The Three As of Apostolic Succession

What is apostolic succession? Why does it matter who laid hands on your pastor so long as he teaches the true faith? Fr. Jonathan shows why apostolic succession is necessary in the Church and explains why Rome is wrong to say that Anglicans don’t have it.

Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull calling Anglican orders “null and void” – Apostolicae Curae

The response from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York – Saepius Officio

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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17 Responses to The Three As of Apostolic Succession

  1. DJ says:

    Fr. Jonathan,

    Thank you for responding to my question. Another thoughtful post. The logic of AS seems plausible, biblical, and historical. Yet, I still have 2 nagging questions.
    1) I can clearly see how the laying on of hands to ordain new bishops has a clear precedent in scripture. That being said, I’m having a harder time seeing the scriptural basis for the office of the 3rd order of ministry, the priest. As I understand it, the role of the priest developed as Christianity spread throughout the world, and bishops ordained priests to administer the sacraments and pastor churches in their stead. Can you explain this development has the same kind of assurance and biblical support as that of the bishops? How can we be certain that the ordination of a priest is a similar ordination (sacramentally and charismatically) as a bishop if this order was developed after the Apostolic age?

    2) Seeing as we do now have Holy Scriptures to guide us, and it appears that many bishops in the TEC have seemed to stray from orthodox teaching (not to mention some of the recent bizarre comments from the current PB) and thus compromising the Authority and Authenticity part wouldn’t many of us be better off worshiping in a place that we know isn’t going to deny the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, fill in the blank…even if that fellowship is not under a leadership in apostolic succession.

    -David.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi David,

      Great questions. Let me try to answer them in turn-

      1) Scripture does speak of both bishops (episcopos) and priests (presbuteros), but the distinction between these orders isn’t yet totally apparent. It was not long into the life of the early Church, however, that the distinct order of priests became necessary as the Church expanded its mission. The fact that this development took place after the New Testament period, but likely before the end of the apostolic era, does not make it illegitimate. Looking at the development of the diaconate in Acts 6 is instructive for understanding the Church’s authority here. A need had arisen within the Church for a different kind of ministry, and the apostles responded by creating a new order which they connected into the apostolic ministry by the laying on of hands. The apostles had the authority to create and execute a particular ministry in the Church. The bishops, as successors of the apostles, continue to have this authority. In theory, they could create a new order of ministry tomorrow if it became necessary, though this is incredibly unlikely. The three orders of ministry are historic and stretch back to the time of the apostles, but the thing that is essential is the episcopate because that is where the authority lies. This is why the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral names the “historic episcopate” as a necessary mark of the Church rather than all three historic orders, even though having all three is strongly preferable.

      2) This is a much more difficult question. I can understand why someone would not want to be in a church where the Gospel is not being preached. Certainly, it is preferable to avoid false teaching when such avoidance is possible. That said, I think it is generally unhelpful to pit one good against another. It is very rare that the only choices available are complete apostasy with a kind of mangled apostolic succession or orthodoxy without the succession. The Anglican reformers and divines often made exceptions for the reformed churches on the continent that lacked bishops even while defending the need for bishops, but they did so largely based on the false premise that the churches on the continent were awaiting the restoration of the episcopate (which, in time, the Church of England would provide). In reality, those churches rejected episcopacy as just another papist innovation, which left a hole in the center of their teaching and practice.

      I don’t know that this answers your question, really, except to say that succession should not be seen simply as a secondary issue. Asking whether it is better to go to a church that has succession but has abandoned true teaching versus a church that has true teaching but rejects succession is a bit like asking whether it is better to drink dirty water from a clean glass or clean water from an imaginary glass. It’s not a choice worth making.

      • Whit says:

        “This is why the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral names the “historic episcopate” as a necessary mark of the Church rather than all three historic orders, even though having all three is strongly preferable.”

        This is of course why Anglicans accept as authentic the ministry of Lutheran churches which have retained or regained the Apostolic Succession, despite their lack of a diaconate as a seperate order of ministry.

  2. Ralph Davis says:

    It would seem that the authenticity, authority and ability to teach, preach, baptize or give the eucharist is sealed and witnessed to, by the presence of the Holy Spirit. To say the presence of the Holy Spirit is doubtful in all non-Anglican Protestants–especially classical, biblically faithful ones…really seems very unreasonable. The proof of the Spirit’s presence is love for God and man, shown in obedience to holy scriptures. Given especially the current chaos in the Anglican world–where false bishops and priest abound–and given all the rest of the false teachings and actions seen also in Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy…it’s very hard to argue–from the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence– that apostolic sucession makes any difference at all….

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      The issue is not whether the Holy Spirit is present. The Holy Spirit is present wherever the Word is preached and heard. The Holy Spirit is present in all baptized people. The issue is whether the Holy Spirit has empowered and authorized the ministry of all bodies of Christians or only those who have maintained continuity with the orders of the ancient and undivided Church. The charge of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ to His apostles, is an objective reality that can be traced, not a subjective analysis of the current age. It is this objective reality that we must learn to cling to because our feelings about these things, in any age, are easily manipulated. If those bodies that have rejected episcopacy are somehow the inheritors of the same charge, given by Christ through the Holy Spirit to His apostles and passed on by those apostles to the bishops, I should like to know how they came to receive it.

      • DJ says:

        Fr Jonathan –
        Regarding my question above, I’ll admit that I proposed a kind of false double bind – by not by much. My family and I have recently moved and I’m delighted to take the opportunity to explore a few Anglican churches; however, our diocese has recently made the news for some less than ideal reasons, and my understanding is this shift in practice and faith is more the norm than the exception. Furthermore, most of the parishes that have broken away and joined the Anglican realignment have since folded. All that’s circumstantial, just wanted to give a little background as to where I’m coming from, for what it’s worth.
        Regarding your response to Ralph, how is it that all Trinitarian baptisms can be recognized as valid (even by the RCC), but not the Eucharist? For me, this is where the rubber meets the road.

        Ralph – I can sympathize with your concerns. On one hand, it seems unreasonable, but on the other, recognition of a bishop as necessary to the true church is a tradition that extends back to the beginning. We’d be hard

      • DJ says:

        Fr Jonathan –
        Regarding my question above, I’ll admit that I proposed a kind of false double bind – by not by much. My family and I have recently moved and I’m delighted to take the opportunity to explore a few Anglican churches; however, our diocese has recently made the news for some less than ideal reasons, and my understanding is this shift in practice and faith is more the norm than the exception. Furthermore, most of the parishes that have broken away and joined the Anglican realignment have since folded. All that’s circumstantial, just wanted to give a little background as to where I’m coming from, for what it’s worth.
        Regarding your response to Ralph, how is it that all Trinitarian baptisms can be recognized as valid (even by the RCC), but not the Eucharist? For me, this is where the rubber meets the road. How is this dilineation made?

        Ralph – I can sympathize with your concerns. On one hand, it seems unreasonable, but on the other, recognition of a bishop as necessary to the true church is a tradition that extends back to the beginning. We’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise from churh history or the early fathers, regardless of whether or not their opinoin on the matter should be binding or not. It seems to me that broken succession is a break from the norm, only going back to the continental reformation(s) and therefore demanding examination of its viability at the very least.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Hi DJ,

        The difficulty you speak about in finding a church is understandable. I hope that I didn’t sound like I was glibly dismissing that concern. It is sometimes quite difficult, depending on where you are in the world, to find a good, solid Anglican church where the Gospel is preached. And there are circumstances in which I might take my family somewhere else if I couldn’t find an appropriate parish. That said, I would never want to make it seem as if the concern for the succession is secondary and something we can simply disagree about as Christians without too many ramifications. In the absence of the succession, there are serious questions and concerns about whether and how the Church of Christ is present and active in the world.

        In terms of why the acceptance of Baptism but not the Eucharist, these two Great Sacraments are similarly ordained by Christ but they are not the same otherwise. Already in Acts we see examples of baptism by those other than apostles. It is not the norm but it certainly happens. Baptism brings us into relationship with Christ, but the Eucharist serves not only to bind us to Christ but also to bring us into ongoing communion with His Church. There is a different standard, therefore, not because one is better than the other but because they are not doing the same thing. Moreover, Anglicanism does not accept the Confirmations done in churches that lack a true episcopate. Confirmation is a bit of a confused rite in our day and age, but part of its historic purpose was to connect those baptized with the Church in a deeper, fuller way through the laying on of hands. While we would not argue that those who lack Confirmation are missing something absolutely necessary, there is something of a loss there.

        That perhaps may raise more questions than it answers, but there we are.

  3. Stephen says:

    Here is a question that may require a follow up depending on your response.
    As a Roman Catholic, I understand our Mass to be a Eucharistic sacrifice. Not a ‘new’ sacrifice, but the bringing of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross to this point in time. God the Father and therefore Christ the Son is not bound by time or space as we are, so time is meaningless to that Sacrifice.
    Does the Anglican Church view the Anglican Eucharist in the same manner?
    Thanks!
    Stephen.

  4. Fr. Jonathan says:

    Hi Stephen,

    I actually addressed that question about a year ago. You can find that post here:

    http://conciliaranglican.com/2012/06/14/on-the-eucharist-the-mass-is-a-sacrifice-its-just-not-a-mass/

    There’s plenty of response from Anglican and Roman Catholic alike in the comments. Actually, if you’re interested in how Anglicanism has traditionally approached the Eucharist, that whole series might be worth your time. I have let it go for time’s sake but I really do intend to get back to it and finish it eventually.

  5. Stephen says:

    Thanks, Fr. J.
    I started reading the article you referred me to and hit a wall within the first few paragraphs.
    The article says it is a ‘commemorative sacrifice’.
    That is not the same as a ‘true sacrifice’ as Roman Catholics see it.
    Of course, I don’t wish to delineate from the topic here, but how Anglicans and Roman Catholics view the Eucharist is essential to whether or not real changes were indeed made by the English Church around the time of Elizabeth and Edward.
    ‘IF’ genuine changes were made and how the Eucharist was both viewed and offered, then a break indeed took place. Therefore, Leo was correct in making that declaration, IMO.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Stephen,

      I’m not sure why you see Eucharistic sacrifice as being linked to the nature of ordination other than in the most general way. Certainly, a break took place. But the primary location of that break was in relation to the papacy and to justification. If you really want to puzzle the thing out, I recommend reading both Leo’s Apostolica Curae and the response by the archbishops called Saepius Officio. Also worth looking at are subsequent documents, such as those produced by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). While Leo and the archbishops are engaged in competitive polemics, ARCIC is aiming to find unity while trying not to wallpaper over differences.

  6. Stephen says:

    There is nothing more I’d like to see than an eventual return to Unity, Father J.
    I have attended both Anglican and Episcopal services with friends, and while I don’t receive Communion there, I do indeed pray for our eventual reunion while they go forward to receive.
    I’m not simply trying to be argumentative, just trying to engage in a conversation. Nothing you or I discuss here will have much affect on a problem that has now existed for 400 years, but it could make a difference to you or I.
    Pope Leo did not make the break. He simply spoke to that which had already happened.
    Secondly, either a change did occur in the Ordination process of Anglicans or it didn’t, AND that change (if one occurred) caused a break in Apostolic succession, not Leo.
    Further, it seems to me that it all comes down to the Eucharist and It’s validity.
    That is why I am focusing there at present.
    Is the Anglican view of the Eucharist that Christ is Truly, Fully and Physically Present in the Elements or not?
    Or, is the Anglican view of the Eucharist left up to each Communicant to decide for his or herself?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Stephen,

      I share your prayers for unity. And I appreciate your desire to engage positively.

      “Pope Leo did not make the break.” I’m not sure what you mean by this. If you mean that he did not create the division between the Church of England and Rome, that is certainly true. If you mean that he did not invent the idea among some Roman Catholics that Anglican orders are “invalid,” that is also true. He did, however, cement into place centuries old distortions that have made it much harder in subsequent times for reunion to occur.

      All sorts of changes have occurred in all the ordinals of the Christian Church, including those used by Roman Catholics. Again, as Saepius Officio shows, if Pope Leo’s logic is followed out, the Roman Catholic priesthood must also be considered “invalid.” What Leo did was to apply an ahistorical standard, out of a general desire to snub Anglicans, thereby accidentally snubbing his own church in the process.

      As to the Eucharist, I’m still not sure I see why this would be determinative for Anglican orders, at least not according to Rome’s standards. After all, Rome subscribes to the notion that a priest is always a priest and a bishop is always a bishop, even if they jettison the faith. “Valid, but irregular,” I believe the saying goes? Saying that Anglicans have valid orders does not necessarily lead to saying that Anglicanism is a valid expression of the Christian faith. Anglicans have always considered Rome to have valid orders for just that reason.

      But to answer your question, while there are Anglicans today who seem to be willing to take just about any position on the Eucharist (and Roman Catholics as well, though perhaps in smaller numbers), the classical teaching on the Eucharist found in the prayer book, the Catechism, and the 39 Articles is clear and binding. Jesus is fully, really, truly present in the Eucharist. We truly receive His Body and Blood there. When Jesus says, “This is my Body,” that is exactly what He means. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of room for understanding just how this takes place because Scripture does not lay out the mechanics in an absolute fashion. It is an innovation of the middle ages that causes Rome to cling to the doctrine of transubstantiation. The change on that matter lies not with Anglicanism but with Rome.

  7. Stephen says:

    Well, I hardly think that the ‘innovation’ of Transubstantiation began in the Middle Ages, Father J.
    And I believe the writings of the Church Fathers would confirm that opinion.

    Am I to understand that Cranmer (in your evaluation), made no significant changes to the Church of England’s view of The Eucharist, the Ordination and actions of the Priest or the value to those who participate in the Mass and receive It?
    Thanks!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Stephen,

      The Elizabethan prayer book, the Catechism, and the Articles of Religion offer a teaching about the Eucharist that is consistent with the witness of Scripture and the Fathers of the early Church. There is no substantive difference in the Eucharist before and after the Reformation in England. Where there are differences in how the Eucharist is understood, those differences are driven by a return to Scripture and historic teaching, apart from medieval innovation.

  8. Stephen says:

    My understanding of events that took place during ‘medieval’ times were some ‘protested’ causing a response from the Catholic Church.
    In that response, hoping to make clear the Church’s view of The Eucharist, the term Transubstantiation came about.
    BUT, the Doctrine of Christ Being fully, corporally and completely Present under the elements did not change then. It remained as it had been taught and reinforced all along.
    To suggest that an ‘innovation’ took place with Trent isn’t correct, in my view.
    A response to Protestants? Yes.
    An ‘innovation’? No.
    Actually, I think the eventual lead up to the terms given at Trent probably started with the 4th Lateran Council in the 13th Century and earlier.
    Pope Nicolas in the 11th Century and Pope Gregory after him made declarations of the Real Presence that is in no conflict that I can see to what was declared at Trent.
    Regardless, the fracture that took place didn’t stop with just terminology and the Anglican/Episcopal Church we see today is fractured Itself, and those fractures creating even more.

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