July 12, 2020

Lisa Dye: Succession Is For Us Too

apostolic-successionSuccession Is For Us Too
By Lisa Dye

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

—The Nicene Creed

I remember standing in my old Presbyterian church as a girl, feeling the cool stone floors under my feet and smelling the polished wood of the pews. I admired the gothic architecture, the stone interior, the arched windows and the rich tapestries hanging in the choir loft. An adventurous friend had once led me on a tour of the cavernous structure. We whispered and giggled and tried to stay hidden from a janitor in hot pursuit of who he thought to be intruders or vandals. The church seemed like a castle or great cathedral and I enjoyed the thrill of trying to elude capture. Being there was a happy experience and it gave me a peaceful respite from upsetting things that happened at home. Eventually, I had a youth leader there who would give me my own Bible and make me hungry to know God.

It was in this church that I learned the words to great hymns and began to sense that God was real and holy, though I thought it strange that weekly we recited the words to the Nicene Creed. Why did we believe in one holy catholic apostolic church if we were standing there in Tabernacle Presbyterian Church? I fixated on the word “catholic” every time for a very long time. Yes, I finally figured out what catholic meant, but stopped thinking about these words during later years when I attended a non-denominational church … the years of not reciting the creeds.

Recently, I’ve had a hunger to renew my familiarity with some of the ancient statements of faith. I’ve heard the arguments against reciting religious words by rote and formerly shared the sentiment. One day it dawned on me that hymn singing was essentially the same, only with melody. Most of us either sing or have sung hymns. Psalms were meant for singing, though now we usually just memorize one or two or a few to speak or think about because they are Scripture. We forget they are songs and few, if any, people on earth know the original melodies. Whether we sing or recite something from memory we are practicing a form of meditation and it provides an opportunity for its deeper meanings to develop and grow within us. I have come to appreciate how singing hymns, memorizing Scripture and reciting the creeds and praying old prayers helps to form our theology. It is a way that spiritual revelation, born from those who walked and fished and ate and preached with Jesus, is passed on from generation to generation. It is the succession of Christian knowledge and understanding.

Of late, I have thought more about the idea of succession and many years after standing in my old church reciting the Nicene Creed, the word “apostolic,” the fourth mark of the Church, jumped out and grabbed me. I began to wonder exactly what it means and if I really do believe in an apostolic church as I professed from habit all those years ago.

I am struck by the implications and significance for the Church as a whole and for us as individuals, though still trying to examine the full meaning. As with most people, much of my spiritual thought and practice arises from the culture in which I was raised. Culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what often makes us feel at home in the world. But culture is usually decidedly opinionated and subjective. Knowing this about my own cultural influences and realizing the haphazardness of the theological formation I received, I find myself distrusting of my own conclusions. For this reason, I believe I will always be in the process of being formed. Michaelangelo once wrote, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I think this applies to how we develop in our thinking and practice as we walk with God. If we will let him, He will be the sculptor chipping away at us until a beautiful form emerges … that is if we don’t resist his chipping and settle prematurely into hardened and unformed miscarriages born of skewed culture and smug thinking.

I’m not a theologian, so I can barely wade into the meaning and importance of apostolic succession, but it is the launching point for a more personal application. Either way, the subject seems worth thinking about and discussing for the good of the whole Church and, on an individual level, for the good of our people who come after us.

For some, including Catholics, Orthodox and certain of the Protestant denominations, apostolic offices are taken as a permanent assembly. Passages such as Acts 20:28, I Corinthians 12:27-31, I Corinthians 15:3-11, I Peter 5:2-4, I Timothy 1:11,12 and II Timothy 2:2 have given rise to hierarchies in the Church, with bishops believed to be the spiritual descendents of the apostles, their offices continuing to the end of time and their mission of handing on the Gospel continuing as well.

For others, namely, certain Protestant denominations … or non-denominations, apostolic succession is taken more symbolically or perhaps not taken at all. The same passages listed above may be applied generally rather than exclusively. Believing in the priesthood of all believers, many Protestants take these passages as intended for all Christians and not a hierarchy of clerics. My perception as a young and not-thinking-very-hard-about-it Protestant was that we believed that the teachings of the apostles laid the foundation of our belief, but not necessarily that their mantle of apostleship passed to a successor. At least, this was my perception from what I saw going on around me. This is where I have lived all my Christian life. Those several years ago, I recited the Creed along with my fellow churchgoers, but I believed it in a way that lacked a concrete application. Later, in my non-denominational church, we gave no real recognition of it at all. To be honest, I didn’t notice. We weren’t behaving like a cult. We worshiped. We walked with Christ. We prayed. We served.

We also trail blazed. We pioneered. We stood alone as a church in a sea of churches and we often forgot about the Church. We re-invented the wheel … dare I say, a lop-sided wheel at that? We used up and spit out pastors faster than … well, pretty fast. As far as succession, there was none. I think I grew weary and leery of this approach long before I associated it with my questions about apostolic succession.

When I did start considering succession I wondered how it would change things in the Body of Christ if we viewed our ministers as anointed and in a long line of anointed ones with the torch for a ministry or responsibility being passed from one to another, much as a kingdom passes from one king to the next. We might be at least kinder, more respectful and submissive to authority if we saw our pastors to be descended, spiritually speaking, from the Apostle Paul … or name your favorite apostle. (Lest you think me naïve, I see the potential and know actual examples of how this can be abused … perhaps a topic for another day.) If we kept in view of the apostles’ original mission, we might be less likely to morph, to split and to insulate ourselves into little cliques born more of culture and less of Christ. We might also see ourselves as part of a much bigger picture … the Body of Christ worldwide, the Body of Christ in the whole of history, the Body of Christ in Heaven as well as Earth, the Body of Christ graced in infinite ways to complete one mission.

Recently, my family was invited by Nigerian friends to attend an important event. The evening culminated in a rite of passage originating in their African culture. In it, elders or fathers stood in front of their teenage sons asking them if they were ready for the responsibilities of manhood. They listed these responsibilities and values in which their sons had been mentored. These included things like working with excellence, always to the benefit of community rather than self and being faithful to care for wives and children. The sons replied that they were ready. The ideals and standards were reiterated a number of times, seemingly to give the sons any opportunity to refuse the torch which they were about to receive. At last, one speaking for the elders turned to the audience to ask if the sons should be allowed to take the place of men in the community. Everyone shouted, “Yes.” With that final affirmation, the elders removed the cloth signifying manhood from around their shoulders and placed it around the shoulders of their sons.

This event has stayed at the forefront of my thinking as a visual reminder of what is at stake for us as the Church, for our countries, our communities, our families and ourselves. We are not here to occupy space and take up time. Our lives are our vocations. We are called by God to live according to our unique gifts in our unique places in our unique times for the common mission of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. We are meant to receive a spiritual heritage and leave a spiritual legacy. I find myself believing more and more in apostolic succession because it seems God’s way to draw us a picture. Jesus told us stories and the Father draws us pictures … pictures like a beautiful Garden, an ark of safety, a father’s sacrifice of a long-awaited son and all the implements and rites of tabernacles and temples, to name a few. Similarly, he may be picturing by the establishment of succession that we all are called like the Apostle Paul to first receive the Gospel … a Gospel which isn’t always preached with words in formal church settings, but in jobs, large and small, where we try to reflect the excellence of God, in marriages where we love spouses like Christ loves the church, in families and neighborhoods where we labor in love and make sacrifices of service … and in so doing, teach the ones coming after us.

Each generation, each nation, each community, each family and each person is called upon to pass the torch of mission and faith and the keeping of brothers. We are empowered by an outpouring of grace by the Holy Spirit for each work God has prepared in advance for us to do according to Ephesians 2:10.

It is easy for us to think that our coming into the world and our going out of it is often hardly noticeable. Are we here for a brief span only to breath Earth’s air and consume some of its goods? If we look through the eyes of the world, we might agree. But the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians (1:4-11) that God “chose us in him before the foundations of the world.” He chose us for many purposes, one being “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” We are not accidents of conjugal unions no matter how it may seem at times. We were chosen in advance for specific purposes and specific works, all culminating in God’s grand work of bringing Heaven and Earth into Communion once again.

Others were here before us. Maybe they taught us well and communicated an eternal vision and purpose for us to embrace. Maybe we struggle alone and frustrated to find what we know is there but can’t seem to apprehend. What’s important now, is that we begin to believe why we are here and that we live as torchbearers purposefully delivering to the next ones what we have received.

When we die, we will leave behind jobs that still need to be done, ministries that still need to be fulfilled and people who still need to be loved and to know Christ. The little space we occupied for a time does not close up and disappear. Creation will groan if we do not pass our mantles, our knowledge and our positions. Maybe we are not apostles. But we know Christ. Succession is for us too.


  1. I appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt words regarding Succession.

    But the reason that we believe is not that someone who was touched by someone else who was touched by someone else who followed such all the back to Peter.

    We believe because of the power of the Word of God. Brought to us through our Baptisms and in the hearing of the gospel (Romans 1:16).

    To have to have a requirement (as many churches do) that clergy be ordained in historic succession (the episcopate)…waters down that Word and places a portion of the onus upon us.

    So…while it may bring comfort to many…many of us realize that it is not a requirement nor necessity for the Word of God to do what it will for sinners, nor to validate the Supper.

    Thanks, very much.

    • lisa Dye says

      Steve, I hope that my using the topic of apostolic success as a springboard helps make my point … that God has appointed each of us to receive the faith and also to impart it. I will look differently in individuals depending on what God has prepared for us to do (i.e. a religious life, secular jobs, family life) and depending on our personalities and gifts, but we each have a mission that is incorporated into the great mission of God’s Kingdom being on earth through the Church. Christ in us touches the world as we serve him with our lives. I guess I just think sometimes we need to be reminded. We caught up in feeling insignificant and just trying to survive. It’s easy to forget.

      • lisa Dye says

        “It” will look differently … sorry.

      • Yes, Lisa. I’m much more inclined to look at it (apostolic succession) in your definition of it.

        Far too many believe it to be some sort of wooden formula that hogties the gospel and places it at the mercy of our proper workings.

        Our Baptism would be just as valid if the devil himself had Baptized us. And the Lord’s Supper is valid if you or I preside over it, every bit as much as if Father Joe Smith does.

        Of course, we do recognize ‘good order’ and avoid a willy-nilly handling of the sacraments.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Far too many believe it to be some sort of wooden formula

          Some people are convinced a whole lot of people believe it to be some sort of wooden formula that hogties the gospel and places it at the mercy of our proper workings. And that group has a tendency to interpret every word and action of others in light of that preconception.

          • I don’t claim to interpret every word or action of the folks that claim that the historic episcopate is a requirement for clergy.

            I’m just saying that the gospel and the administering of the sacraments is not dependent on it, but the Word of God carries it’s own authority.

  2. It’s been said by many that our most critical work for changing the world around us and leaving something behind when we go is virtually unseen. That is, it is not the ‘works’ we normally detail but they, rather, flow from this most difficult and all consuming work. Paul phrased it, “..till Christ be formed in you.” It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives within me. It is bringing up the Christ child within us to full stature that saves the world because that fountain continues to well up long after we are gone. If we can fully be but one inhalation and exhalation in His eternity of breaths, a grand call to be sure, it’s a life sufficiently lived and we have breathed upon the world just as Jesus breathed upon the disciples. I love your writing Lisa.

    • lisa Dye says

      “If we can fully be but one inhalation and exhalation in His eternity of breaths …” I love that, Chris. Thomas Merton expresses a similar thought in writing about our relationship to the Holy Spirit … that we are flames dancing in his fire. That could be slightly off as I’m going by memory, but an image that has stayed with me. Thank you for these good words.

    • Chris, that is so beautifully put. I am going to return to chew on this comment for quite a while!

  3. I like your taking Apostolic Succession and using it as a picture and motivator for the faith, apart from the issue of whether is actually passes along some immediate power.

    But as Scot McKnight has said, the New Testament itself is an expression of apostolic succession.

  4. David Cornwell says

    “I have come to appreciate how singing hymns, memorizing Scripture and reciting the creeds and praying old prayers helps to form our theology. It is a way that spiritual revelation, born from those who walked and fished and ate and preached with Jesus, is passed on from generation to generation. It is the succession of Christian knowledge and understanding.”

    Thanks for this Lisa. All the elements you mention are part of our Story. This is the narrative and retelling of the old, old story that becomes part of us, our lives, our churches, and hopefully our communities. It is the way the Story becomes part of us, resides in us, and is passed on to our children. It takes it out of the arena of propositional statement and makes it personal and alive.

    One thing I have noticed. When I was a boy, attending church with my parents, I recited, along with all the others, the elements of liturgy that our little church practiced. I said the creeds, sang the responses, and prayed the prayers. They probably did not mean a lot to me at the time. But– the older I became, the more they meant. And now that I am old they ring loudly in my mind, again and again. The Psalms, the prayers, the creeds, the Wesley hymns– they are alive and well each and every day. I cannot escape them. They will not let me go or let me alone– and I am glad. This is our Story.

    • Thanks, David. I always appreciate your perspective. Amen to us not being able to escape them. But that is a good thing. Makes me think of Deuteronomy 6:6,7. This is exactly what I was trying to say. What are we diligently passing on … not just to our children, but one God has put into our lives? It’s not just about words and theology, but ways of living.

      • … but to the ones God has put in our lives … sorry. I’m being too hasty today.

    • “This is the narrative and retelling of the old, old story that becomes part of us, our lives, our churches, and hopefully our communities. It is the way the Story becomes part of us, resides in us, and is passed on to our children. It takes it out of the arena of propositional statement and makes it personal and alive.”


  5. Y’know, for singing the Psalms, let me recommend the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter which puts the old Coverdale translation of the Psalms to the medieval plainchant melodies. There’s a bit of a learning curve because it uses the old plainchant notation rather than modern notation, but if you can read music, it’s not so bad. And if you don’t read music, it’s easier to learn than modern notation.

    Alternatively, there are a lot of old Presbyterian Psalters that translated them into “Common Meter” so that they could be sung to a huge host of hymn and folk tunes (e.g. Amazing Grace, Gilligan’s Island, House of the Rising Sun, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, Joy to the World, Yankee Doodle…).

  6. Thank you for this reminder.

  7. Lisa, Lisa, Lisa…on the heals of the controversial Death Penalty post, this is the best you could come up with to be controversial?!


    Good stuff. Some of us at our church are trying to work on “succession”, at least in terms of trying to include the next generation and the generation behind them in leading of the church. I’d call it more “planning” now than action, but it keeps popping up in the discussion.

  8. lisa Dye says

    Succession isn’t a lightning rod subject:) … but important ultimately. I think it’s something that families used to think about in all its aspects. We don’t so much anymore. I’m glad your church is having the discussion. It seems like that is part of what is missing in terms of community. Having vision that we share and want to pass on makes us feel a part of the big picture. That we lack it overall may be one reason why there are so many lonely and lost people.

    • Excellent post and thoughts, Lisa!

      I do believe that many in the RCC and the Anglican community see apostolic succession as nonnegotiable, by their own definitions. Equally, much of what you’re saying falls under the heading of “tradition” in these churches, and is meant to an innate part of church life. I really appreciate the way that many Catholics, Anglicans and some Lutherans understand this, and wish more Protestants (like me) saw themselves as part of the church universal.

      • Robert F says

        numo, your own ELCA has been, or is being, incorporated into the apostolic succession as part of the full communion agreement it has with the Episcopal Church. One result of this is that all new clergy must be ordained by a bishop in the line of succession, and not simply by local ordination, as was formally the case in the ELCA.

      • Faulty O-Ring says

        The fiction of apostolic succession serves to justify the concentration of authority in one bishop per region, excluding rival Christian groupings as heretical. Even if you believe this to be a good thing, it obviously no longer works, except as limited to particular denominations and sub-denominational groupings (like the rival Anglican / Episcopal bodies, or all the Orthodox and Oriental jurisdictions).

        • Robert F says

          In the apostolic succession, the bishop embodies in a very physical way the link between the local church and the Church universal in all times and places. Where the bishop is, the church is; and the bishop is present as shepherd of all congregations in his/her diocese. The apostolic succession is the Church’s institutional rejection of gnosticism, which localism tends to devolve to when left to its own inertia.

        • Robert F says

          Btw, I don’t mind that you call the apostolic succession a “fiction”; I don’t believe that the histories tracing it all the way back to the Apostles is reliable. If that’s so, then it’s justifiable to call it a fiction. But I believe it is a true fiction, started not at the beginning, but very early in the church’s life, to express and embody an important reality about the Church’s catholicity.

          • Robert, is this a nonnegotiable thing w/in the ELCA, i wonder? Should check and find out, i guess.

            Btw, I completely agree re. “true fiction.”

  9. This reminds me of The Gift of the Blessing by Smalley and Trent. Among other things it speaks to the value and importance of passing “the blessing” from one generation to another.

  10. Lisa, always a pleasure to read your writing. A search on Amazon for St. Dunstan’s turned up “The Horse Shoe The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil, Showing How the Horse-Shoe Came to Be a Charm against Witchcraft” and “Edwy the Fair or the First Chronicle of Aescendune A Tale of the Days of Saint Dunstan”, both free in Kindle edition.

    Also a reminder for anyone investigating the chanting or singing of Psalms, “Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD” by Cynthia Bourgeault is a super introduction.

  11. Columba Silouan says

    Charles, try looking for Lancelot Andrewes Press and you’ll find the St. Dunstan’s Psalter there.