• Fr Lee Nelson

Three Meanings of Apostolic Succession with Archbishop Michael Ramsey


With the consecration of our bishop-coadjutor elect a little more than two weeks away, I thought I would offer some thoughts of Michael Ramsey, the great Archbishop of Canterbury of the last century on the apostolic office, particularly what is meant by the phrase “apostolic succession.” A bishop-coadjutor serves under a diocesan bishop ordinary (meaning the head of a diocese) until such time as that bishop leaves office. The Bishop Coadjutor Elect, Ryan Reed, will be consecrated a bishop on September 21st (details below) and will serve as coadjutor until Bishop Iker’s planned retirement at the end of the year. At that time, Bishop Reed will become the fourth bishop-ordinary of the diocese. 

Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s classic text “The Gospel and the Catholic Church” is essential reading for anyone seeking clarity not only as to the nature of the Church, but also with regard to the various offices in the Church, and how they serve for the work of the Gospel. In that book, Ramsey offers three senses of what the phrase “apostolic succession" means, and it is my aim to recount them here.

Succession of Teaching

In essence, the very word apostle implies that the message and teaching granted by Jesus Christ to his apostles is a message and teaching that first, they have no prerogative to change and second, that they must transmit to others. An apostle is one who is sent as a herald of a message not his own, a message which must be entrusted to others, much like in the ancient world, messages were often entrusted to runners who would relay messages from town to town. In our own ordinal, the bishop-elect is asked:

"Do you believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the Holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach or maintain nothing as necessary to eternal salvation but that which may be concluded and proved by the Scriptures?”

As a successor to the apostles, the bishop is to teach in conformity to Holy Scripture, held accountable to the other bishops to that end, so that there can be continuity of teaching. Ramsey says that "while the Church as a whole is the vessel into which the truth is poured, the Bishops are an important organ in carrying out this task.”

Succession of Office

At some point toward the end of the year, Bishop Reed will literally move into Bishop Iker’s office, but it is not only the physical office that he will assume, but his official function as well, particularly the tasks of preaching, governing, and ordaining. These were the tasks of the ancient apostles, and they continue to this day. But, again, each generation of bishops must continue in what they received, not being “tossed about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4), but standing firm in the faith. The bishop must not only preach himself, but expect of his clergy, that the gospel be preached and the faith proclaimed. He must, with the other members of the episcopal college, govern his diocese and the order of the wider Church. And finally, the bishop is responsible to make sure that those ordained, not just as priests and deacons, but those elected as bishops, are trustworthy for the work of the Gospel. 

When I was preparing to go to seminary and in seminary, Bishop Iker took the time to truly get to know me, not only out of a personal interest, but to make sure that I could be entrusted with priestly ministry. To this day, he checks to make sure that things are going well in the parish, and inquires to know what problems we face. He is also a pastor to me and my family.

Succession of Grace Through the Laying On of Hands

Finally, Ramsey identifies what is perhaps the  most controversial of the three means of describing apostolic succession, that there is grace in the laying on of the hands of other bishops. Since early days, the bishops of the Church have canonically required that at least three bishops participate in the laying on of hands to consecrate another bishop. This is done so that the succession can be maintained.

We Anglicans hold, as is evidenced in our Ordinal, that the laying of hands is given to pour out the Holy Spirit in power upon the Bishop elect for the office and work of a bishop. That is perhaps the last thing to say, that a bishop operates by the power of the Holy Spirit. This office and work is well beyond any man’s natural powers or abilities. It requires the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit!

So, I ask that you pray for Dean Ryan Reed as he assumes this office and work, received through many generations from the apostles for the building up of the Body of Christ.

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