Apostolic Succession - Printable Version
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Apostolic Succession - John Charmley - 20-07-2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I wonder whether there would be interest here in joining in a discussion on the Apostolic Succession? I don't think we have discussed it directly, and yet it is one of the things I get asked about when talking about the BOC and the Coptic Church.
Apostolic Succession would seem to be for the Orthodox a critical part of how we can be sure whose Gospel it is we preach, and by whose authority we do so - that of the Apostles as the appointed representatives of Christ Himself.
The role of the Apostles was to pass on the right teachings of the Lord. As we can see even from the Pauline epistles (which most would agree are the earliest Christian writings), there was a need to assert the right teaching because some were already making their own interpretation of it. So we see in Galatians 1:6-12, St. Paul invoking a solemn curse on anyone who departs from the Gospel he is preaching. His preaching, as he makes clear in 1 Thess. 2:13 is 'the word of God'. This is not open to the interpretation of any Christian who just happens to think he knows better. In 2 Thess. 3:14 he tells that Church that rejection of his teaching will bring excommunication. In 1 Cor. 7:17 he makes no distinction between the authority of his teaching and the Lord: 'This is my rule in all the Churches.'
Acts shows us the Apostles building up a Church and exercising discipline within it (see Acts 5:1-11). Both the fellowship and the authorised teaching of the Church is their fellowship and teaching, which is the teaching of the Lord Himself. (Acts 2:42). The are the Lord's representatives for building up the Church (2 Cor. 10:8) and for judging it (2 Cor. 13:1,2). An apostle can, in the name of Christ, deliver an impenitent Church member over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:3-5).
There are those, most recently Bauckham in his The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, who would see St. John's Gospel as being different in style from that of the Synoptics because by the time he wrote, others were trying to claim things about the Lord he, as the surviving Apostle, knew were not so; hence his insistence upon his status as eye witness, and on the divinity of the Lord, which those we loosely call gnostics were denying.
The Apostles were the custodians, guardians and evangelists of the 'Faith once delivered'. But as they passed away, how was this one Church to maintain its authority and integrity in the face of those who were already teaching another gospel? The answer is that the early Church looked to the Apostles as their authority for the gospel they preached.
Clement calls them 'the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church', and in 1 Clement 42 tells us that the Apostles 'appointed their first fruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be overseers and deacons of the future believers.' Clement was writing possibly before John's Gospel was written, and shows quite clearly how the Apostles tried to maintain the Truth they had received. He tells the Corinthians to 'take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle.'
The importance of the Apostles is underlined if we look at Polycarp's one surviving letter, where he quotes from 1 Peter eight times, Ephesians three times, 1 Corinthians four times, 2 Corinthians twice, Galatians four times, 1 Timothy thrice, 2 Timothy twice, Romans twice, 1 John once, Philippians twice, and 2 Thessalonians twice. So when he writes: 'I am persuaded that you are well schooled in the sacred writings', we can see what he meant by his own writing.
There was one Church, one tradition, one gospel and one way of passing it on; through the authority of the Apostles in two ways: by their authoritative writings, and by the teachings of their 'first fruits' who had been 'tested' by them.
Of course, we can see that it has not preserved the external unity of the Church, but it seems to me that the Canon and Apostolic Succession are key ways in which we know whose Gospel it is we receive, and by whose authority those who teach us do so.
Abba Seraphim's own recent writings have been most instructive in showing the line of Apostolic Succession in the old Orthodox Church in the British Isles, and as we know, the Pope himself recognised the validity of the BOC's orders.
Speaking for myself, this all seems crucial. Having spent time in the USA where many a 'Pastor Bob' told me he was inspired directly by the Spirit, before proceeding to pronounce some notion unheard of in the early Church, it seems an important guard against inadvertently receiving 'another gospel'.
How do others see this?
- admin - 21-07-2008
I am glad to hear that you are feeling more mobile, and you have been in my prayers. Indeed you and Rachael, Joyce and Tom, continue to be.
I have been in France for quite a while now, settling into a family holiday, although those two words seem opposites in my household! So I hope others ill forgive me if I have been out of touch as I am only intermittently online and not collecting all of my email accounts.
This is an interesting topic, and one which Abba Seraphim and I were thinking about in terms of the extent to which the episcopate continues the Apostolic ministry.
The apostolic succession seems to be described in the work of several early writers, as being the guarantor of the Orthodoxy of the Church and seems to me to be understood as both a tactile succession of consecration and authorisation, as well as the doctrinal succession. Either one without the other is defective, the former without the latter is useless.
Quote:We are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ?the perfect? apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.
This is just an excerpt from Refutation of the Heretics, Book III, Chapter III, which well rewards a study.
It is noteworthy that in the example of Polycarp, which Irenaeus gives, there are the double aspects of 'being appointed' and 'always taught..the things which he had learned from the Apostles'.
Therefore the Apostolic Succession, as Irenaeus states, does not exist outside of the Catholic and Apostolic Church because either the one who claims to be in the Apostolic Succession is not 'appointed' by those who are themselves truly in the succession, or else those making such a claim do not hold to the Apostolic faith in its fulness.
A Methodist bishop, however devout and committed to their ministry, and I mean this in an entirely respectful sense, is not in the Apostolic Succession because no bishop in the Apostolic Succession has ordained them and they do not hold to the fulness of the Apostolic Faith.
I would have to say the same, respectfully, about many independent bishops, and those of the Anglican communion. Although what is not being denied is their ministry, rather that it does not take place within the Apostolic Succession.
Our own Abba Seraphim, even in the years I was blessed to know him before the union with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, was always entirely Orthodox in his faith.
- Fr Gregory - 23-07-2008
?Apostolic Succession?, while an important concept, is also a dangerous one! In the sense of some quasi-magical tactile lineage from the Apostles to some modern day priest or bishop it is, in Orthodox terms, essentially meaningless and, indeed, heretical.
Even in the West, what is often referred to as the Augustinian view ? overly simplified to be that a valid bishop can ordain valid priests and bishops inside or outside the church - has largely been meaningless. That Rome concedes that Fr X or Bishop Y may have ?valid orders? has few actual consequences.
The Eastern view, commonly referred to as the Cyprian, simply makes much more sense: ordination of priests and bishops can only occur within the Church. I might well claim to have been ordained by someone who was ordained who was ordained by someone who was ordained?and so on back to a ?valid? bishop. But what does this actually mean? Can I believe or do what I like and still be ?valid?? Orthodoxy understands the Apostolic Succession and the concept of validity within the context of the Church, not as something in the abstract or as some sort of legal technicality.
The Orthodox Church does not (with a few strange exceptions a long time ago in relation to Anglicans) ever consider whether someone is or is not ?valid? of whether some church possesses ?valid orders? in theory. The question is only: if a person converts to Orthodoxy, how should he be received? I can?t obtain a ?Certificate of Validity? from any of the ancient Patriarchates! Of course, I can?t obtain one from Rome either, but Rome has tended to express views on some Churches in terms of sacramental validity (as it did with regard to the Anglicans). If I was not Orthodox but claimed to have been ordained, and converted to Orthodoxy, the question would be: how should I be received?
The Apostolic Succession exists within the Church, not as some sort of universal free-floating ?qualification?. Orthodoxy does not deny that ?valid? ordinations might occur outside the Orthodox Church but these would be so exceptional and rare as to not establish general precedents.
My priesthood is certainly from the Lord and within the Catholic and Orthodox Church ? but it is also from my Bishop and within a specific Orthodox Church. I cannot, in Orthodox terms, be a freelance priest, answerable to and in communion with no Orthodox bishop.
As a general principle I regard any church which declares itself to have ?Valid Orders? or to have ?genuine? (or in one case ?indisputable?) Apostolic Succession with the gravest of suspicion. Likewise, churches that describe themselves as ?canonical? ? but that?s a different issue. The only question I can ever ask is a question asked in the early Church: who is your bishop? And then: with whom is your bishop in communion?
In recent years there has been some discontent with this restrictive model of Apostolic Succession. Why can?t anyone and everyone be ordained if they feel called to be? Why can?t priests be ordained as freelance independent operatives who, once ordained, express their ministries wherever and however they see fit? Why can?t priests minister without any restrictions of doctrine or practice? To which one might add, why can?t new forms of the Apostolic Succession emerge?
A movement, loosely called the Free Priest Movement, has emerged in the Roman Catholic Church in the USA. Organizations such as The Society of Priests for a Free Ministry (which became the Fellowship of Christian Ministries in 1973, and the Federation of Christian Ministries in 1981), CORPUS (The Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service), The International Society of the Apostles, Saints Peter and Thomas, and The North Atlantic Federation for a Renewed Catholic Priesthood have given practical application to the idea of priests living and working outside the institutional church. The movement might be seen essentially as promoting the restoration to some form of ministry of priests who have left the church (or been removed from their ministry) because they have married, as well as advocating for married priests or priests who want the right to marry, women priests and gay and [censored] priests.
There are also some organizations such as The Society for Independent Christian Ministry (SICM) founded to provide an association between independent priests (mainly those ordained by independent bishops ? commonly known as episcopi vagantes ? but also Roman Catholic priests who have married and Anglican priests who have left the Church of England).
There are organizations that have claimed a ?restored? Apostolic Succession, including the now defunct Catholic Apostolic Church (often mis-called the ?Irvingites?), the Holy Order of MANS (much of which eventually converted to an irregular form of Orthodoxy) and the Independent Church of Australia.
I spoke at symposium on the concept of the ?free priest? in Melbourne late last year and was interested to hear from men and women who claim some form of priesthood (albeit not one that would be accepted by Orthodoxy). They all emphasized the importance of a form of ?Apostolic Succession?, but either worked entirely outside any church or in churches whose orders would not be accepted by the Orthodox Church.
I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit can and does work in many and diverse people. I know that there are holy and learned protestant pastors, and evil and ignorant (although ?valid?!) Orthodox bishops. Apostolic Succession gives no guarantee, alas, of quality. It confers nothing, other than sacramental grace, that did not exist before. As an old friend of mine, an Eastern Rite Archimandrite, is fond of saying: when you ordain a one legged man you get a one-legged priest.
But the Apostolic Succession in the communion of the Orthodox Church provides, as it were, a protective discipline, not always effective with fallen human beings, against ?trafficking in holy things?. It provides a bond which links together those, clergy and laity, who are united in the communion of the Church, regardless of time and space.
- John Charmley - 24-07-2008
Dear Fr. Gregory,
Many thanks for your helpful and informative discussion of this topic; the last paragraph beautifully expressed a profound truth.
As we know, heretics such as Arius and Nestorius were both ordained in line of Apostolic Succession in the Church, and that was no guard against their mistaken views.
Apostolicity was one of the ways in which the early Fathers recognised what was and was not Holy Scripture; but as we can see from their writings, other ways were also found necessary. The test of orthodoxy; was what was in the writings against what the Church had received from the beginning? There was also a test of catholicity - had it been received everywhere, by everyone from the beginning?
None of these things prevented debates of some fierceness, nor yet ruptures in communion between those who would describe their Church as having Apostolic Succession; but such failings are to be expected of us, and perhaps emphasise our need for Him.
The Ignatian model which the BOC follows has done excellent service for as long as we have any record of how the visible Church.