Alistair Stewart: “Ecumenism and the Question of Apostolic Succession”

“Ecumenism and the Question of Apostolic Succession”
by, Alistair C. Stewart

The Original Bishops is the work of a grumpy old historian. As a historian, however, I am not unaware of the importance of history to the churches, though I leave it to others to draw out what is important. Yet I am aware that of all that I have written, The Original Bishops is of the greatest contemporary significance. I begin the work with Wesley, who brought about the final breach between Methodists and the Church of England through his ordination of superintendents for the American colonies. What is of interest here is that he claimed historical precedent. It is this historical precedent, or the denial of it, which guides much ecumenical conversation today and is the subject of my book.

Cover ArtWhen I was a student (more years ago than I care to admit), after practicing some version or other of Christianity for around five years and having taken an academic interest in what I was doing, I underwent what might, in other circles, be called a conversion experience. I was led, through the discovery of the discipline that then was still called patristics, to admit the rectitude of the historic and orthodox faith. This led me in turn to reclaim the Anglican heritage into which I had been baptized, but of which I had, until my “conversion,” no personal experience.

My personal experience of Christian practice had theretofore been entirely in the liberal end of the UK free church movement; thus belief in the central doctrines of Christianity—the incarnation, the Trinity, the resurrection of Christ—was essentially optional, and these doctrines certainly were not stressed. My conviction of the centrality of these truth claims therefore led to the necessity of changing my ecclesial commitment to a church that had maintained belief in these claims. That I became an Anglican as a result I may now see as a manifestation of my ignorance; however, I had recognized that a church which maintained apostolic succession through bishops might by that token have maintained the apostolic faith.

However, for all that apostolic succession, in the first instance, was intended as a proof of the succession of orthodox teaching, in catholic thought it has become more than that. It is the basis on which we might say that sacraments are validly celebrated, through the proper ordination of the priest who celebrates by a bishop in succession from the apostles. This position, deeply embedded in catholic thought, is reiterated in the documents of the second Vatican Council (thus Lumen gentium 18–29 and the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, especially 2 and 35). In particular since the bull of Leo XIII, Apostolicae curae, the Roman Catholic Church has denied the validity of Anglican orders as properly received in apostolic succession.

However, the Anglican position, maintained with particular vigor in Anglo-Catholic circles, has been that that Anglicans have received valid orders in apostolic succession, on the basis of an understanding of this doctrine close, if not identical, to the Roman position. The position of Orthodox churches is less linear, but these churches nonetheless have a recognizable doctrine of apostolic succession. This doctrine thus stands massively in the way of ecclesial relations between these different Christian communities, and between these and those with no claim of succession. The guilty secret behind all this, however, was the widespread suspicion by historians that the doctrine was without historical foundation.

The classical Protestant position, apparently far better historically grounded, is that the original ministers of the church were presbyters, and single bishops only emerged later, at the beginning of the second century (a position to which Ignatius of Antioch bears witness). Bishops prior to Ignatius were just presbyters under another name. It is this historical understanding that was the basis for Wesley’s action and for his claim of precedent for his actions.

If The Original Bishops proves anything, it is that this position is as much a dogmatic and unhistorical position as the traditional Catholic one.

I believe that I have shown that Ignatius is not a witness to a single bishop, as later understood, and that this kind of single bishop is a product of the early third century. As such, I might be claimed to have lent strength to the Protestant position, for when Ussher argued for episcopacy in the seventeenth century, Ignatius was his trump card. However, I believe that I have also shown that the original ministers of the church were never presbyters but rather episkopoi (bishops) and diakonoi (deacons). Harley’s observation that the past is a foreign country is thus as true of the church as it is of every other institution, since presbyters, whilst known, were never ministers.

Where this leads ecumenism I know not. Though the grumpy old historian masks a passionate Christian who is convinced that the division of the churches is a scandal, the mask is there in part because of my acknowledgment that I do not have the mind of a theologian. Moreover, as I note in an unscientific concluding postscript to my work, the scandal of division in the body of Christ is not the only scandal that grieves our Lord. Greater yet is the scandal of poverty. In my ministry as a relatively well-off minister of Christ, a week does not go by in which I do not go to the supermarket and buy basic foodstuffs to give away to those in this affluent country who have literally nothing to eat, who sit in darkness and cold because there is no money for electricity or gas. I have learned through my writing of The Original Bishops that what I am doing is the original diakonia of the early Christian bishop, namely, feeding the poor. In this activity I claim to stand in succession to the original bishops.


Alistair C. Stewart (PhD, University of Birmingham) is team vicar of Upton-cum-Chalvey, Slough, England, and visiting scholar of Sarum College in Salisbury, England. Recognized as a leading expert on early Christian liturgy and polity, he is the author or editor of a dozen books.

For more information on The Original Bishops, click here.