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Why do we do that? Apostolic Succession

by the Rev. George Baum

With the upcoming ordination and consecration of the Rev. Anne B. Jolly as Bishop Coadjutor of our Diocese, it seems a good time to revisit—or perhaps get exposed to—the concept of Apostolic Succession. In the simplest terms, the Apostles of Jesus chose other Christians to succeed them, who then chose others to succeed them, and so on down the line to the present day.

A necessary component of this unbroken chain is the existence of Bishops, who ordain and “certify” their successors—a.k.a. the Historic Episcopate. In the Anglican branch of Christianity, we lay claim to this unbroken line, going all the way back to the first Apostles. Generally speaking, Protestant denominations abandoned this line of succession somewhere during the Reformation. However, since the Called to Common Mission agreement in 2000, the ELCA has been slowly coming back online, by having at least one Episcopal bishop present at the ordination of their bishops.

I recall one of my seminary professors, the Rev. Dr. J. Robert Wright expressing his surprise over the Lutherans’ resistance to the requirement of Apostolic Succession. But, having grown up Lutheran, I kind of understood. In times past, Lutherans in the United States could just sort of make pastors and bishops with a group of other pastors. Now, having agreed to Called to Common Mission, the ELCA is gradually merging back into the Historic Episcopate, which is a major unifying force across our other differences.

Why is it important?

Crucial to our understanding of Apostolic Succession is the implied imprimatur of the entire Church on the newly ordained. That is, a bishop does not just look around the room and choose a priest to succeed them as bishop. There is an intensive and intrusive process to identify a slate of candidates; there are interviews and presentations, and a vote at Diocesan Convention. And then, at the ordination, the Presiding Bishop presides, with at least two more bishops serving as co-consecrators. Essentially, the bishops need to agree that this person should also be a bishop. The continuity of the faith is signaled by their participation; they’re saying, this person can be trusted and is empowered to carry on the faith, as we were entrusted to carry on the faith, as were the ones who entrusted us to carry on the faith, and so on.

In this way, a bishop’s authority is confirmed and passed down from generation to generation. Apostolic Succession binds the Church together in one faith, and maintains the historical ties to the first apostles of Jesus. That is, this is the

same Church that our Lord Jesus first established, and we can point to our current bishops and how we got them as proof and reminder of that claim. Interestingly, we can also see this in the use of the “royal we” when a bishop puts something in writing. On an official document, the language often says something like “We do attest that on this date we performed this official act.” Because it’s not just the current bishop doing this thing: It’s all the bishops in the line of succession. The Church itself is doing this official and sacred thing.

How do we know?

As with most gifts in the church, there is an outward sign of an inward grace in all this. And the outward sign can be seen in current bishops laying their hands on the one to be ordained bishop. God’s grace is passed on by succession, from the Apostles to the one being ordained. And we can trust that it happens because of this unbroken line of succession.

This physical laying on of hands grounds the act in the incarnational presence of Jesus, and recognizes that sacramental acts happen in person, between actual human beings. That need for physical presence can been seen in most everything the Church does. Using tangible human beings and things, like water, bread, and wine, to administer God’s grace to God’s people. (This is why, during the height of the pandemic, our Bishop fittingly refused to let priests consecrate elements over Zoom. Things and people need to be “in the room where it happens,” as it were.)

And we can see that this thing has happened when the bishop takes on the specific roles set aside for the episcopate itself: in consecrating worship spaces, altars, and fonts, in confirming and receiving members into our communion, in ordaining priests and deacons.

But it keeps going

As a priest ordained by Bishop Hollingsworth in 2009, any authority I have to administer the sacraments to God’s people is tied into this same stream of historic continuity. When I lower my hands over the bread and wine, asking that God would send the Holy Spirit to sanctify them, it is as if Bishop Hollingsworth is standing behind me, laying his hands on my head, and the bishops who ordained him have their hands on his head, and before them, and before them, all the way back to Jesus at the Last Supper.

As John Henry Newman wrote inTracts for the Times, when speaking of the authority of priests, “The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who should succeed them; and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives. ... we must necessarily consider none to be really ordained who have not thus been ordained.”

Our bishops cannot be in every parish on every Sunday, and so the priests function as deputies of the bishop. We are stepping in as understudies of the Bishop, if you will. “Ladies and gentlemen, the role of Bishop this morning will be filled by the Rev. George Baum.” And then, within the scope of my authority, I do what the bishop would do, had they been with us in person that day. You’ll note that during a bishop’s visitation, the priest takes on the role of Deacon, unless a vocational Deacon is present, in which case the priest just smiles, and makes the announcements when the time comes.

Putting it in dough terms

When our family makes pizza dough, we mix up those four usual ingredients of flour, yeast, water, and salt, each time the day before. But there’s another way of making dough: from a starter. A quick Google search can send you down this rabbit hole, but you can find bread starters that are thousands of years old. You could think of those starters as being like the yeast of Apostolic Succession, passed down in a continuous chain of loaves, while we’re over here in the Baumhaus making Protestant pizza, whipping up a fresh batch whenever one is needed.

So now what?

On April 29, in the year of our Lord, 2023, God willing and the people consenting, the Rev. Anne B. Jolly will be ordained and consecrated as Bishop Coadjutor, becoming the 12th Bishop of Ohio. Anne will stand in a long line of unbroken succession, stretching all the way back to the first Apostles of Jesus. And as Bishop, she will have the authority and grace to confirm and receive into our communion, to ordain priests and deacons to carry out the work of the Church, and to pass down the faith and authority given to her to those who will come after her.

The concept of Apostolic Succession is a crucial and visible sign of God’s continued grace, a testament to the unity of the church, a reminder of the continuity of the faith, and a tangible reminder of God’s abiding presence in this world. We can thank God for this gift to the Church, as we also thank God for the Rev. Anne B. Jolly’s faithfulness in responding to this call.

Solo Deo gloria!

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