Apostolic succession refers to the Christian doctrine that holds modern churches to be the descendants of the early apostolic church through the sacramental handing down of authority through the episcopate. Most significantly, it considers that the authority to celebrate sacraments is dependent on being able to trace such authority back to the first apostles, who in turn received it directly from Christ.
Churches in Apostolic Succession see in their doctrine and practice a sure and biblical, though not infallible, means of receiving and perpetuating the Faith from one generation to another. This is because Apostolic Succession requires a "tactile," person to person, conferring of authority from the Apostles onward. It requires the most heightened responsibility in the giving and receiving. The practice originated in the late first century. It is also believed that there is the grace of the Holy Spirit transmitted by the laying on of hands at the time of ordination. Proponents see Apostolic succession in both the Old and the New Testaments:
Joshua 34:9 And Joshua son of Nun was full of the Spirit and wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands on him: and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the LORD commanded Moses.
2 Timothy 1:6 (understood to be said by the Apostle Paul to a young bishop who himself is responsible for the choosing of others) Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.
Ordination to the Orders of Deacon, Priest, and Bishop are all done with the laying on of hands and prayer in those churches which adhere to Apostolic Succession.
This doctrine is most evident in the Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christian churches. Some Lutheran churches have either retained apostolic succession or restored it. A different but similar view is held by the Methodist churches. The Mormon church and a number of Pentecostal churches have their own bishops supported by alternate views of the meaning of Apostolic Succession. Most Protestant churches, on the other hand, reject this doctrine entirely.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the Eastern Orthodox succession as valid, but the Orthodox do not recognize the Catholic succession because, although the lineage is intact, the faith is thought not to be. Neither of them recognizes the Anglican succession, although the Orthodox have stated that Anglican orders would be valid if differences in doctrine were resolved.
Martin Luther did not consider any one form of church government to be dictated by Holy Scripture. As a result, some Lutheran churches have continued the apostolic succession of their bishops while others have adopted a more presbyterian system, and still others are governed congregationally.
In the beginnings of the Methodist movement, adherents were instructed to receive the sacraments within the Anglican Church; however, the Methodists soon petitioned to receive the sacraments from the local preachers who conducted worship services and revivals. The Bishop of London refused to ordain ministers in the British American colonies. Rev. John Wesley, the founder the movement, was not prepared to allow unordained preachers to administer the sacraments:
We believe it would not be right for us to administer either Baptism or the Lord's Supper unless we had a commission so to do from those Bishops whom we apprehend to be in a succession from the Apostles.
In 1763, Greek Orthodox bishop Erasmus of the Diocese of Arcadia, who was visiting London at the time, consecrated Rev. John Wesley a bishop, and ordained several Methodist lay preachers as priests, including John Jones. However, Wesley could not openly announce his episcopal consecration without incurring the penalty of the Præmunire Act. In light of Wesley's episcopal consecration, the Methodist Church can lay a claim on apostolic succession, although not as understood in the traditional sense. Because Wesley ordained and sent forth every Methodist preacher in his day--those who preached and baptized and ordained--and since every Methodist preacher who has ever been ordained as a Methodist was ordained in this direct "succession" from Wesley, then the Methodist Church teaches that it has all the direct merits coming from apostolic succession, if any such there be. The validity of Methodist orders is not recognized by the Catholic, Anglican, or Eastern Orthodox churches, but they have been accepted by the "Unity Catholic Church," a tiny autocephalous Catholic Church.
Most Methodists view apostolic succession as outside the Methodist system. This is because Rev. John Wesley believed that bishops and presbyters constituted one order, citing an ancient opinion from the Church of Alexandria. Since the Bishop of London refused to ordain ministers in the British American colonies, this constituted an emergency, and as a result, on 2 September 1784, Rev. John Wesley, along with a priest from the Anglican Church and two other elders, operating under the ancient Alexandrian habitude, ordained Rev. Thomas Coke a superintendent, although Coke embraced the title of "bishop." Today, the Methodist Church follows this ancient Alexandrian practice as bishops are elected from and by the order of the presbyterate: the Discipline of the Methodist Church, in ¶303, affirms that "ordination to this ministry is a gift from God to the Church. In ordination, the Church affirms and continues the apostolic ministry through persons empowered by the Holy Spirit." It also uses sacred scripture in support of this practice, namely, 1 Timothy 4:12, which states:
Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.
Older than either the Lutheran or Methodist churches, the Moravian Church counted over 100 congregations during the Seventeenth Century in what is now the Czech Republic. Much reduced in numbers because of the Thirty Years' War, these Christians experienced a new start following the 1737 consecration of Count Nicholas Zinzendorf of Saxony as a bishop. Zinzendorf had previously offered sanctuary to several Moravians who had fled their homeland seeking shelter in Saxony.
It was Zinzendorf who was responsible for the church beginning its work in America where it now has its strongest presence. The several branches of the Moravian Church are governed by bishops in apostolic succession, although they exercise only spiritual oversight, not financial or other control as is the rule in most other churches that hold to apostolic succession.
- Cf. the 1896 papal bull Apostolicae Curae
- Separated Brethren: A Review of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox & Other Religions in the United States. Our Sunday Visitor. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “the Methodists were directed to receive baptism and Holy Communion from Episcopal priests. They soon petitioned to receive the sacraments from the same Methodist preachers who visited their homes and conducted their worship services. The Bishop of London refused to ordain preachers in the colonies, so in 1784 Wesley assumed the power to ordained ministers himself.”
- John Wesley in Company with High Churchmen [Parallel Passages, Selected by an Old Methodist [H.W. Holden].]. Church Press Company. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “In 1745 Wesley said, "We believe it would not be right for us to administer either Baptism or the Lord's Supper unless we had a commission so to do from those Bishops whom we apprehend to be in a succession from the Apostles." (xxviii. 348)”
- The life and times of the Rev. John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, Volume 2. Regent College Publishing. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Just at this juncture, Erasmus a bishop of the Greek church, visited London.”
- Wesleyan-Methodist magazine: being a continuation of the Arminian or Methodist magazine first publ. by John Wesley. Wesleyan Methodist Magazine. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Mr. Wesley thus became a Bishop, and consecrated Dr. Coke, who united himself with ... who gave it under his own hand that Erasmus was Bishop of Arcadia, ...”
- English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley. Regent College Publishing. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “By 1763, Wesley was desperate to obtain ordination for some of his lay preachers and when bishop after bishop refused, he took the dubious expedient -against the council of all his close friends and associates-of asking one Erasmus, who claimed to be bishop of Arcadia in Crete, to do the job. Erasmus knew no English, but agreed.”
- The Churchman, Volume 40. University of Michigan. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Erasmus was the Bishop of Arcadia, in Crete. In 1763, he visited London. Wesley found his credentials unexceptionable, and Dr. Jones, one of the preachers whom he had ordained, obtained testimonials concerning him from Symrna.”
- The historic episcopate: a study of Anglican claims and Methodist orders. Eaton & Mains. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Dr. Peters was present at the interview, and went with and introduced Dr. Seabury to Mr. Wesley, who was so far satisfied that he would have been willingly consecrated by him if Mr. Wesley would have signed his letter of orders as bishop, which Mr. Wesley could not do without incurring the penalty of the Præmunire Act.”
- Separated Brethren: A Review of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox & Other Religions in the United States. Our Sunday Visitor. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Today the World Methodist Council represents twenty-nine million members of some sixty churches that trace their heritage to Wesley and his brother Charles.”
- SWhy two Episcopal Methodist churches in the United States?: A brief history answering this question for the benefit of Epworth leaguers and other young Methodists. Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “And since he himself ordained and sent forth every Methodist preacher in his day, who preached and baptized and ordained (except such as, like himself, had been ordained by a bishop), and since every Methodist preacher who has ever been ordained as a Methodist was ordained in this direct "succession" from Wesley, then have we all the direct merits coming from apostolic succession, if any such there be.”
- Constitution of the Unity Catholic Church. Unity Catholic Church. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “+John Wesley was consecrated by +Erasmus, Bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church, Diocese of Arcadia in 1763.”
- =&cd=21#v=onepage&q=alexandria%20wesley%20ordination&f=false Cyclopædia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 6. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Wesley had believed that bishops and presbyters constituted but one order, with the same right to ordain. He knew that for two centuries the succession of bishops in the Church of Alexandria was preserved through ordination by presbyters alone. "I firmly believe," he said, "I am a scriptural ἐπίσκοπος, as much as any man in England or in Europe; for the uninterrupted succession I know to be a fable which no man ever did or can prove;" but he also held that "Neither Christ nor his apostles prescrive any particular form of Church government." He was a true bishop of the flock which God had given to his care. He had hitherto refused "to exercise this right" of ordaining, because he would not come into needless conflict with the order of the English Church to which he belonged. But after the Revolution, his ordaining for America would violate no law of the Church; and when the necessity was clearly apparent, his hesitation ceased. "There does not appear," he said, "any other way of supplying them with ministers." Having formed his purpose, in February, 1784, he invited Dr. Coke to his study in City Road, laid the case before him, and proposed to ordain and send him to America.”
- Appleton's cyclopædia of American biography, Volume 6. D. Appleton & Company. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Being refused, he conferred with Thomas Coke, a presbyter of the Church of England, and with others, and on 2 Sept., 1784, he ordained Coke bishop, after ordaining Thomas Vasey and Richard Whatcoat as presbyters, with his assistance and that of another presbyter.”
- The historic episcopate: a study of Anglican claims and Methodist orders. Eaton & Mains. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “IN September, 1784, the Rev. John Wesley, assisted by a presbyter of the Church of England and two other elders, ordained by solemn imposition of the hands of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke to the episcopal office.”
- A compendious history of American Methodism. Scholarly Publishing Office. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “Wesley refers to the ordination of bishops by the presbyters of Alexandria, in justification of his ordination of Coke.”
- The Ministry of the Elder. United Methodist Church. Retrieved on 2007-12-31.
- Seven Days of Preparation - A Guide for Reading, Meditation and Prayer for all who participate in The Conversation: A Day for Dialogue and Discernment: Ordering of Ministry in the United Methodist Church. United Methodist Church. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “The Discipline affirms that "ordination to this ministry is a gift from God to the Church. In ordination, the Church affirms and continues the apostolic ministry through persons empowered by the Holy Spirit" (¶303).”
- Episcopal Methodism, as it was, and is;: Or, An account of the origin, progress, doctrines, church polity, usages, institutions, and statistics, of the Methodist Episcopal church in the United States. Miller, Orton & Mulligan. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “"Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery." Here it is plain that the ministerial gift or power which Timothy possessed, was given him by the laying on of the hands of the body of the elders who ordained him. And in regard to the government of the church, it is equally plain that bishops, in distinction from presbyters, were not charged with the oversight thereof, for it is said - Acts xx. 17, 28, that Paul "called the elders (not the bishops) of the Church of Ephesus, and said unto them, 'Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghose hath made you overseers,' feed the church of God." On this passage we remark, 1st, that the original Greek term for the word "overseer" is "episcopos," they very word from which our term "bishop" is derived, and which is generally translated "bishop" in the English version of the New Testament. Now this term episcopos, overseer, or bishop, is applied to the identical persons called elders in the 17th verse, and to none other. Consequently, Paul must have considered elders and bishops as one, not only in office, but in order also; and so the Ephesian ministers undoubtedly understood him.”
- Episcopal Methodism, as it was, and is;: Or, An account of the origin, progress, doctrines, church polity, usages, institutions, and statistics, of the Methodist Episcopal church in the United States. Miller, Orton & Mulligan. Retrieved on 2007-12-31. “But if Scripture is opposed to modern high church claims and pretensions, so is history, on which successionists appear to lay so much stress.”