Apostolic Succession - Challenging the Claimants

Fr. Michael, Saint Petroc Magazine, Vol. II, No. 3, October 1999.

Our attitude to Apostolic Succession is very important to understanding the position of over three hundred million Orthodox Christians today, (and by the way, well over a billion Christians have clergy who claim Apostolic Succession). Someone once asked me: "who cares about Apostolic Succession?" - that's who cares.

Apostolic Succession in the Orthodox understanding (and early Church in the British Isles) is not just the later Western "pipeline" theory at all. It is the whole unbroken succession of doctrine and of office. The test was applied by the Early Church and we still apply the test today. Those who meet the test, and only those who fully meet it, are adjudged to be members of The Church - "canonical Orthodox". Those last four words are not idle words, they have a very specific meaning and those who try to usurp them are doing something very serious indeed. We cannot regard anyone who does not meet the test of genuine Apostolic Succession, as being in The Church and part of the Body of Christ. We may love them, and cooperate with them as far as possible, we may be very friendly with them and listen carefully to their wisdom, and we will certainly pray for them. However, we regard their churches as being somewhat other than The Church which Christ instituted here in earth, and which continues unchanged in its teaching today.

The Church of England (in which I was brought up and spent much of my adult life) and its derivative the Continuing Anglicans, the Swedish Lutheran Church (where I have some dear monastic friends), together with the Roman Church and several of its direct derivatives such as the Old Roman Catholic Union of Utrecht, the La Febvrists and the Brazilian Apostolic Catholic Church, all use the simple "hands-on-heads" (tactile) or "pipeline" theory of Succession, seemingly almost regardless of the doctrines held in the course of that "succession". There were however, very fundamental changes in doctrine associated with the Great Schism, the period of the Schoolmen, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Vatican Councils, which nullify any claim of a genuine doctrinal Succession.

The Church uses the term "The Faith Once Delivered" - which means that the canon of Christian teaching was delivered to us by Christ in the Gospels, the Councils, etc., (the totality of what is technically called "Tradition") and cannot be changed. Therefore, one can examine the teachings of some group which calls itself Christian, compare them with the authoritative teachings of The undivided Church of Christ, His Apostles and the great Councils and determine whether the group is teaching the doctrines of the Church in full (partial won't do). One can then examine the succession of their Orders and the doctrinal history of the group and determine if they are members of The Church as far as true continuity of their Orders is concerned.

We need to find both a continuity of tactile succession and a continuity of Orthodox doctrine by those imparting the tactile succession. If some bishop in the line has placed himself outside The Church by adopting heresy, how can he pass on the genuine Orders of The Church? That (in part) is why The Church insists on more than one Consecrator and that is why even where the number of Consecrators and the form of consecration are correct, if the whole group has adopted doctrines which place them outside the Church, then no matter how good the integrity of the tactile succession, it is not the Orders of the Church that are passed on.

It is not unChristian to challenge the authenticity of the claims of those who seek to be counted among canonical Orthodoxy - Saint Paul spent a lot of time doing just that. The Early Church was exceedingly jealous of its true canonicity and didn't let any diversion from Apostolic Succession to go past unchallenged. And very robust challenges they were.

We have become altogether too tolerant of diversion from the truth. Look again at Saint Paul and the saints and see if they were tolerant of any diversion from the true Church. From Simon Magus onwards, there have been those who sought a piece of the authentic ministry of The Church without authority, and right from that point, they have been challenged.