December 7, 2010

Two Anglican Thought Experiments

Something to think aboutToday, I offer two tenuously related thought experiments having to do with Anglicanism.

Experiment 1. Anglicanism has made much of apostolic succession, which is a major part of its claim to catholicity. (I should point out, however, that other Christian denominations claim to be part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” in the absence of not only apostolic successions but also of bishops.)

The notion of apostolic succession has a certain romantic attraction, but how important is it really? Suppose some plague wiped out all Anglican bishops, or even all bishops of whatever stripe. (Perhaps some new virus suddenly made purple dye toxic. Anyway, this is a thought experiment, remember?) Would Christianity have been wiped out due to the lack of bishops and the apparent inability to create new ones? Of course not! Not only are bishops not necessary for transmitting the faith, but bishops have often been responsible for heretical movements. Moreover, I refuse to believe that apostolic succession is some sort of magic provided by God. (I’m sure that some will dispute this.) If we feel the need for bishops, we can simply consecrate some more, even in the absence of other bishops to lay on hands. Surely the very first bishop, whoever that was, was not consecrated by three other bishops!

Experiment 2. Imagine a world just like the world today, but lacking an Anglican Communion—a world with 38 churches related historically to the Church of England but with no formal institutional ties. The question is would we feel the need to invent an Anglican Communion, and, if we did, what would it look like?

The answer, I think, is maybe, but I doubt that any resulting communion would look like the present one. To begin with, I do not think the Archbishop of Canterbury would be so central. England could get away with asserting a special place for the archbishop in an age of empire, but I suspect the former colonies would be less deferential these days. (In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s having any real power is a relatively recent—and arguably illegitimate—phenomenon.) There is perhaps some utility in Anglicans gathering to get to know one another, swap ideas, and discuss possible mechanisms of coƶperation. In this more democratic age in which both travel and communication are more easily accomplished than formerly, I don’t think a convention of bishops—and certainly not one lasting as long as the current Lambeth Conference—would be the first sort of meeting people would think of.

Actually, I suspect that our churches would see themselves first as Christian churches in the world, rather than as members of an Anglican fraternity. We make much of our ties between diverse dioceses across the world and our ability to channel aid through other Anglican churches in time of need. An Anglican Communion is not needed for this—we have no need even now for an intermediary in London—and the lack of a communion might encourage closer ties with other churches, which might not be such a bad thing.

In any case, we surely would not begin a new communion with some covenant that surrendered our independence.

What do you think?


  1. I've always had doubts about the truthiness of "apostolic succession". My RC friend just accepts it but agrees with me that it is probably not a solid line. If we knew all, we might not want to be in the same line as some of the popes. Given man's love of control, we would have bishops/men with power eventually regardless.

  2. I have never been of the ilk that thought that 'apostolic sucession' resided in the person of the bishop. Apostolic sucession and those churches that adhere to an A.S. are those who are rooted in an apostolic teaching based on the apostles--in otherword we can trace our roots to the apostles. At some point the Romans after Trent started to point to the actual confering of ordination and the 'unbroken' string of laying on of hands. Following the Oxford Movement we began to see this kind of 'a.s' as the actual laying on of hands. It is historical 'pilpul'.

    For many denominations, especially the mega non-denominational churches history is unimportant to them. But it should be because they too stand on the shoulders of belief and often heretical standards from the past.

    I stand by an apostolic sucession that does try to claim the 'doctrines' taught by the apostles and their sucessors, the bishops of our traditions. Often these doctrines have become unwieldy through time and we come to understand them in different ways through the centuries.

    A good example is the Trinity or the understanding of homo osious in the 3rd century is not what we adhere to today. But at least we pay attention to what it was in Jesus' day before we try to apply it to the present age.

    Moving into an new era in Christianity is not an easy time. If we acknowledge that P. Tickle has something in her 500 year turn over, we are in the midst of not just chaos in TEC, we're in a time of tremendous creativity for the future church. Will there be a church--of course, will it look like the past 50 year. Not at all! But it is time to hang on for the ride!;-D

  3. There's no chance, realistically, that there is an unbroken line of succession in all the episcopal (small e) churches (RC, Anglican, Episcopal, Old Catholic, etc.) all the way back to Peter - in fact there is a lot of unaccounted time between Peter and the first "Bishop of Rome." It's a nice tradition (conceit) but only that.

  4. The unbroken line of apostolic succession through bishops is pure fantasy, IMO. I lean more to Muthah'a view of an apostolic succession "rooted in an apostolic teaching based on the apostles".

    I agree that if we formed an Anglican Communion today, it would look nothing like the present reality.

    And Phyllis Tickle is right. The church, which is us, is headed for a wild ride.

  5. My one reservation about becoming an Episcopalian was the big deal made in confirmation class about "Apostolic Succession" - it smacked to me, even as a college freshman, as dangerously close to the Divine Right of Kings and a sort of idolatry-by-conflation.

  6. I don't think it makes any difference. In other words, who cares?

  7. To say on this day observing Richard Baxter of blessed memory, I personally tend to regard episcopacy itself as _bene esse_ rather than _esse_.

    That said, the important doctrine of Apostolic Succession is separate from and shouldn't be confused with the instrumentality of that doctrine by way of "tactile transmission."

    Historically there is little evidence one way or the other, though we can certainly say that the laying on of hands by the apostles seems important in the sending of Paul and Barnabas and so was if not normative at least symbolically and spiritually meaningful by midcentury or a bit later.

    We would nonetheless find it meaningful to know that our own good Bishop Ken Price is #900 (even!) in the succession of the Episcopal Church, and was ordained with Presidng Bishop Browning as principal consecrator, who was ordained with Presiding Bishop Hines as principal consecrator, who was ordained by Presiding Bishop Tucker as principal consecrator, who was ordained by Bishop McKim (on behalf of Presiding Bishop Tuttle) as principal consecrator, who was ordainied by Bishop Littlejohn as principal consecrator, who was ordained by Bishop Potter as principal consecrator, who was ordained by Bishop Brownell as principal consecrator, who was ordained by Bishop White as principal consecrator, who was #2 in the succession of the Episcopal Church, ordained in 1787 with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. John Moore (whose succession from Augustine of Canterbury is variously documented, of course) as principal consecrator.

    As noted here by others, the issue of apostolicity has more to do with a sense of and commitment to deep continuity and discipline within what our 1979 baptismal liturgy calls "the apostles' teaching and fellowship."

    The discipline of tactile succession is intended I think partly as a fence--though the record of _episcopoi vagantes_ in so many historical eras, including our own, would indicate that the fence is only partly effective. The episcopacy alone, however constituted, has never been a significant impediment to heresy or schism or just plain bad behavior. Sometimes quite the contrary.

    At least equally important is coninuing life within the apostolic collegium, giving evidence of what our ordinal calls the Father's "princely Spirit . . . by whom [the] Church is built up in every place," and with the duty of "wisely overseeing the life and work of the Church."

    It is, you should pardon the expression, a sign of our Covenantal life.

  8. I find the second "Thought Experiment" far more compelling to consider, as apostolic succession isn't the source of distress that the AC has become. It bears further mulling. I believe that if brought to a vote today, few members of the AC would vote for the FORM we presently struggle with. I think this goes for both sides of the philosophical fence, for neither seems pleased with it.

    The thing that remains valuable about the AC is communion itself. Simply rising above one's own local concerns to listen, even in a limited way, about the concerns of other people/nations/needs has a touch of holiness that exclusion and punitive covenants can't diminish. Joining with others in mission is an act of will in direct opposition to the powers of this world.

    Not everyone can bring themselves to join in the act of communion; AC constituents desiring communion only with those who think alike have voted with their feet already.

    Any move that would undermine communion ought to be tossed out on its ear, and any effort to engage in communion strongly supported.

    As to the FORM; it's a bad one and becoming worse over time. It might be worth the effort to rebuild it from the ground up (except it would take 50 yrs and way too many resources to be defensible.) I sometimes wonder whether British disestablishment won't, with a muffled bang of the Parliamentary gavel, take the entire discussion out of everyone's hands. Meanwhile, let's stop feeding the beast and get on with communion.


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.