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.

A Prayer From the First Millenium

Almighty Father, Son and Sacred Spirit, Eternal,
Ever-blessed, gracious God,
to me, the least of all the sanctified, to me,
Allow that I may keep a door in Paradise;
That I may keep ere the smallest door,
The further door,
The darkest door,
The coldest door,
The least-used door,
The stiffest door,
Is so it be but in Thy house, O God
If so it be that I can see Thy Glory
Even afar and hear Thy voice, O God
and know that I am with Thee,
Even Thee, O God!

- an ancient Celtic poem-prayer, Saint Petroc Magazine, Vol. II, No. 3, October 1999

The Family of God

Father Michael, Saint Petroc Magazine, Vol. III No. 2, July 2000.

Recently I have had occasion to speak to many people who want to know how to build Orthodoxy. What must we do, how do we attract people, they ask.

My answer to them is usually the same: In the first place don't worry about it. Pray about it, but don't worry. Worry is a sign of a lack of faith in God. He will provide - it's just that His priorities and methods often differ markedly from our own expectations. Secondly I tell them that they must look carefully at what they already have.

Some of our parishes are large and successful, most are, shall we say ... more modest. No matter what we have, the question is: Is our Parish or Mission likely to attract people to Christ?

This of course has been the downfall of much of western Christendom: The fact that clergy have only asked will our church attract people? They have then answered by attempting to make their church more superficially "relevant" to the surrounding society.

We must look at it far more carefully. The answer is not to make our ministry more "relevant" to the surrounding society since Christianity is already as "relevant" as it is ever going to be: It is all-important, you can't get more "relevant" than that. The problem is the ability of the surrounding society to recognise its desperate need for what we already have.

Too many of us have our little congregation of people (many of them aging) who have been through a tumultuous twenty or so years of shipwreck, finally struggling up onto a beach, we have dried ourselves, built our place of abode (bought or built a church) and we think that we have achieved all that is required of us. Wrong! We have only just begun. We haven't saved ourselves - we have just put ourselves in a position where we might just achieve that - with massive help.

We have our little congregation - but what is it? Who would be attracted to Christ by a little group of survivors huddled together, feeling self-congratulatory about the fact that they think that they are safe? We have to be far, far more than that.

I believe that any Parish must first and foremost, think of itself as a family. A real family: The family of the People of God in that place.

We are the people by whom God will be judged in the eyes of the surrounding society! That is something of a responsibility. What then, ought we to look like? We should look like a family, a loving, caring, family. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy mind and with all thy soul and with all thy strength, and thy neighbour as thyself.

This 'being a loving family' is easy to say, far harder to actually do. It is something which has to be consciously discussed and decided by the congregation. We have to become enthused with the idea that we are a family, that a family of God cares for each member of the family. We are not some polite club that meets for a game of bridge on Sunday morning then as quickly as possible, shuffles off home. How could we invite anyone to join in one of those cold, polite Sunday morning sessions where no one even knows anyone else?

We are a family, we have been chosen by our Father to be part of that family. A family does things together. It has projects together. It wants to spend time together. It enjoys its members - their doings are discussed, their triumphs are enjoyed and their disasters are shared. We cannot of course, like every member of our Parish family equally, we have human failings. Our Father though, loves each of us equally, regardless of our failings. None of us will be perfect. We will all say the wrong thing from time to time, offend someone, upset someone - that is what happens in families. And we will forgive each other and resume our family relationship - that too, is what families do.

As we love and forgive each other. As we enjoy each other, we will begin to see what we can and must do for those outside the family. So we become attractive ("see those Christians, how they love one another").

Of course, we don't have to gush all over people, 'family-ness' doesn't mean that. We do need to have an ability to unselfconsciously express our faith, to discuss the things of God amongst ourselves, and, when appropriate, with others. People (both within the family and outside it) should instinctively know that we care without our forcing it upon them. They should feel that they are included without worrying that anyone will interfere. More than that however, it should be apparent to outsiders that here, they will quietly but surely get the spiritual assistance that they need.

Building ourselves into genuine families can take time and it isn't by any means easy, and more than building a normal mother-and-father-and-children type family is easy. It takes love, care, judgment and work. The point is that a true Christian Parish family is the only thing that attracts outsiders to Christ. It is therefore just about the only sure way that we can do our part in leading others to salvation - and oh, by the way, do something towards working out our own salvation.

I have seen such Parishes. True, they are few and very far between, but they do exist. I know that they work: They are doing the work that God expects of His people gathered together. They do it by being - being what He has commanded that they be: Loving Him, loving each other, and therefore, loving all their neighbours. That sort of loving family just naturally expresses its love in the way that God expects - they can't help it really......