Apostolic Succession

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In Christianity, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession (or the belief that the Church is 'apostolic') maintains that the Christian Church today is the spiritual successor to the original body of believers in Jesus Christ composed of the Twelve Apostless. Different Christian religious denomination interpret this doctrine in different ways.

In episcopal churches, the Apostolic Succession is understood to be the basis of the authority of bishops (the episcopate). Specifically in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, the Apostolic Succession as passed on through Saint Peter is also the basis for the specific claim of papal primacy. Within the Anglican Communion this is seen more as a symbolic precedence, not unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church Patriarch of Constantinople. In any event, all these communions recognize Apostolic Succession as the determining criterion of a particular group's legitimacy as a One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church Church.

Mainstream Christianity

Catholic and Orthodox Churches

The Catholic Church (including its rites), Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Assyrian Church of the East, Independent Catholic Churches, Anglicanism and some others hold that apostolic succession is maintained through the consecration of their bishops in unbroken personal historic episcopate.[1] In Catholic and Orthodox theology, the unbrokenness of apostolic succession is significant because of Jesus Christ's promise that the "gates of hell" [2] would not prevail against the Church, and his promise that he himself would be with the apostles to "the end of the age".[3] According to this interpretation, a complete disruption or end of such apostolic succession would mean that these promises were not kept as would an apostolic succession which, while formally intact, completely abandoned the teachings of the Apostles and their immediate successors; as, for example, if all the bishops of the world agreed to abrogate the Nicene Creed or to repudiate the Bible.

Both Orthodox and Catholics believe that each of their teachings today is the same as or is in essential harmony with the teaching of the first apostles, although each might deny this about the other, at least where the teachings of each are in conflict. This form of the doctrine was formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, in response to certain gnosticism. These Gnostics claimed that Christ or the Apostles passed on some teachings secretly, or that there were some secret apostles, and that they (the Gnostics) were passing on these otherwise secret teachings. Irenaeus responded that the identity of the original Apostles was well known, as was the main content of their teaching and the identity of the apostles' successors. Therefore, anyone teaching something contrary to what was known to be apostolic teaching was not, in any sense, a successor to the Apostles or to Christ.

Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the apostolic successions of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Old Catholic, and some Independent Catholic Churches. The Eastern Orthodox do not recognize Roman Catholics nor any other group as having Apostolic Succession, examples of economia such as the reception of Catholic priests by "vesting" rather than by re-ordination, notwithstanding.

Other Churches

Some Lutheran Churches, the Churches of the Porvoo Communion, and the Old Catholic Church (which is also in communion with the Anglican Communion) also believe that they ordain their bishops in the apostolic succession in line from the apostles.

Pope Leo XIII stated, in his 1896 Papal bull Apostolicae Curae that the Roman Catholic Church believes specifically that the Anglican Communion's consecrations are "absolutely invalid and utterly void" because of changes made to the rite of consecration under Edward VI of England, thus denying that Anglicans participate in the apostolic succession. A reply of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York (1896) countered Pope Leo's arguments.

The language of Leo's statement was reinforced in the accompanying commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem:

With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations... [4]

The Church of Sweden's apostolic succession is, according to some reports and despite its Lutheranism, seen by the Roman Catholic Church as having been maintained[citation needed] , and following the establishment of the Porvoo Communion an increasing number of Anglicans could alternatively trace their succession through Swedish bishops as well as Old Catholic Church bishops, whose holy orders are recognized as valid by Rome. The Utrecht Union, is in full communion with Archbishop of Canterbury since the Bonn Agreement (religion) of 1931. It should also be noted that since the issuance of Apostolicae Curae, many Anglican jurisdictions have revised their ordinals, bringing them more in line with ordinals emanating from the early Church.

In addition to a line of historic transmission, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy churches additionally require that a hierarch maintain Orthodox Church doctrine, which they hold to be that of the Apostles, as well as communion with other Orthodox bishops. The Eastern Orthodoxy have permitted clergy ordained by Catholic and Anglican bishops to be rapidly ordained within Orthodoxy. However, this is a matter of Economy (Eastern Orthodoxy) and not recognition of Apostolic Succession, although in some cases, Roman Catholic priests entering Eastern Orthodoxy have been received by "vesting" and have been allowed to function immediately within Orthodoxy as priests, which is still merely economia and not recognition of Apostolic Succession.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches, recognizes Catholic episcopal consecrations without qualification (and that recognition is reciprocated).

Protestant Churches

Bishops in the United Methodist Church do not claim to be within the historic episcopate in the same way as Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox bishops. They do, however, claim a corporate ("connectional") and theological form of Apostolic succession, and are not adverse t ... \n

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  1. Apostolicity - Catholic Encyclopedia article
  2. (Matthew 16:18)
  3. (Matthew 28:20)
  4. Doctrinal Commentary by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger accompanying Ad Tuendam Fidem, a Motu Proprio statement of Pope John Paul II, 18 May 1998