Apostolic order: Dr Michael Hull

The Scottish Episcopal Church uses the strapline ‘evangelical truth, apostolic order’. Though each of the words is found in the New Testament, the phrase as such was coined by the American Episcopal priest John Henry Hobart in 1807. He called it his ‘banner’. (He was later consecrated the third Bishop of New York in 1816.) Hobart was keen to accent both evangelical truth and apostolic order in the Christian life.

Apostolic order is the polity of the Church of God as willed by Jesus himself, clearly evidenced in the New Testament, closely followed in the early church and with us today in the Scottish Episcopal Church and many denominations (like Roman Catholic, Orthodox Churches and Lutheran Churches) and communions of churches (like the Anglican Communion and Porvoo Communion). Apostolic ordering is the inviolate retention ‘in the sacred ministry [of] the three orders of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, as of Divine Institution’ (Canon 1).

The New Testament and church history are replete with examples of apostolic ordering as essential to the church’s life. We need only look to the Acts of the Apostles. Take, for instance, the church’s response to the betrayal of Judas Iscariot in Acts 2.12–26. Immediately after the Ascension and before Pentecost, the (now eleven) apostles, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and the brothers gather to elect a replacement for Judas in the person of St Matthias. The election is not about maintaining the number twelve, even if that number is important in symbolising the continuity of the whole house of Israel in terms of twelve tribes; it is about the enduring nature of the apostolic order that is often featured in the Acts.

In Acts 14, we see St Paul referring to himself and St Barnabas as ‘apostles’ and ‘appointing priests’. This is followed a bit later by Acts 20.17–37. The verses recount Paul’s summoning of the priests, who exercise the office of bishop in Ephesus, to Melitus. Paul exhorts them to follow his example, to take heed of themselves and their flocks, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus. These events are consequences of situations, often recounted elsewhere in the Acts, but particularly in Acts 6, of the disciples, the church, growing in number and, therefore, growing in need of bishops, priests and deacons to exercise the sacred ministry. Acts 6 tells an all-too-human story of dissention within the church between different groups of disciples to the effect that those disciples recruited and selected for the sacred ministry are crucial to its service and unity.

Church history echoes the same theme. St Clement of Rome, writing at the close of the first century AD, intervenes when discord hits the Corinthian church, which had been founded by Paul only a few decades earlier, to remind them that the Lord Jesus envisioned strife and for that very reason desired the appointment of leaders and their successors (1 Clement 44). Only a score or so years later, we find St Ignatius of Antioch writing letters wherein he speaks of local churches as having a bishop, presbyters and deacons as the norm. Seeing the bishop as the overseer of the disciples, including the priests and deacons, in a given geographical area (diocese), Ignatius writes, ‘Do nothing without the bishop, keep your body as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as he was an imitator of the Father’ (Letter to the Philadelphians 7.1–2). Other towering figures in the early church like St Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus and Origen (among others) concur in their writing on apostolic order. Indeed, apostolic order is so important that it is one of the four marks (attributes) of the church as defined in the Nicene Creed: ‘We believe […] in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. Apostolic succession and the validity of the sacraments are bound up in the constancy of apostolic orders, especially the episcopacy, and with the transmission of doctrine (Canon 6 §2). It is no accident that we refer to ourselves as an ‘episcopal church’ with a College of Bishops who trace their episcopal consecrations to the apostles and, therefore, to the Lord Jesus.

Yet, there is a temptation today to neglect the acumen of our strapline from Hobart’s banner, ‘apostolic order’, in such wise as to think that the sacred orders of deacon, priest and bishop to be accidental or nonessential to the vitality of the universal Church of God. The opposite is true. We should resist any temptation otherwise. Holy Scripture and church history are clear that apostolic order is essential to our ecclesial well-being and our discipleship. As Paul writes, we must stand firm and hold to the traditions that were taught by our forebears in the faith (2 Thessalonians 2.15).

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015, and is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.