Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Not a mouthful
"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."
"Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also."
II Timothy 2:2
Even as a child I knew that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican family to which it belonged was, along with the Anglican Communion as a whole, unique in identifying itself as Protestant and Catholic, with Catholic ministers and Protestant priests. I knew that one major thing that distinguished us from other Protestants was the Apostolic Succession of bishops. The phrase readily dripped off the tongue. For some it may have been simplistically understood or, at its worst, treated like some form of claim to nobility, placing our church in a higher class. But, in general, it was appreciated as a genuine link to Christ Himself and His Apostles.
A few years ago I noticed, when writing for The Christian Challenge, that the Episcopal Church (TEC) of today has chosen a phrase they prefer: "The Historic Episcopate." As with so many phrases that cannot be disputed, it simply goes by unnoticed. It is sort of like their use of "God our Creator and Jesus Christ our Savior" that has become standard with them. It is true; but they use it to avoid saying "God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord." So, to camouflage an ignoble intention, they hide it behind unassailable truth, but only in terms of unobjectionable accuracy masking something unacceptable.
So, by now you may be asking, "What is wrong with saying Historic Episcopate?" Well, in one sense, nothing at all. The episcopate is absolutely indisputable as a fact of history. Indeed, it is so indisputable that any atheist has to acknowledge it. But, that happens also to be the problem.
When we say "Apostolic Succession," we say a mouthful. The expression carries with it truth deeper than mere historical fact. It includes the history, but contains so much more. That truth is in a twofold and inseparable combination: Sacrament and Word.
The sacrament is that of consecration. It is so important that the Church of England and Queen Elizabeth made extra sure that the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be consecrated during her reign, thus establishing Anglican orders for generations to come, was consecrated beyond doubt by men with unquestionably valid orders. This importance is further highlighted by the efforts of enemies to discredit those orders, all vain efforts that no scholar today takes seriously.
But, those strained efforts at deceit against Anglican validity are a compliment to the care taken for the Consecration of Archbishop Matthew Parker. The sacrament, about which we read St. Paul's words to St. Timothy in the earliest of times, is consistent with the way Moses had ordained Joshua to take his place, and reminds us of Elijah and Elisha also. The laying on of Apostolic hands, for the purpose of handing on necessary gifts and authority, is charismatic, the work of the Holy Spirit in giving grace to fulfill the work and ministry of the office of bishop.
But, it is possible that TEC has fallen into the trap of contenting itself with a merely Historic Episcopate partly because the sacramental element of Apostolic Succession had come to be nothing more, to some of them, than a relay race; a historical record of who laid hands on who, and nothing more. Also writing to Timothy, Paul warned of those "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power (dunamis) thereof: from such turn away (II Timothy 3:5)."
"Apostolic Succession" speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Anyone who knows both our Ordinal and its Preface knows how highly Anglicans have regarded the work of God the Holy Spirit as the true source for all ordained ministry: The words "Receive the Holy Ghost" have been essential in imparting His special grace to all bishops and priests.
But, I am sure that even the most deluded and misleading of TEC clergy would love to be able to claim the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit; indeed, they blame Him for all their errors, insisting that they are His only true followers. Indeed, "only" because of the new "revelations" they claim as well. No, they haven't dropped the term "Apostolic Succession" from frequent usage because of that. They deny the power, of course, but they do so by denying the essential truth, the truth that His power is present in His Church to confirm.
The part of Apostolic Succession that bothers them is the continuity of Apostolic doctrine to which it commits the bishops, and under their care the work of establishing and defending that doctrine in Christ's Church. Frankly, TEC has not come down with a case of admiral honesty in stepping back from the term "Apostolic Succession." They are not admitting to failure in passing on the pure word of God as taught from the earliest times. Rather, they don't want to pass it on. They really believe they are smarter than the Apostles, and would be embarrassed to teach something as un-stylish as orthodoxy. The true Gospel is not in fashion. They see themselves as far more enlightened than the eyewitnesses of Christ's resurrection, those who had heard from His own mouth, those to Whom He gave clear teaching, clear direction, and an unchanging charge; those to whom he sent the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
But, Apostolic Succession remains, and it remains for word and sacrament. "The same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" - for all generations to come.