Recently, a Lutheran pastor asked me a simple question. He was thinking of affiliating with either the Anglican Communion or the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted to know how we (Anglicans) understand Apostolic Succession. I am assuming he wanted to be in a church that had an unbroken line of succession to the first Apostles, namely to Peter and finally, to Jesus Christ.
This is a good question, and it is a question that other believers might have. And, like many questions that span the time of 2,000 years of church history, there are different kinds of answers. There are scholars, historians, theologians, and church officials that can present their reasoning for one answer or another.
Apostolic Succession Began in Caesarea Philippi
But here is how I would answer the question. The idea of Apostolic Succession began in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked the famous question (of Peter), “Who do you say that I am?”. Jesus had taken his disciples to the northern part of Israel to a place called “Bañas” which was a first-century version of a pantheistic resort and spa. There were many pagan gods and beliefs represented by idols and niches as well as some pretty sordid adult practices.
Here, Jesus was making a point to His disciples that He is NOT any of those short-term, worldly gods. He is the One who was to come. Jesus is the Christ. Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God.
We read in Matthew 16:13-20 the entire story:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
It is not hard to see what is happening in this exchange. Peter understood who Jesus was. And Jesus tells him that he did not come by this awareness through Peter’s thinking or reasoning. No-one explained it to him. It was revealed to him by the Father in heaven.
I think this much is clear to us; it is a powerful and pivotal moment in the Gospel. But what is not clear is what happens next. Jesus says something that created a fissure in the church from the very beginning. I am not saying that Jesus was divisive. But I am saying that the meaning of the phrase he used is not clearly communicated to us.
He said, “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (vs. 18).
Okay, so what did he mean by this? There are a few interpretive variations.
First, did He mean that the church would be built on the rock, that is, as we know, Peter himself? Peter’s name in Greek is rock, petra? Is Jesus saying that He will build His church on Peter the Rock? If so, then perhaps the Roman Catholics have something to teach us. They understand that the church is built on The Petrine Rock, the first bishop and Pope, Peter.
But there is another way to read the passage. Namely, that Jesus is going to build his church on the confession that Peter acknowledged. In this understanding, Jesus is saying, “Peter, you have spoken the truth that has been revealed to you. And on that truth (that I am the Son of God) I will build the church.” In this case, the non-Roman Catholics might have a thing for us to learn.
Is the church built on the person of Peter or on the confession of Peter?
The rest, as they say, is history. Church history.
Enter the Anglicans.
The Anglicans have a position that I find to be a happy blend of the two sides of this interpretation. The Anglicans meet in the middle but accepting the accepting that BOTH are true. It was about Peter AND it was about his confession.
It is not that Anglicans are wishy-washy on things like this. We are not afraid to take a well-reasoned and stick with it, although recent history might show otherwise. But Anglicans have a historic habit of believing that two things can be true at once. It can true that the line of succession of bishops came from that moment in Caesarea when Jesus commended and commissioned Peter. But the historic church has not always lived up to that ideal; they have not always held the apostolic faith that they received from Peter and his successors.
However, it can also be true that the human line of succession from one generation to another has “erred and strayed” from the truth like lost sheep. And when it did, it fell to those outside the chain of human succession to confront the error and build a church that would not err and stray again. That was the hope, anyway. And that, for all of its complications, has been the role of the Protestant wing of the church.
Anglicans represent both truths. We say that there is something good in holding to the faith once believed and once delivered to the first apostles. That faith was first seen in the lives and the teaching of the apostolic leaders in the early church. And what about the Protestants? They have played an essential role in calling the entire church to the received and delivered faith in Christ, with or without the line of succession from Peter.
I will not argue whether the “tactile” line of bishops (i.e., laying hands on one another to transfer/transmit the authority to teach) was broken by wars, conflicts, corruption, and church history. I am not arguing that. That topic is for another day. And neither will I argue that a physical “touch” from one bishop to the next is critical. Jesus did not lay his hands on Peter, according to the Gospel record. I am arguing that the “touching” part of the succession is a symbolic representation of transmission. The laying on of hands during an ordination or a consecration is not a sacrament of the church. But it is close.
Apostolic Succession is a Chain of Custody
In these recent days of the American election controversy, one phrase might be helpful to keep in mind. The electors and officials were supposed to certify the election in each state based on something called a “chain of custody.” That is, were the ballots safely guarded minute by minute, hour by hour? Since they were passed from person to person in the full light of day, then the ballots were true and accurate. If the ballots had disappeared in one hour and then reappear several hours later, there was reason to worry.
This is the point of Apostolic Succession. It is a way of showing a “chain of custody” through the ages, from age to age. The importance of this is evidenced by the hundreds of churches and thousands of ordained leaders who recently disassociated from The Episcopal Church? Why did we do that? Because the “chain of custody” for Biblical faith from one generation to another had been broken. The ACNA, despite all of our challenges, has been a noble and honest effort to rebuild and ensure a viable, orthodox “chain of custody” in North America.
As long as we believe and receive what has been believed and transmitted from that day in Caesarea Philippi, we can trust the certification of our faith. Do Anglicans believe in the human to human, person to person chain of custody? Well, yes, but it is not the most important thing to believe. Nor do we Anglicans hold that the Reformation got everything back to the way it was intended by the early church. What Anglicans do believe is that God has charged the church, through its leaders and its reformers, to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).