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Are Anglican Ministers Successors to the Apostles?

Back in December I published a post in response to one Rev. Chris Findley on Dodging the Important Questions on Priests and the Holy Communion.  Unsurprisingly there was no response.  Who knows, Rev. Findley might still be stuck in Murfreesboro’s traffic, which is experiencing serious spillover from Nashville.  In any case, in that post I touched on an unspoken assumption in Findley’s piece: that, if we say (as he does) that “the charge of conducting the sacraments is an apostolic charge for the care of the Church,” we’re saying that those to whom it is charged are successors to the Apostles.

Is that really so?  The Roman Catholics have denied this, although I think their basis for doing so is more the result of how the Church of England came into existence and less about their stated reasons of defective transmission.  The opinion of those on the other side of the Channel has been different.  John Jewel, for example, opines as follows:

“For whereas some use to make so great a vaunt, that the Pope is only Peter’s successor, as though thereby he carried the Holy Ghost in his bosom, and cannot err, this is but a matter of nothing, and a very trifling tale. God’s grace is promised to a good mind, and to one that feareth God, not unto sees and successions. “Riches,” saith Hierom, “may make a bishop to be of more might than the rest: but all the bishops,” whosoever they be, “are the successors of the Apostles.” If so be the place and consecrating only be sufficient, why then Manasses succeeded David, and Caiaphas succeeded Aaron. And it hath been often seen, that an idol hath stand in the temple of God. In old time Archidamus the Lacedaemonian boasted much of himself, how he came of the blood of Hercules.” Jewel, Apology for the Church of England, VI

I thought that this opinion (and the authority) were impeccable, but when I set this forth during controversy my disputant, from The State to the North, thought otherwise.  Is there a way out of this dilemma?

The best way to resolve this is to consider what it really means to succeed the Apostles, and that leads to consider what the main task of those successors really is.  The main task of the Apostles’ successors is to preserve and uphold the apostolic tradition, the paradosis, as they have received it.  In the early years of the Church that task was especially crucial because the canon of the New Testament had not congealed as we know it now: the only Scriptures they had to go on at the start was the Old Testament.  That congealing more sharply defines the apostolic tradition, and by extension simplifies its transmission.  If there’s one thing Reformed Anglicans would like to see, it’s a more Scriptural view in the church.  That’s in line with this “main thing.”

Opposed to this is the Roman Catholic concept that the Apostles’ successors’ main task is to act as Christ’s representatives on earth and dispense the sacraments, and by extension grace.  That puts “binding and loosing” at the front of the Church’s agenda when, in light of Our Lord’s emphasis on servant leadership, it should be well down the list.  If we separate the whole concept of apostolic succession from the “baggage” that’s been attached to it, we can see things in a new light.

And so we come to the serious question: what happens when (and after all these centuries “when” is appropriate) the apostles’ successors “sell the pass” on the apostolic tradition?  Churches which have that succession complain about the ones that don’t, but the reality is that had the apostles’ successors stuck to their original task more faithfully, we wouldn’t have many of these breakaway groups.  (Some are so far removed from the trunk that they can’t even be described as breakaway.)  That’s the core issue facing Catholic “trads” right at the moment, but it’s been going on for a long time.

Finally, there are many things which divide the Anglican/Episcopal world these days, but one of them that doesn’t get much press is basic ecclesiology.  What is the church all about?  What part of it are we in?  Coming to some kind of common understanding on this would go a long way to solving the many other problems out there, but don’t hold your breath for a solution any time soon.


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