Apostolic succession

Episcopal consecration of Deodatus; Claude Bassot (1580-1630).

Apostolic succession is the method whereby the ministry of the Christian Church is held to be derived from the apostles by a continuous succession, which has usually been associated with a claim that the succession is through a series of bishops.[1] This series was seen originally as that of the bishops of a particular see founded by one or more of the apostles. According to historian Justo L. González, apostolic succession is generally understood today as meaning a series of bishops, regardless of see, each consecrated by other bishops, themselves consecrated similarly in a succession going back to the apostles.[2] According to the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, "apostolic succession" means more than a mere transmission of powers. It is succession in a Church which witnesses to the apostolic faith, in communion with the other Churches, witnesses of the same apostolic faith. The "see (cathedra) plays an important role in inserting the bishop into the heart of ecclesial apostolicity", but, once ordained, the bishop becomes in his Church the guarantor of apostolicity and becomes a successor of the apostles.[3][4]

Those who hold for the importance of apostolic succession via episcopal laying on of hands appeal to the New Testament, which, they say, implies a personal apostolic succession (from Paul to Timothy and Titus, for example). They appeal as well to other documents of the early Church, especially the Epistle of Clement.[5] In this context, Clement explicitly states that the apostles appointed bishops as successors and directed that these bishops should in turn appoint their own successors; given this, such leaders of the Church were not to be removed without cause and not in this way. Further, proponents of the necessity of the personal apostolic succession of bishops within the Church point to the universal practice of the undivided early Church (up to AD 431), before being divided into the Church of the East, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Christians of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Catholic, Anglican, Moravian, and Scandinavian Lutheran traditions maintain that "a bishop cannot have regular or valid orders unless he has been consecrated in this apostolic succession."[6] Each of these groups does not necessarily consider consecration of the other groups as valid.[7]

However, some Protestants deny the need for this type of continuity,[1][8] and the historical claims involved have been severely questioned by them; Eric G. Jay comments that the account given of the emergence of the episcopate in chapter III of the encyclical Lumen Gentium (1964) "is very sketchy, and many ambiguities in the early history of the Christian ministry are passed over".[9]

Various meanings

Michael Ramsey, an English Anglican bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury (1961–1974), described three meanings of "apostolic succession":

  1. One bishop succeeding another in the same see meant that there was a continuity of teaching: "while the Church as a whole is the vessel into which the truth is poured, the Bishops are an important organ in carrying out this task".
  2. The bishops were also successors of the apostles in that "the functions they performed of preaching, governing and ordaining were the same as the Apostles had performed".
  3. It is also used to signify that "grace is transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the imposition of hands".

He adds that this last has been controversial in that it has been claimed that this aspect of the doctrine is not found before the time of Augustine of Hippo, while others allege that it is implicit in the Church of the second and third centuries.[10]

In its 1982 statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches stated that "the primary manifestation of apostolic succession is to be found in the apostolic tradition of the Church as a whole.... Under the particular historical circumstances of the growing Church in the early centuries, the succession of bishops became one of the ways, together with the transmission of the Gospel and the life of the community, in which the apostolic tradition of the Church was expressed."[11] It spoke of episcopal succession as something that churches that do not have bishops can see "as a sign, though not a guarantee, of the continuity and unity of the Church" and that all churches can see "as a sign of the apostolicity of the life of the whole church".[12]

The Porvoo Common Statement (1996), agreed to by the Anglican churches of the British Isles and most of the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia and the Baltic, echoed the Munich (1982) and Finland (1988) statements of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church[4] by stating that "the continuity signified in the consecration of a bishop to episcopal ministry cannot be divorced from the continuity of life and witness of the diocese to which he is called."[13]

Some Anglicans, in addition to other Protestants, held that apostolic succession "may also be understood as a continuity in doctrinal teaching from the time of the apostles to the present."[14] For example, the British Methodist Conference locates the "true continuity" with the Church of past ages in "the continuity of Christian experience, the fellowship in the gift of the one Spirit; in the continuity in the allegiance to one Lord, the continued proclamation of the message; the continued acceptance of the mission;..."[15]

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council on apostolic succession[16] has been summed up as follows:

Bishops have succeeded the apostles, not only because they come after them, but also because they have inherited apostolic power. ... "To fulfil this apostolic mission, Christ ... promised the Holy Spirit to the apostles...". [These were] "enriched by Christ the Lord with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit ... This spiritual gift has been transmitted down to us by episcopal consecration".[17]
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