United Methodism and Apostolic Succession

Apostolic Ministry or Apostolic Succession

The United Methodist Book of Discipline frequently uses the word “apostolic” to describe the church and its ministry. In its discussion of the ordained ministry, it says:

¶ 302. Ordination and Apostolic Ministry . . . The apostles led in prayer, teaching and preaching, ordered the spiritual and temporal life of the community, established leadership for the ministry of service, and provided for the proclamation of the gospel to new persons and in new places. The early church, through the laying on of hands, set apart persons with responsibility to preach, to teach, to administer the sacraments, to nurture, to heal, to gather the community in worship, and to send them forth in witness.

But while the Book of Discipline is comfortable speaking about apostolic ministry, it never even mentions the concept known as “apostolic succession.” In its most literal sense, apostolic succession refers to the chain of authority that is passed from generation to generation of episcopal leadership through the laying on of hands. Depending on your point of view, the physical act may or may not be important. Perhaps some sort of spiritual endowment or charisma is passed through physical contact. To me, however, the laying on of hands in apostolic succession represents something else: the unity of the church in space and time, and continuity with apostolic tradition.

Methodism’s Irregular Apostolic Succession

We United Methodists have, at best, an irregular claim to apostolic succession. In the Anglo-Catholic-Orthodox tradition, only bishops ordinarily have the authority to ordain. Thomas Coke, our first bishop, was an ordained presbyter in the Church of England who was irregularly consecrated as a “superintendent” by John Wesley, who himself was an ordained Anglican presbyter. The Methodists in the newly independent United States were in desperate need of ordained clergy to conduct baptisms and lead communion. Due to the recent struggles, however, clergy of the Church of England were in short supply in the former colonies, and the English bishops had no interest in ordaining bishops to support American Methodists. Following his consecration by Wesley, Coke sailed to America and ordained Francis Asbury, through whom United Methodist bishops ultimately trace their ordination.

How could Wesley take this step?

Some claim that Wesley had been secretly ordained a bishop by a supposed Orthodox bishop in exile named Erasmus of Aracadia, thus legitimizing his consecration of Coke (and ordination of Vessey and Whatcoat). Whether this ever happened and whether Erasmus was in fact an Orthodox bishop is a matter of frequent academic debate. In either case, this would have hardly made Coke’s consecration less irregular.

At Wesley’s request, Erasmus ordained a Methodist preacher as a presbyter, but Wesley soon regretted setting the precedent. It turned out that Erasmus was the forerunner of internet ordinations. Other less-suited individuals also sought ordination by Erasmus without Wesley’s endorsement. Wesley eventually had to put them out of the society. Strange bishops wandering around tossing ordinations about is no basis for a system of ecclesiastical government.

More substantially, Wesley was following a precedent that presbyters could consecrate bishops in extraordinary circumstances. There were occasions when properly ordained bishops were not available. In other words, there were gaps in apostolic succession at the episcopal level. When the Western Roman Empire began to come apart due to external invasions and internal weakness, churches in Africa found themselves isolated from the rest of the church and at a loss for episcopal leadership. In this instance, a group of presbyters got together and ordained a bishop on their own. The Catholic Church eventually accepted this irregular arrangement because of the emergency situation.

Wesley and the Principle of Apostolic Succession

Wesley saw the situation in America as an emergency that required extraordinary actions. In general, however, he still respected the principle of apostolic succession. In December 1745, Wesley wrote to a certain Mr. Hall who encouraged him to leave the Church of England because it was too dependent upon its Roman foundation. Wesley says that his correspondent asserted that dependence “on a succession supposed to be from the Apostles, and a commission derived from the Pope of Rome, and his successors or dependents” was unbiblical. Wesley responded,

We believe it would not be right for us to administer either baptism or the Lord’s Supper, unless we had a commission so to do from those bishops whom we apprehend to be in a succession from the Apostles. And yet we allow these bishops are the successors of those who were dependent on the bishop of Rome. But we would be glad to know, on what reasons you believe this to be inconsistent with the word of God?

Wesley, the Scriptural Episcopos

Wesley also believed, however, that God called him to an extraordinary task in the founding and governance of the Methodist movement. As an ordained presbyter fulfilling the role of “overseer,” he believed that God had set him apart as a functional bishop.

I am now firmly attached to the Church of England as I ever was since you knew me. But meantime I know myself to be as real a Christian bishop as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet I was always resolved, and am so still, never to act as such except in cases of necessity.

Although Wesley resolved not to disrupt the accepted order of the national church, he came to believe that bishops and elders were of the same Biblical order. The difference between them lay in their function, not their ordination.

Episcopal Ordination or Consecration

Following Wesley’s lead, United Methodists have ordered themselves so that our bishops are simply ordained elders who have been elected to fulfill an episcopal function. United Methodists only recognize two orders of ministry to which one may be ordained: elders and deacons. Our Anglican and Catholic siblings recognize three: bishops, elders and deacons. Within United Methodism, the episcopacy is an office to which one may be consecrated, not an order of ministry to which one may be ordained. Bishops are elected from among the ordained elders, and they remain elders during throughout their episcopacy.

Where Anglo-Catholic churches ordinarily trace apostolic succession solely through the episcopacy, the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH) traces our bishops “Ordination Chain” through the bishops who ordained them as elders. So, for example, my ordination as elder flows through:

  • Ernest Fitzgerald, elected bishop in 1984, ordained elder by
  • Costen Jordan Harrell, elected bishop in 1944, ordained elder by
  • Richard Green Waterhouse, elected bishop in 1910, ordained elder by
  • John Christian Keener, elected bishop in 1870, ordained elder by
  • James Osgood Andrew, elected bishop in 1832, ordained elder by
  • William M’Kendree, elected bishop in 1808, ordained elder by
  • Francis Asbury, elected bishop in 1784 by the Christmas conference, ordained elder by
  • Thomas Coke, appointed superintendent by John Wesley, ordained elder within the Church of England

See the entire GCAH “Ordination Chain” here.

From Wesley to Christ

United Methodist pastor Dr. Gregory Neal follows apostolic succession in back in time from Wesley through the Church of England.

  • Dr. John Potter, 1715
  • Dr. Baxter Tenison, 1701
  • Dr. Philip Tillotson, 1683
  • Niles Sancroft, 1658
  • William Laude, 1633
  • Kyle Abbot, 1610
  • Richard Bancroft, 1604
  • Mark Whitgift, 1577
  • Steven Grendall, 1575
  • Dr. Parker, 1559
  • Phillip Barlow, Bishop of London 1536

And then through English Catholicism:

  • Thomas Cranmer, 1533
  • William Warham, 1503
  • Cardinal Morton, 1488
  • Cardinal Bourchier, 1469
  • Cardinal Kemp, 1452
  • Henry Chichele, 1413
  • James Abingdon, 1381
  • Simon Sudbury, 1367
  • Simon Langham, 1327
  • Walter Reynolds, 1313
  • Robert of Winchelsea, 1293
  • John Peckham, 1279
  • Robert Kilwardby, 1269
  • Boniface of Savoy, 1252
  • Edmund, 1234
  • Richard Weathershed, 1230
  • Stephen Langton, 1205
  • Hubert Walter, 1197
  • Fitz-Jocelin, 1191
  • Reginal, 1183
  • Baldwin, 1178
  • Richard, 1170
  • Thomas Becket, 1162
  • Theobald, 1139
  • William de Corbeuil, 1122
  • Ralph d’Escures, 1109
  • St. Anselm, 1093
  • Wulfstan, 1064
  • Edmund, 1012
  • Elphege, 1006
  • Aelfric, 995
  • Sigeric, 990
  • Ethelgar, 988
  • Dunstan, 959
  • Odo, 941
  • Phlegmund, 890
  • Rufus, 859
  • Cuthbert, 814
  • Herefrid, 788
  • Egbert, 749
  • Ethelburh, 712
  • Theodore, 668
  • Deusdedit, 652
  • Justus, 635
  • Laurentius, 604
  • St. Augustine, 601

And then through Gaul to Ephesus:

  • Aetherius, 591
  • Maximus Lyster, 587
  • St. Mark Pireu, 581
  • John, 562
  • Gregory II, 547
  • Linus, 532
  • St. Evarestus, 502
  • Christopher III, 485
  • Christopher II, 472
  • Timothy Eumenes, 468
  • Clement of Lyons, 436
  • Basil, 415
  • James, 413
  • St. Christopher, 394
  • Paul Anencletus “the Elder”, 330
  • Mark Leuvian, 312
  • Pious Stephenas, 291
  • Andrew Meletius, 283
  • Gregory Antilas, 276
  • St. Matthias, 276
  • Philip Deoderus, 241
  • Maximus, 203
  • St. Nicomedian, 180
  • St. Irenaeus, 177

And then through the early church to Christ:

  • St. Polycrates, 175
  • Lucius, 156
  • Demetrius, 131
  • St. John the Elder, 113
  • St. Onesemus, 91
  • St. Timothy, 62
  • St. Paul the Apostle, 33
  • Jesus Christ

Given GCAH’s decision to trace the Bishop’s “Ordination Chain” through elder’s orders, I wonder if Dr. Neal should not have led us back to England through Dr. Coke instead of through Mr. Wesley.

In any case, United Methodist polity requires a change in how United Methodists calculate apostolic succession beginning with Mr. Wesley’s irregular consecration of Dr. Coke. Prior to Wesley, the entire Anglo-Catholic tradition thought about apostolic succession as something passed from bishop to bishop through episcopal ordination. United Methodists now see it as something passed from elder to elder, although only those consecrated as bishop have the right to ordain, and then only upon the recommendation of the Board of Ordained Ministry and election by the annual conference’s elders in full connection (and following the requirements and procedures in the church’s Book of Discipline).

That’s how United Methodists see apostolic succession if they think about it at all. Most don’t. As noted above, the Book of Discipline doesn’t really address it. What makes the church’s ordained ministry “apostolic” is left floating in the breeze.