Methodist/Anglican Thoughts on Apostolic Succession

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Apostolic Succession, and its validity, can be addressed in many different ways. The most traditional method is to look at the theory of Apostolic Succession in a mechanical sense. (ie, in Rome St. Paul laid his hand’s on Linus, who laid his hands on Clement, and so on, and so on, and so on . . . .etc.) There are, indeed, various historical problems involved in this scheme, mostly stemming from the simple fact that the early catholic (universal) Church didn’t establish a clear differentiation between Presbyter and Episcopos until around the middle of the second century. It would appear, based upon Scripture and what records we have from that time, that the leaders of every local congregation were called Presbyters, but that the chief leaders -- those who represented the congregation in early councils and such (people like Chloe [a woman!!!!] from 1 Corinthians) -- would be considered Presbyters and Episcopoi. Hence, from an early period in history the Episcopoi were Presbyters who exercised oversight powers for each congregation. As the years passed, and the Church grew in numbers, not all local congregations had Episcopoi (Bishops) -- they, subsequently, were under the local leadership of at least a single Presbyter (Priest), and under the general leadership of an Episcopos (Bishop) at some other church in the area. Hence, Dioceses developed -- following, in general, Roman Geopolitical divisions, just as we tend to follow our county and state boundaries in setting up State Conventions and Annual Conferences.

The method for passing on ministry from one generation in the Church to the next was set very early on. Clearly, a well defined ministry was in existence by the time of St. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, for he speaks at length about Episcopoi and Presbyters, as well as about the laying on of hands.

St. Paul does make reference to one of the duties of an Episcopos (in this case, Titus) being to appoint the Presbyters in every town ( Titus 1:5-9). He also makes reference to HIS laying hands upon Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6), in which a gift of God was planted in Timothy through the laying on of my hands. He also makes reference to the laying on of hands of the council of Presbyters (1 Timothy 4:14), which -- when taken together with St. Paul’s statement that he, himself, had lain hands upon Timothy -- leads us to the conclusion that it was the duty of the Episcopoi and Presbyters of a local congregation to lay on hands in the passing on of Grace for ministry. And, since the Episcopoi (Bishops) were the chief overseers of the church (much as were the Apostles before them), it is reasonable to assume that the Episcopoi exercised leadership in this activity. Indeed, Paul’s remark to Timothy (1 Tim. 5:22) that he should not lay on hands on anyone hastily, indicates that, as an Episcopos, Timothy played a key role in not just the act of ordination, but also the selection of who gets ordained.

Nowhere in Scripture do we find it stated, however, that only Episcopoi laid on hands for ordination to ministry. Nor can we find anything which limits the ordinational authority to just the Episcopoi. Such limitations began to appear in the practice of the Church around the middle of the second century and, for the most part, have continued on to this day in those denominations which have maintained the Episcopal form of Church Government.

If we look at Apostolic Succession as a mechanical, legalistic theory, then we are presented with a few problems. There are some significant reasons to suspect that there have been at least a few breaks in the order of succession. For example, we know that the church in North Africa had a series of breaks, where the last of a line of Bishops had died without having consecrated his successor. In these cases, the Presbyters (Elders) gathered together and elected one of their own to assume the Episcopal office. In most cases, three of the Presbyters would lay their hands on the head of a fourth and consecrate him to the Episcopacy. These Presbyters would never ordain other Presbyters, however. Their authority to consecrate a Bishop was limited to only those emergency situations. Once a Bishop was selected and ordained, he then continued the practice of ordaining Presbyters, and other Bishops, and the Presbyters never took it upon themselves to do it on their own as a matter of course.

The question that has been asked, throughout the history of the Church, has been how important is it that an Episcopacy (Bishop) be among those who lay on hands at the ordinations of Bishops? The Roman Catholic Church decided that, under normal conditions, it was so important for Bishops to do it that it became part of Cannon Law that a minimum of 3 be required for a valid ordination to the Episcopacy (if three are not available, 2 or 1 may be used). However, it should be noted that the Papacy has always recognized the validity of the North African Episcopal line -- even given these known breaks in the order of Succession! Hence, we are left with a simple conclusion: while it may be normal for Bishops, and only Bishops, to exercise the grace of ordination to Christian ministry, it is not absolutely necessary for there to be a Bishop present in the laying on of hands for such an ordination to be valid. What is necessary is that at least ordained Presbyters be the ones who lay on hands.

This conclusion has significant implications for the theory of Apostolic Succession. Essentially, it means that we're not talking about some mechanical Bishop-to-Bishop, hand-to-head passing on of power, but a stream of continuity within the Council of Presbyters and overseen and administered by the Episcopal office within the Presbyterate. There has been an unending continuity of ministry within the Presbyterial ranks of the Church from the days of the Apostles until now. So, even if a literal line of Bishop-to-Bishop consecrations cannot be absolutely maintained all the way back tot he Apostles, we can maintain a continuity of Apostolic ministry at the Presbyterial level from the days of the Apostles to the present.

This is, essentially, how the question is understood by the United Methodist Church. The UMC understands the whole "Connection" sharing in Apostolic Succession. Apostolicity is not just something that is shared among the Bishops, it is seated within the Order of the Presbyter (Elder) and conveyed from generation to generation through the office of the Episcopacy for both clerical orders: Elder and Deacon.

All of this being said, it is nevertheless true that there has been a significant degree of continuity in ministry even at the level of Bishop. For example, I can give you the names and dates of each and every Bishop in my clerical pedigree going back to John Wesley in 1784. To illustrate, I’ll do it.

Firstly, we must determine the method by which we are going to trace the line of ordination: through the Presbyterial Ordination of each Bishop in the Line of Succession or, according to the Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox approach, through the Episcopal Consecration of each Bishop in the Line of Succession. Good arguments can be made, within United Methodism, for going up the chain either way. In this paper I will approach the Line of Succession from the Episcopal Consecration of each Bishop.

Secondly, each Bishop (except for the first 2) were consecrated by 3 Bishops. Hence, the Line of Succession could easily be traced through any of the Bishops involved in the Consecration at each generation, however it is traditional in the Roman Catholic/Anglican approach that we reckon the line through the senior-most Bishop at each Consecration.

In 1991 I was ordained a Deacon and, in 1994, a Presbyter (or Elder) in The United Methodist Church by the Reverend Dr. Bruce P. Blake, Bishop of the North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

10. Bishop Bruce Blake was consecrated in 1988 by Bishops Richard Wilke, Benjamin Oliphint, and Lance Webb.

9. Bishop Lance Webb was consecrated in 1964 by Bishops Nolan Harmon, Arthur Wesley, and William Martin.

8. Bishop William Martin was consecrated in 1938 by Bishops Charles Burns, Edwin Mouzon, and John Tigert.

7. Bishop John Tigert was consecrated in 1906 by Bishops Joseph Hartzell, William Taylor, and Milton Wright.

6. Bishop Milton Wright was consecrated in 1877 by Bishops Enoch Marvin, Hubbard Kavanaugh, and and Matthew Simpson.

5. Bishop Matthew Simpson was consecrated in 1852 by Bishops William Capers, John Emory, and Joshua Soule.

4. Bishop Joshua Soule was consecrated in 1824 by Bishops Robert Roberts, Enoch George, and William McKendree.

3. Bishop William McKendree was consecrated in 1808 by Bishops Richard Whatcoat and Francis Asbury.

2. Bishop Francis Asbury was consecrated in 1784 by Bishop Thomas Coke.

1. Bishop Thomas Coke was consecrated in 1784 by Father John Wesley.

John Wesley was a Presbyter (Priest) of the Church of England, the founder of the Methodist Revival, and a Scriptural Episcopos. Until 1784 he had functioned in every way as a Bishop over the Methodist Societies. He educated the lay preachers, appointed them to their charges, oversaw the life and growth and orthodoxy of these societies, and represented these societies to the rest of the larger Church body of which they were a part (the Church of England). He had not, however, exercised the authority of an Episcopos in ordination of Deacons, Presbyters, or Bishops. However, due to the Revolutionary War, and the unwillingness of the Bishops of the Church of England to ordain a Bishop for the newly born United States of America, Wesley took it upon himself to provide an ordained ministry for America. He selected one of his preachers, who was also an Anglican Priest, ordained him a Bishop and sent him to the United States to found The Methodist Episcopal Church.

Father Wesley’s public justification for his action was the Alexandrian example of Presbyterial ordinations to the Episcopacy at times of critical emergency. And the Anglicans and Methodists in America were in a state of critical emergency. They had almost no ordained clergy and, therefore, the Sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion) were hard to obtain during those years. And, the Bishops of the Church of England had refused to provide an Episcopal Leadership for America. So, John Wesley did.

At this point the question exists as to which route we should take up the Episcopal Line. Should we go the Church of England route, through the Bishop of Oxford and a chain of Canterbury and occasional York Archbishops and Cardinals to St. Augustine of Canterbury, which is the method of preference among most Methodists and Anglicans, or should the alternative of the Greek Episcopal line through Bishop Erasmus be followed? I will not address in this paper the theory and controversy surrounding Wesley's possible consecration to the Episcopal office by Bishop Erasmus of Arcadia. Suffice it to say, arguments can be made from either direction to either substantiate or put to rest the rumor/theory that this actually happened. I tend to believe that where there is smoke there is usually fire, hence it may well be the case that such a consecration line should be followed. When one reads the literature of the 19th century Methodist Episcopal Church on this subject, it is clear that many of the Bishops and Theologians of the period -- including Bishops Coke and Asbury -- believed that Wesley was acting based, at least in-part, upon a clandestine consecration by Bishop Erasmus, however evidence as to the validity of their belief in this regard is difficult to come by in the 20th Century. Hence, I shall simply take the alternative, majority-approved Anglican route and follow it on up the line. As for a lengthy discussion on the controversial, clandestine consecration of Wesley by Bishop Erasmus ... that will have to wait for a future paper.

To trace Wesley's ordinaiton up the Anglican line will need to look into the History of the Church of England. This is quite easy to do thanks to the depth and accuracy of all the records which are available to us today. Indeed, thanks to the easy availability of information, I could go in depth into the line, and give names and dates going back to the foundation of the Episcopacy in England. However, that is not exactly necessary for the purposes of substantiating that there is such a thing as an Apostolic Succession -- i.e., a continuity of ministry from the Apostles to today -- and that the Methodist Episcopacy stands within that succession.

John Wesley was ordained a Deacon on September 19, 1724, and a Presbyter (Priest) on September 22, 1728, by the Bishop of Oxford and Regius Professor of Divinity at Christ Church, Dr. John Potter. The line continues backward as follows:

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

This line of Episcopal consecration can be traced unbroken straight back to the disruptions of the Episcopacy under Queen "Bloody" Mary in the 1500s. These disruptions were not destructive to the line of Apostolic Succession because 7 Bishops who had been consecrated during the reigns of King Henry VIII and King Edward were available to consecrate the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Three Bishops were all that were needed, however: William Barlow (consecrated in 1536), Miles Coverdale (consecrated in 1548) and John Hodgkins (consecrated in 1551).

In other words, the Reformation didn’t disrupt the Apostolic succession in the Church of England. An example can be seen in William Barlow, mentioned above, who was validly consecrated by 3 English Bishops, one of whom was consecrated by Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and the last Roman Catholic Cardinal in England.

From either Cardinal Wolsey or, indeed, through Archbishop Thomas Cramner, we can trace the Apostolic Succession in the English Church straight back to Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 600 AD. There were earlier Bishops in England -- indeed, English Bishops were present at the Great Ecumenical Councils in the 300 and 400s AD -- and we could trace the Episcopal line through any/all of them if we so wished. Since some of these Bishops -- and, specifically, the Bishops of the Church in Wales -- eventually participated in many Episcopal consecrations along with the Canterbury line, an argument can be made that English Apostolicity can be traced back to the early expansion of the Church from Gaul into England and Wales in the early 200s AD. If we go that way, we discover that the Welsh Episcopal line intersects with the Canterbury line in Gaul. For ease of research, and in the name of ecumenical amity with Rome, we'll follow the line through St. Augustine of Canterbury.

Following Cramner's consecration line, the succession runs backwards in time as follows:

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

Augustine was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in 601 AD by three Bishops of Gaul, the same line which originally evangelized England in the 200s AD. The church in Gaul was originally planted there by missionaries from Ephesus in the mid-to-late 100s AD. Its Episcopacy was established by St. Irenaeus, who was consecrated by the Bishop of Ephesus and sent to serve as Bishop of Lyons in 177 AD. Irenaeus tells us in his histories about sending missionaries into Roman Britain, and the planting of churches and the sending of Bishops to "shepherd the Body of Christ in that northern island." The Episcopal Line in Lyons can be traced as follows:

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

The Church in Ephesus can, according to council proceedings and the witness of other early Church Fathers (Like Polycarp of Smyrna and Clement of Rome) trace its Apostolic line to St. Timothy, upon whose head St. Paul the Apostle laid his hands:

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+


© 1997 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from