What evidence exists that pastoral authority is ordinarily meant to be given through Apostolic pastors by the laying on of hands, and so passed on down the ages in the Church Militant? Let us begin with the Scriptures.
1. “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.” Hebrews 7.7
2. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” John 20.21
3. “[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2.2
4. “Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” Acts 6.6
5. “And when [Paul and Barnabus] had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” Acts 14.23
6. “Lay hands suddenly on no man”. 1 Timothy 5.22. (Compare this instruction to Timothy, who was clearly authorised to ordain elders, to 1 Thessalonians 1.1 & 2.6, where we find Timothy is classed along with Paul and Silvanus as apostles.)
7. “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.” 2 Timothy 1.6
8. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee”. Titus 1.5. (Compare this to 2 Corinthians 8.23, where Titus is implicitly said to have similar authority and ministry to Paul. Therefore, Titus, like Timothy is a “second-generation” Apostle, so to speak.)
2 and 3 in conjunction with 6 to 8 (and other Pauline instructions to Timothy and Titus) demonstrate that there is a concept of “transmission” of pastoral ministry and authority in the New Testament (NT hereafter) from Jesus to the first-generation Apostles and then to the succeeding “Apostolic men”, and to the elders either group of Apostles ordained. 1 demonstrates that this authority comes from above, not below, so that one would expect lower orders to be ordained by the higher, with the ordination prayer’s power genuinely related to the position of the human instrument, rather than being a simple supplication to God which could be prayed by anybody to the same effect. 4 to 8 show that laying on of hands with prayer by Apostles (in the broad sense of this term) is the ordinary, NT-certified means of ordination.
It is important to note at this point that this Apostolic Succession (AS) of ministers is largely a means to an end, the end being the AS of Gospel truth, as emphasised in 3. Forgetting this will always distort conceptions of AS and require “evangelical” rebuke. Evangelicals as a group distinguished from Catholics partly exist because of such forgetfulness!
The relevant Patristic evidence is as follows.
1. St Hippolytus has these words in the order for consecration of a bishop: “[G]rant to this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, … by the Spirit of the high-priesthood, … to assign lots [i.e., ordain clergy, cf. Acts 1.26], in accord with the authority which you gave to the Apostles”.
2. St Epiphanius of Salamis, Against all Heresies: “To those who have any intelligence it is clear that to say that bishop and priest are equal is the utter fullness of stupidity … [The episcopate] is a begetting of fathers, … but the other, not able to beget fathers, begets children for the Church, through the rebirth of Baptism, but not fathers … And how were it possible for someone to ordain a priest, if he did not himself have hands laid on him for the laying on of hands [i.e., ordination to be an ordainer], or to say that he is equal to the bishop?”
3. St John Chrysostom, First Homily on the Epistle to the Philippians: “[P]resbyters would not have ordained a bishop.” In the same passage the saint explains that the terms presbyter and bishop, and even deacon to some extent, were interchangeable in the NT, but still distinguishes the orders as indicated in the quotation.
4. Apostolic Constitutions, prayer at the consecration of a bishop: “Grant to him … the power … to confer orders … according to the power which you gave to your Apostles.” Further instructions about clergy: “A bishop gives the blessing, he does not receive it. He imposes hands, he ordains”.
It is pretty clear that the Church believed that a bishop had the sacramental powers of an Apostle, which included the power to make other Apostles and inferior pastors. And that this power was therefore real and proper to the bishop, not merely a nominal position whereby one could say a prayer in conjunction with others present and God would make other clergymen without specifically working through the ordaining bishop. In addition, it is logically inescapable that this power to ordain ordainers involves the concept of continuous succession and a chain of authority through time. St Epiphanius makes this clearest with his imagery of “begetting of fathers”, in other words, fathering fathers! But the ancient ordinals are sufficient proof in themselves, once their implications are drawn out.
Therefore, the idea of AS-by-episcopal-ordination is supported by the Scriptures and Fathers. However, there is another side to the evidence.
Exceptions to the rules regarding sacraments
1. Acts 10.44-48 has the gift of the Spirit being given before baptism.
2. Acts 13.1-3 has Prophets and Teachers laying hands on Apostles, though this seems to be a commissioning for a particular task, not an ordination.
3. Galatians 1.1, 15-17 and Acts 9 make very clear that Paul’s consecration to Apostleship was unlike anybody else’s. He was not “ordained” with the other Apostles by Jesus’ “breath” (cf. John 20.22), nor was he made an Apostle by the other Apostles (cf. Acts 1.20-26). He was made an Apostle by a private revelation confirmed by revelations to others (Acts 9.10ff) and by fruitfulness in ministry (Acts 9.27 & Galatians 2.7-9).
4. Prophets, according to the Didache, could offer the Eucharistic prayer.
5. “Confessors” were permitted for a time in the early Church to officiate at sacraments such as penance, their sufferings and victory in time of trial being considered to conform them closely enough to Christ to confer priestly status.
6. There is some (disputed) evidence that in the Church of Alexandria the bishop was appointed from among the presbyters by election with no consecration by outside bishops.
7. Some Fathers, such as Jerome, interpreted the terminology of the New Testament and the reputed earlier practice in Alexandria to mean that presbyters and bishops were effectively equivalent, with the restriction of ordination to the latter being an ecclesiastical custom which permitted exceptions.
8. It was common for a time in the Eastern Orthodox Church of the middle ages for non-ordained, respected monks to act as sacramental confessors.
9. Papal dispensations for presbyters to ordain were granted in the mediaeval Western Church.
While most of the post-NT examples were rare and often criticised by contemporaries and abandoned after a time, they do show that, not only is God not bound by the sacraments, but the Church in its discernment of His grace can recognise and sanction sacramental acts in non-normative contexts. Nevertheless, it is also worth noting that where there have been “presbyterian” ordinations and consecrations, they have occurred with the acquiescence of the other bishops in the Church, and were almost unthinkable without that.
Where did bishops come from? Are they really essentially different to presbyters?
At the local church level, 2 ministerial offices are mentioned in the NT, elder/overseer and deacon (e.g. 1 Tim 3). 'Elder' and 'overseer', traditionally translated presbyter and bishop, are synonymous in the NT, as seen in Acts 20:17,28 and Titus 1:5,7. Elders are 'shepherds' ('pastors') and, at least potentially, teachers (Acts 20:17,28b & 1 Tim 3:2, 5:17b) who rule and direct the church (1 Tim 3:5, 5:17a; Heb 13:17). Deacons (diakonos = servant, ministrant) served the church in practical rather than vocal ministry, if the appointment of 'the Seven' in Acts 6:1-6 corresponds to the founding of the diaconal ministry, but wisdom (Acts 6:3) and a knowledge of the "deep truths of the faith" (1 Tim 3:9) are still prerequisites. Deacons have a subordinate but real authority with respect to their particular responsibilities (Acts 6:3b; 1 Tim 3:8a & 12b cf. 5).
Other offices mentioned in the NT are those of Apostle, Prophet and Evangelist (e.g. Eph 4:11). Prophetic and evangelistic ministry in themselves do not necessarily involve a general authority of rule or instruction. Prophets may or may not be leaders (Rom 12:6 cf. 8, these are separate giftings), do not seem to require an ordination and inform and encourage through specific inspiration rather than regularly instruct and command. Philip the Evangelist's work in Acts 8 is itinerant preaching of the Gospel; he is always on the move and so does not provide settled oversight and teaching. Prophets could also be itinerant (Acts 11:27, 21:10; Didache 11,13). Clearly, apostles are given a general authority of oversight and instruction above the elders and churches, as shown in Acts 1:20 and 2:24 and in a survey of Paul's epistles. Apostles could have authority over a number of churches, like Paul, or one church, like James over Jerusalem. The collegial aspect of apostolic authority is illustrated in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem, where the "apostles and elders" meet, but the Apostles take the leading role.
Are bishops, as defined since the Second Century, merely organisationally convenient primatial presbyters, or distinct successors of these Apostles? The position of Apostolic men such as Timothy and Titus is a clue. They were clearly "second generation" Apostles appointed by Paul to be in charge of local regions and "above" local elders and were later seen as having been bishops. There is thus no hint that this pastoral ministry above the simple presbyterate was intended to cease. Quite the contrary.
That St Paul taught the Apostolate was perpetually necessary for the Church Militant is evident from Ephesians 4.11-13, where the purpose of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to edify the Church until it attains the “fullness of Christ”. Monarchical bishops such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch are writing their own authoritative letters to the faithful not long after the death of the last Apostle (St John?) and the last of the NT books are written. That the early Church thought bishops inherited the apostolic role is abundantly and universally clear from the Fathers and the ancient ordinals (see above). Therefore, even though there are some unanswered questions about the precise nature of the transition from Apostle to Bishop, the connection is undeniable.
What does the consecrating or ordaining bishop “pass on”? Is such an idea too mechanical?
As Mascall explains in The Recovery of Unity, chapter 8, the objections to tactile, episcopal AS, are based partly on false antitheses of nominalist origin and a customary presentation of the theory which focuses exclusively on the Church Militant. By making AS sound like a relay race or “pass the parcel” some Catholics misrepresent it. After all, as Mascall points out, consecration and ordination have permanent effects, so each consecration is not providing a replacement Apostle, but adding a new member to the Apostolate which began in Jesus’ time and continues to grow. Once a bishop, always a bishop, even beyond death in the Church Expectant and Triumphant, Mascall argues. He also makes the point that while Christ is ultimately the Consecrator, the bishops are mediately but truly so as well, as they participate in Him who is the Apostle and High Priest.
Building upon this thinking of Mascall’s, I would argue that since apostolic authority is not a “substance” that is lost to one as it is passed on to another, the nature of Succession as addition and not replacement is essential to understanding it. So, what is “passed on” or given? Pastoral gifts of the Spirit are the Pauline answer. And this would include authority to act in Christ’s name, in a sense, over the Church (1 Corinthians 4.19-21, 5.3-4; 2 Corinthians 10.8, 13.10). Authority here is not merely a conventional (human) attribution or a relational quality, it is a real spiritual power and essential quality of the man possessing it. Such authority cannot be given by mere voluntary human arrangements or titles.
Augustine’s sacramental theology has been strongly criticised for its assertion that bishops separated from the Church keep their powers to ordain, though could use them only illicitly. It is claimed that this tears the sacramental fabric of the Church by appearing to allow bishops to act as autonomous “grace-machines”, whereas we should conceive episcopal authority as interdependent with ecclesial communion. However, Acts 11.29 clearly states that “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” And this is said in reference to the Jews who were outside the Church at the time of writing by deliberate choice.
So, there seems to be a genuine “indelible character” given at ordination which, for a bishop, includes the power to imprint that same character in others. This seems to be no more “mechanical” than any other example of God working through the sacraments – as long as it is remembered that God works outside the sacraments and is not bound to them even in the graces specific to them; and that without living faith, none of the sacraments will bear fruit in those with the use of reason.
If people are offended by the very human, very earthly, scandalously tactile instrumentality of bishops and AS in keeping the Church apostolic, why are they not offended by the Incarnation?
What are Protestant Ministers?
Matthew 8.9 sums up an important NT teaching about authority. You only possess it insofar as you are under it. If there is a deficiency in Protestant pastoral ministry, it is due to this. Protestantism, defining itself epistemologically by denial of the infallibility of the Church and ecclesiologically by historic rejection of Catholic episcopal authority (and thus withdrawal from communion with and submission to the Catholic hierarchy), effectively seems to base its pastors’ authority on a rebellion. But it is only fair to note that the Reformers acted sincerely and without rebellious intentions (towards God) and that the Western hierarchy with which they had to deal gave a very fallible impression at the time! Also, they were happy enough to have and utilise bishops in the AS when they could get them, but usually could not.
The information in the Exceptions section above, and especially the various roles we noted non-ordained prophets and others could fulfil, along with the old adage that God is not bound by the sacraments, provide a number of ways to see genuine pastoral ministries outside the AS. If we see the Reformers or their successors as prophetic figures, we can see that God could give ministerial gifts outside the normal AS. But would this include “Apostles”? And where is the assurance? Clearly, problems remain, though perhaps they are not insurmountable in the context of the application of discernment and “economy” by the Church.
Therefore, while I do not believe Anglican Catholics can abandon the theology of AS-by-episcopal-ordination, it is quite possible for us to maintain this belief without passing definitive critical judgements on the ministries and sacraments of other Churches. AS via bishops’ consecrations is the normal and generally obligatory means of supplying pastoral and magisterial ministry to the Church. It is, however, not necessarily absolutely normative, such that “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4.11) cannot exist without it.