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.
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.