Apostolic Succession

The Apostolic Succession was understood by the Early Church to be multi-faceted. First, in the days of oral tradition transmission the succession was understood as being a quick means to determine if the faith being proclaimed was true; by tracing a cleric’s apostolic heritage/lines one could tell if the teachings that the cleric was taught, was the same as that originally taught by the Christ’s Apostles and then passed on by each generation that followed.  Over the millennia that followed, the use of the recitation of lines became a less useful test of valid doctrine, but the correctness of doctrine continues to be as key today for identifying a valid catholic church as it was for the earliest followers.  A Church must adhere to the deposit of faith held by the Early Church for that entity to be Apostolic. This is why the Creeds and teachings a Church lists as the base of their faith are important. They specify if the Church holds to the same core original understanding as that held by the Early Church.


A second component was understood to the transmission of spiritual power. Christ empowered his apostles for the work committed to them, and they in turn passed that spiritual empowerment down through ordination and the laying of hands to their successors through every generation that followed. Since you cannot give that which you do not possess, a break in the succession, breaks the line of passed spiritual power, which is the power to confect the Eucharist into the Body of Christ, and the power to forgive sins. It is important to note that these understandings predated the emergence of either the Western or Eastern Churches that subsequently developed.


An individual Church may hold one line or many. Since there is no single library or storage place listing legitimate bishops, i.e., those who could pass on the spiritual power given to them in ordination, it became important especially for smaller churches, to be able to prove that their Apostolic Lines of spiritual power were intact and adequate. The easiest way to accomplish this was to hold many accepted lines. The were two other impulses in the first seventy years of the twentieth century that also affected the desire to spread lines among churches.  The first was a recognition that lines tightly held could easily be lost to the world, as almost happened with the Russian Orthodox Church during the Bolshevik Revolution. The second was ecumenically driven. Churches at this time were seeking to create visible unity through mergers and concordats. Sharing the Apostolic Succession among churches became a way of sharing each church’s spiritual legacy and gifts with its new ecumenical partners. This was done by having validly consecrated bishops share their lines through sub-conditione ordinations.


The United Catholic Church is a beneficiary of three of these impulses.  The graphic below quickly highlights many of those relationships. For those interested, the detail of our succession is discussed in the three linked files that follow.