Blog Archives

Will the Real Apostolic Succession Please Stand Up? Recognition of Lineages

We’ve discussed Apostolic Succession in general, and we’ve seen how it came to exit even outside established churches, while still remaining valid.  As with most things in life, however, it’s more complicated than it seems at first.  That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

For the churches that claim Apostolic Succession, there are two interrelated but distinct issues regarding valid clerical lineage, the internal and external.  The internal issue is whether the men (and for some churches, women) whom the church in question chooses to serve as bishops (and secondarily, priests and deacons) are in fact validly ordained in that church’s lineage.  In the vast majority of cases, this is a non-issue.  All churches claiming Apostolic succession have some form or other of training and “quality control”* system for would-be clerics.  There are lengthy periods of training (usually in a seminary), advanced degree requirements, various types of screening and vetting, and so on.  Thus, an existing bishop doesn’t ordain just anyone as bishop, priest, or deacon.  Furthermore, a minimum of three bishops is required to ordain another bishop (usually, many more than three are involved) as an extra level of caution in making sure the lineage is valid.  That is, even if one or two of the bishops are somehow not in a legitimate line of succession, there are enough others involved that there is almost complete certainty of Apostolic Succession being passed on to the new bishop.

The external issue with Apostolic Succession is which purported Apostolic lineages in other churches a given church recognizes.  This is where it gets interesting, and sometimes complex.

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Wandering Bishops

Rene Vilatte, wandering bishop par excellance

We discussed the validity and liceity of the Sacraments, particularly Holy Orders, last time, noting that a church may recognize lineages of Apostolic Succession of bishops as having valid Holy Orders despite that lineage being outside that particular church.  In short, the Church may recognize a man as a “real” bishop even if he was ordained irregularly.  One way this can occur is though schism, pure and simple.  That is, a bishop goes rogue and breaks away from the Church, then ordains as many men as he sees fit.  Since the bishop was validly ordained in the Church, these ordinations he performs, though illicit and carrying the penalty of automatic excommunication for both the bishop himself and those he ordains, are valid.  The men he ordains, in short, are real bishops, full stop.

We saw back here, though, that while some lineages indeed arose through schism (or in some cases, it would be better to say they were maintained despite schism), there are many small independent groups that were formed by individuals with their own ideas about how a sacramental church should be.  Often there was no formal schism, and the founders of these groups sought out ordination to gain legitimate Apostolic Succession.  How did they manage this?  Through the phenomenon, mentioned but not described previously in this series, of wandering bishops.

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More Terminology: Churches

In the previous post, I discussed and defined the relevant terminology in discussing Apostolic Succession for those churches that claim it.  In passing, I reeled off a list of the  major churches that do claim to maintain Apostolic Succession.  I am aware that many of them may be obscure, perhaps even unheard of, to the average American.  Thus, I want to take a very brief look at these churches.  Remember, the criterion is that they all claim valid Apostolic Succession.  Additionally, all of them maintain the Seven Sacraments in one way or another (though there are subtle differences which I won’t go into here).

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Interlude: Complicated Ecclesiastical Terminology

My last post was on the topic of Apostolic Succession.  Over the years I’ve written a lot about theology and such; but I haven’t really written that much about specific churches or church structure.  It occurred to me while writing the earlier post on Apostolic Succession that it’s more “inside baseball” than average.  That is, it assumes a knowledge of a lot of terminology–or at least, it will over the course of coming posts–that might be familiar to Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, or others, but not so much to the public at large.  Even many members of the aforementioned groups may have only a fuzzy idea of the meaning of some of them.  Therefore, I decided to take a short interlude with a post serving mainly to define terms that I have used or will use in writing on this topic.

The terms I’m going to discuss are broadly applicable to the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the churches of the Anglican Communion (the American branch of which is known as the Protestant Episcopal Church), the Old Catholic communion of churches, the Polish National Catholic Church, and some smaller splinter groups.  In some cases, the terms vary slightly in actual use depending on many factors, or from church to church, and there are any number of exceptions, subtleties, and special cases.  My main goal here is to familiarize my readers with terminology necessary for understanding this series of posts without getting too bogged down in minutia.  Thus, if there are any seeming errors or omissions in what I write here, it’s probably either an omission to save space, or a deliberate decision to omit excruciating details about special cases.  If I have made in true errors, though, I do welcome correction.

Finally, I’m not putting this “glossary”, as it were, into alphabetical or any specific order, aside perhaps from the more specific or lower-level to the more general or  higher-level concepts.  If I had a larger number of terms, I’d worry more about organization; but with the relatively small number I want to deal with here, it shouldn’t be an issue.

All right then!  On with the informal glossary!

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Apostolic Succession

I shared my post about the Gospel of Thomas to a Facebook group, and one of the members suggested I do a post about Apostolic Succession.  I’d never thought to do that, frankly; but it does tie in with some of the things I’ve written about here.  Moreover, Apostolic Succession is something of which many non-Catholics and non-Orthodox may have never heard.  Even  many Catholics and Orthodox may have only fuzzy ideas of the concept, despite its extreme importance to their respective churches.  Thus, since it’s a legitimate topic, I think I will indeed discuss it here.

In any church or religious organization–or any organization at all, for that matter–two of the most fundamental questions are “Who’s in charge” and “Why are they in charge?”  No human organization can lack some type of leadership.  Even among hunter-gatherer tribes that have little structure, there will almost always be one or two older men or women who are the informal leaders of any group endeavor.  They may not “call the shots”, but they get things done, leading by example and by the respect in which they’re held.  Heck, get a group of friends together for poker night or Superbowl Sunday or a road trip, and it’s easy to see that a few of them are actually organizing and getting things done with the others following their lead.  True anarchy is impossible–someone is always in charge, however informally.

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