Understanding the Historic Episcopacy: Seeking a Genuine Historic Succession
by Allan E. Johnson (March / April 1999 — Volume 15, Number 2)
A genuine succession will never be the "possession" of a single community. The Episcopal Church does not represent it. Neither does Rome, the East, nor we Lutherans. But it can be a goal for all of us.
It is clear that the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) comes to this conversation genuinely committed to a mutually respectful partnership with Lutherans. There are some few Episcopalians who may be thinking of a triumphalist expansion of Anglican culture — as there are Lutherans whose agendas I would not claim.
Wright's address, I believe, is much more representative of the Episcopal church as as a whole and, above all, of the official position and goals of the ECUSA.
What Episcopacy Isn't
Wright's address makes it clear that many of the more extravagant claims which have sometimes been made for the "historic episcopate" are not claims made by the ECUSA. Wright comments on several:
(1) That the "historic episcopate" was founded by Christ. The ECUSA does not claim this, and has argued to the contrary in its dialogues with Roman Catholics.
(2) That the "historic episcopate" represents an unbroken succession of ordination by laying on of hands, traceable to the apostles. Episcopalians agree that there is no historical basis for this claim.
(3) That the "historic episcopate" guarantees the apostolic faith. Partly because of their conversations with Lutherans, Anglicans are now confident that this is false.
(4) That the "historic episcopate" is somehow of the essence of the church. The ECUSA has clearly affirmed that they find the ELCA no less "church" than themselves.
Again, one could find a few Episcopalians who would argue for these claims. But they aren't the claims of the Episcopal Church. Lutherans object to exaggerations such as these. But on these points we don't have a quarrel with the ECUSA.
However, if we are to have full interchangeability of clergy (and that is what our ELCA document Ecumenism: the Vision of the ELCA commits us to seeking), then the ECUSA would want to be able to receive the ministry of all our clergy — including our bishops — as freely as they would receive the ministry of their own.
That's the awkward point. If we carry this through seriously, then either the ELCA will enter what Anglicans world-wide are able to recognize as the "historic episcopate," or else the ECUSA will have agreed to risk losing its own participation in the "historic episcopate" for our sake.
Personally, I remain unpersuaded of the value of episcopal structure and the importance of the "historic episcopate." But I am persuaded that the ECUSA is a community in which the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments administered, and that we should be in partnership with them. And I'm convinced that for the sake of Episcopalian consciences — not mine — this will involve the "historic episcopate."
The notion of devising some agreement for full interchangeability of ministers with the ECUSA which would not involve the "historic episcopate" is an illusion. It would mean breaking communion with world Anglicanism, and it won't happen.
What is Succession?
A major point at which I continue to find difficulty with the position of the ECUSA is represented in Wright's statement that "The historic episcopate is a succession of bishops or church leaders whose roots are planted in the time of the early church" and that it is a sign "in personal terms, of the unity and continuity of the church's faith." Later, Wright suggests that among Episcopalians the term "historic episcopate" "implies some sort of intentional commitment to historical continuity."
The difficulty is that it does not represent continuity with my own community, nor with the history of many Lutherans in the United States. It comes to us as an alien representative of somebody else's history.
As a claim to represent continuity with the church throughout time and space, the "historic episcopate" invites rejection. Neither Anglican nor European Lutheran bishops represent continuity with the unbroken succession of ordained German Lutheran pastors, or with the history of prairie Pietist congregations sharing the faith with their children and seeking ordained clergy where they were able.
My first reaction is simply to reject the claims of an episcopal "succession," and to assert cantankerously that we have a succession of our own which also represents continuity: the continuity of communities of believers, continuity in proclamation of the gospel, and continuity in ordained ministry. The "historic episcopate" cannot plausibly claim to represent these continuities. It wasn't there.
But I have come to think that a different approach might be more true to what Lutherans bring to ecumenical conversation. Martin Luther wrote in The Small Catechism that the old person in us is to be drowned through daily repentance, and daily a new person is to rise up to live with God. Perhaps we would do better to offer, as a Lutheran critique of "succession," an argument of mutual repentance and not a mere counter-claim.
If "succession" represents continuity and unity, then the Anglican "historic episcopate" doesn't have it. And neither do we. As a claim, it is a false claim.
Episcopalian bishops are not in continuity with Norwegian pietism, nor with the German heritage, nor Rome, nor the East. To that degree, Episcopalian bishops are diminished.
But then, so are we diminished. The history of English liturgy and hymnody is not our history. Our "succession" and our ministries do not represent the continuity of the English Bible, or the faithfulness of C. S. Lewis, or the Episcopalian heritage of outreach to Native Americans.
A genuine succession, truly representing the continuity and unity of the church, will never be the "possession" of a single community. The Episcopal Church does not represent it. Neither does Rome, or the East. Neither do we.
Perhaps what Lutherans can bring to the discussion is this: "succession" is not, in the shattered church, either a possession or a claim. Nor is it a gift which one community, that "has" it, can offer another. But it can be a goal.
The "succession" of the "historic episcopate" will be significantly more genuine in that day when prairie Pietists and German confessionalists willingly claim it as representing them; because it has entered into their history and piety, and has come to be nourished by their roots.
Allan E. Johnson is pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church, Gibbon, Minnesota.