The Significance of Apostolic Succession: Part 1

by Metropolitan Sergii (Stragorodsky)

Yeah, it really is that important.

The prestige of our contemporary Church hierarchy, its Divinely established rights and authority, rests on the historical fact of its Apostolic succession. This is the present teaching of the Orthodox Church, and such was its ancient teaching during the period of the “undivided” Church as is customarily expressed in the theological literature of the West. It is not surprising that the heterodox groups separated from the Church who wish, unlike the Protestants, not to sever themselves from their past, preserve this teaching and value the Apostolic succession of its hierarchy, if they are able to prove it.

The question of Apostolic succession inevitably comes up in any attempt of union of heterodox groups with the Orthodox Church or, as the subject is posed, again in the West, in conjunction with judging the rights of one or another self-established “Church” (Old Catholics, etc.) with respect to their being a part of the Church Universal. For example, there is a mass of theological literature on the Anglican hierarchy with both those who oppose and those who support its recognition, resting their case on Apostolic succession; with the former rejecting it and the latter proving it.

The question is raised: how does the Orthodox Church look upon the preservation of Apostolic succession among heterodox hierarchs? Do these circumstances have, in her eyes, any significance other than historical? In other words, does the substantial presence of succession have any bearing on the judgement by our Church of a particular heterodox group and specifically of its clergy?

There is a view which would respond to this question with a definite NO! Christ’s Church, say those who side with this view, sees itself as the sole earthly treasury of redemptive grace (“I believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”). She alone has the authentic Apostolic hierarchy which distributes the Mysteries of salvation. The heterodox groups separated from the Church, no matter how they may differ among themselves: whether they apparently have an Apostolic hierarchy or not, those who desire to have a priesthood and those who do not recognize it, all form, as far as the Church is concerned, one common homogenous mass which is lacking in grace, Christians only by the inaccurate application of that term.

It is true that the Church has three orders for the reception of heterodox: one is through baptism, as if they were pagans, the other through chrismation and the third through repentance, with clerics, in the latter case, received in their present order. These three orders for reception in no way presuppose some kind of a three tier heterodoxy: in the one instance the Church would recognize no sacraments, with others a recognition of baptism and with the third not only baptism but chrismation and ordination, and in each appropriate order for reception, completing that which is lacking.

Applying a stricter order for reception to one heterodox group and a more liberal order to another.

The correctness of the above view is demonstrated, it is said, not only by its faithfulness to dogma but by its continuous development and especially in the radical change in the Church’s practice in relation to the heterodox. For example, the Russian Church at first received Catholics through the third form and in existing orders. Later it started to re-baptize and then again returned to the former practice, which it presently maintains.

The Greek Church, on the other hand, at first received Catholics as we do, but since the XVIII C. began to re-baptize. At the same time the Greek Church not only avoids criticizing our practice but under certain circumstances is ready to make an exception to their strict rule. In recognizing Anglican orders the Greek Church logically must liberalize and perhaps already has liberalized its practice with respect to Catholics (a reminder that this was written in 1935). This inconsistency is found in the practice of the ancient Church with respect to various groups (e.g. Donatists and others). It is futile to try to find some kind of a system in this variety and to find appropriate dogmatic foundations for the practices of the Church. There is no system here and the Church does not need any dogmatic basis to apply, instead of the first form, the second or the third.

The Church can act here in complete freedom, choosing at its own discretion that which is more appropriate under given circumstances and what is more beneficial in a given time.

The above view expresses a dogmatic consistency and by immediately dispelling any doubt and lack of clarity in relation to the heterodox. It is sufficient for an heterodox to come into the Church’s vineyard and whatever he brings with him, the Church will reward him equally as with her own faithful sons. Thus the late Archbishop Hilarion answered an Anglican professor:

“Stop wrestling with the question whether you have (sviaschenstvo) valid orders or not. Come directly to the Church. She will receive you without any humiliation, without re-baptism, without re-ordination, and will give you, from her plenitude, a place in the bosom of the Universal Church of Christ, valid (blagodatnoye) priesthood, and everything.”

We do not however have the Catholic principle by which a dogma determines history. We Orthodox cannot close our eyes to the witness of the latter. Seeing a conflict between dogma and history we must first ask ourselves whether we correctly understand the Church’s dogma. In the present instance what history shows is not in favor of the present understanding. The Church’s practice with respect to heterodox is truly extremely inconsistent and unstable.The importance of ecclesiastical economy in the case of the reception of heterodox is very great. In all this however, there is a firm line which the Church, in its practice, does not cross. This line is the absence of proper Apostolic succession in the episcopal ordination of a given group (along with the Apostolic teaching on the priesthood). No matter how persistent be the conclusions of ecclesiastical economy, the Church does not receive such members into its bosom by the third form (without chrismation) and in no way would receive a cleric without an Orthodox ordination. For example a Lutheran pastor, a Scottish presbyter, an Old Believer preceptor, and such others, can be exemplary individuals and worthy of Orthodox priesthood but they cannot be admitted to Orders without ordination since they would not receive implicite the grace of priesthood through repentance (in the third form).

Thus the presence of Apostolic succession prominently identifies a particular group of heterodox out of the whole mass. Only those who preserved that succession will be received by the Church among its clergy without ordination. Does the Church recognize such ordinations valid (blagodantnye)?

The defenders of the view under discussion explain things differently. The Church, they say, holds precious the Apostolic succession as such, and in this case does not want to violate the external forms, preserved since the Apostles, even if these forms outside the Church became empty, having lost the content of Apostolic grace.

The evidence of the Church’s practice again do not present the Church’s teaching in that light. For example our rule for receiving Catholic priests in their order is extended to such a point that if such a priest for example, wishing to get married, does not want to be admitted in his order, nevertheless after being received into the bosom of the Orthodox Church, will be considered not simply a layman but a laicized priest and as such he would never be eligible to receive Orthodox ordination. It is difficult to concede that this is only because of the Church’s respect for an empty form, she would deprive an otherwise worthy person of becoming an Orthodox cleric especially since her laws permit the married state for its clerics.

If it can be said that the Church in this instance punishes a moral instability undesirable in a cleric, a rejection of a burden (cross) once accepted, why then should the Church not punish a Lutheran pastor, an Old Believer leader and such others who, at the time of admission into the Church do not immediately enter the Orthodox clergy and who later will seek this?

The Church understands Apostolic succession not merely as an external mechanical transfer of the very act of ordination but also the faith connected with this act namely the preservation of the Apostolic teaching on the grace of priesthood within a given group.

This doesn’t tie in too well with the view being analyzed. To receive an empty form lacking in grace, and at the same time to believe, in accordance with the Apostolic teaching, that one is receiving Divine grace, and to experience with this the appropriate thoughts and feelings, would be a self-delusion or, in theological language, a novelty. Novelties are not to be indulged in but should be fought with all available means. It would appear that in this case the Church somehow is attempting to keep the person undisturbed in his novelty, as if it is afraid to disturb the person’s false convictions that he received effective grace in his heterodox ordination. Leaving aside the need for an Orthodox ordination the Church invents a special order for reception, that through the Mystery of repentance to convey implicit, and imperceptibly to the recipient, the grace of priesthood. Thus it would be closer to the truth and to the teaching of the Church to assume that where, outside the Church, the Apostolic succession, i.e. the Apostolic form of ordination and the Apostolic teaching about the grace of the priesthood has been preserved, there in the mind of the Church, ordination is not simply a form without grace and thus is not repeated in receiving such clerics into the Orthodox priesthood.

It is more correct to understand the Church’s teaching in this manner than to invent some kind of imposition of sacraments implicit, for which no evidence can be found in the Church’s canons or in Patristic literature and in fact there are sources which oppose this.

We must admit that this subtle invention simplifies pastoral and missionary practice and dispels all doubt. For example, a person considering himself Orthodox, receives Communion and then discovers that he has not been baptized. What to do? Answer: inasmuch as he has received communion he received the plenitude of grace and is not in need of baptism. Or: upon the reception of whole Renovationist parishes, what to do with infants chrismated by the Renovationists? Answer: Administer communion to everyone during the first Liturgy and the problem is over. But these advisors are in effect throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Wishing to avoid unnecessary noise and embarrassment which is inevitable in the performance of sacraments for those who considered themselves or were considered by others as having received the sacraments, the advisors conclude “what if ?” and leave open to doubt a more important problem: are the sacraments of any benefit for those who have not formally entered the Church? Is this not food for the dead? In any case, Canon 1 of Timothy of Alexandria states: a catechumen who receives communion by mistake is not relieved from being baptized as if he has already received the plenitude of grace without baptism, but he must be baptized without completing the catechumenate. [“Let him be illumined i.e. baptized, for he is called by God”]

In general, Church canons are completely against “what if” [conditional] conclusions in such important cases where the matter is a re-birth in grace and sanctification even of a single person. According to Carthage 83 [72] an infant whose baptism is questionable should not be brought to communion, thinking that he will receive everything. The canon states

” . . .all such children should be baptized without scruple, lest a hesitation should deprive them of the cleansing of the sacraments.”

This was considered of such importance that the Trullo Council (E.C. VI:84) found it necessary to reiterate the Carthage canon for the ecumenical practice. Thus the Church in its canons prefers to risk the repetition of the non-repetitious sacrament (Apost. 47) rather than teach of the possibility of this sacrament implicite. Evidently, the reason for such a teaching appears to be most appropriate.

One can be certain that if the Church of Christ had any doubt about the authenticity of heterodox sacraments, it would have in all sincerity expressed this doubt, directing that the essential ones be repeated and it would not try to hide these doubts, the more so of its certainty in the ineffectiveness of the mysteries, by granting them implicite.

I think (as I proposed in my essay in JMP 2-4 for 1931) that many things in the relations of the Church with the heterodox will be understood if we do not overlook the fact that the heterodox do not think of the Church as something independent and completely foreign to them, as adhering to a different creed, that the heterodox fall into the category of the fallen or penitents: the fallen excluded from participating in the mysteries, some excluded from prayers, but somehow they still remain in the Church and under its influence.

The heterodox are separated from the Church more so than the fallen; they not only sin but they do not recognize the Church and fight against it. However the Church’s relation to them is as if they were fallen. This is clearly condemned

“…hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 1:23), but by no means malevolently and not with enmity “saving with fear.” The Church ” hands them over to Satan so that their spirit may be saved” (I Cor. 5:5).

In other words the Church’s relations with heterodoxy is one of the functions of the Church’s judgement broadly understood to be a corrective measure for the fallen. It is natural that this relationship reflects the general functions of judgement.

It is important to point out in this case a general negative trait which characterizes the Church’s court, that while it can take away (permanently or temporarily) what was given in the mysteries, it cannot on its own authority grant that which can only be received through the mysteries: the court cannot recognize one who is not baptized to be baptized; a layman to be a priest, etc. This is especially so with the heterodox: those whom the Church does not find to be properly baptized cannot be received without baptism; those who do not have proper priesthood are not taken into its clergy without its own ordination.




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