter how vast, wealthy, and vociferous they may be in claiming otherwise.

Whoever either voluntarily sets himself apart from the continuing Unity of the undivided Church founded by Christ, or who alters the teachings defined by that Church, ceases to be a member of it. Orthodoxy alone has remained unchanged throughout the centuries, both in her doctrine and in her organization; all other groups, however huge or widespread, and however they may choose to style themselves, are NOT Orthodox, NOT in membership in that One Church founded by Christ.

In consequence of this, Orthodoxy can recognize no “orders” or “sacraments” administered by religious groups or persons that are not factually and integrally part of Orthodoxy. Even if these had once been Orthodox clerics, even bishops in good standing, once they leave the Unity of the Orthodox Church they cease having any “orders” or “sacraments” to exercise; they forfeit their former grace of ordination altogether. (Once again, pull and electric light plug from the socket and it can no longer give light.) Here we must be careful to distinguish between those who willfully leave the Unity of the Orthodox Church, and those who are, for some external cause -- temporary or permanent – cut off from the mere geographical unity of a diocese. War or other such circumstances do not deprive men of membership in the Church. It is only when men separate themselves voluntarily and deliberately, or when they add or subtract beliefs from the Deposit of Faith which has been universally defined by the whole Church, that they cease being members of the Church.

Orthodoxy allows a person who left the Church to be received back, after proper penance and absolution from his heresy or schism – normally in his former rank if he had been a cleric. But this cannot apply to clergymen who were ordained or consecrated by once-Orthodox bishops during the time they were outside the Unity of the Church. For while they were outside, their sacramental acts, like their orders, were inoperative, cut off from the grace that can come only from membership in the Unity of the Orthodox Church which commissions, authorises and validates their actions. All such purported ordinations, consecrations and other sacramental acts performed outside the Unity of Orthodoxy are, in Orthodox eyes, worthless; so that clergy coming into Orthodoxy from some non-Orthodox religious body must do so as laymen. Exceptions to this rule are extremely rare, and each is judged upon its own individual circumstances.

Thus, the entire concept of Orders and Sacraments as held and taught by the Orthodox Church is completely different from that commonly held by most of the non-Orthodox, Western religious world. Most religious bodies claiming any kind of traditional-based ministry hold a view (usually called “Augustinian” after a rather vague remark in one of St. Augustine of Hippo’s writings) that Orders and Sacraments are a totally separate entity, and that, once obtained by any one, can be “used” and “transmitted” and a “succession” established, without regard to the ecclesiastical allegiance of the person, even if he travels from one church or jurisdiction to another, or even invents his own. Contrariwise, Orthodoxy holds that the whole Sacramental System including Orders is the sacred Property of the Church, and may be bestowed, held and transmitted solely within its Unity by its own accredited hierarchy acting in accordance with the united will of the Church. There are therefore, in Orthodox eyes, no such separate “commodities” as “Roman Catholic” or “Anglican” or “Lutheran” or “Old Catholic” Orders, whatever these religious bodies may hold. It is true that any organization, religious or secular, is free to make up its own regulations for its membership, and to use whatever terminology for its officers and ceremonial procedures, ancient or modern; it may call its officers “bishops” or “priests” and suchlike. But these are NOT the same as those held and administered by Orthodox clergy within the Unity of the Orthodox Church, but are completely different.

Undoubtedly God will have mercy and compassion on all His creation, including those devout and sincere souls who grew up in religious beliefs apart from Orthodoxy; He will surely take into account their fidelity to the principles they were taught and consider to be “church teaching” even though they are not what the One continuing Church of Christ has always held and taught. This is not the issue. The point IS that Christ founded only ONE Church, not many; and of all the competing religious bodies calling themselves “Christian” and “Catholic” and other such terms, only ONE is in actual fact the continuing Church which He founded. And this is the Orthodox Church

Abbot Augustine Whitfield
Chapel of the Holy Virgin,
Jacksonville, Florida