Friday, March 04, 2011

John Wesley and Apostolic Succession

One of the "controversial" claims made by the Rev'd Dr Peterson at M11 was that only ordained clergy can/should consecrate the elements. This came up today in a conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a student at Neshota House Seminary. His argument goes something like this:

1) Wesley understood that the church, to be the church, must have the sacraments;
2) Wesley understood that to have the sacraments, the church must have ordained priests;

3) Wesley understood that to have priests, the church must have bishops in Apostolic Succession to ordain priests.
4) When the church would not send bishops, Wesley was faced with a dilemma: (a) don't have the sacraments; (b) allow lay-persons to consecrate the elements; (c) appoint Methodist "superintendents" to ordain clergy so their can be a priesthood to consecrate the elements.

5) Wesley chose (c) and engaged in theological/exegetical gymnastics in order to get around Apostolic Succession in order to provide a priesthood in America to celebrate the sacraments.


6) The end result of Wesley's breaking of Apostolic Succession is the loss of a Methodist priesthood and ultimately a loss of a truly sacramental church.

Here is his final claim:

7) If Wesley would have been able to foresee the result of his circumventing of Apostolic Succession, he would not have done so.

His argument is quite interesting and could be discussed at a number of points (please feel free to do so). My questions regard his conclusion: Is #6 a fair critique? Did Wesley's move away from Apostolic Succession (in the Traditional Anglican/Catholic/Orthodox understanding) lead ultimately to the present state of sacraments in the Methodist churches? Do you think Wesley would have done things differently at this point if he had it to do over again? Why or why not?


Anonymous said...

Could it be that Wesley did what he needed to do at that time in history, and that we have the opportunity to make it 'right' now, in our time and history? There are enough clergy ordained in America to deal with the issue. I think he'd do it all over again, because the problem would have still been the same, but if he was able to live through time when ordained clergy became more common, he might have changed it back, after all his dad was outside of the Church and returned.

Anonymous said...

Where does Wesley fit in all this? I think he pushes back on both aspects. On the one hand, he held that priests standing within apostolic succession may ordain others, and he never endorsed laypersons ordaining priests or bishops. On the other hand, he seems to have eventually come to the conclusion that uninterrupted apostolic succession was simply a fable. This is also how Charles Wesley understood his brother’s actions. After ordaining Coke, Charles bitterly criticized him, writing, “How easy now are bishops made / By man or woman’s whim; / Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid, / But who laid hands on him?”

Once again, for your friend’s logic to work, I think one must add one of two additional presuppositions/premises.

Eric + said...

What are the two presuppositions you think are missing?

Anonymous said...

Oops (haha), my comment didn't post all the way. Here is the first part.

I don't think #6 is a logical corollary of the preceding premises. It could be, but only if one adds one of two additional presuppositions which Wesley himself struggled with. First, one must presuppose that only bishops (and not priests) may ordain. If one maintains (as Wesley eventually did) that priests standing in apostolic succession may also ordain, then the Methodist Church still remains within apostolic succession, for Wesley had every ecclesiastical right to ordain other priests though it went against typical episcopal convention. If this is the case, then premise 6 (or premise 7 for that matter) does not necessarily follow. In other words, for the logic to work, one must presuppose that only bishops have the right to ordain.

Anonymous said...

. . . and the second part:

On the other hand, the logic above doesn’t work unless one presupposes that uninterrupted apostolic succession constitutes or legitimizes the priesthood (which is, of course, an Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican doctrine). If one simply denies that the priesthood is dependent on this, then the whole logical structure crumbles, for anyone (including Wesley) could ordain anyone else and have a fully legitimate priesthood. Your friend’s conclusion (i.e., #6) is simply another presuppositional premise.

Eric + said...

@Kalev, You are absolutely correct. My friend would accept your additional presuppositions - I think the necessity of bishops was covered in (3). His argument is that prior to this point Wesley agreed that only bishops could ordain. Wesley's change of heart was brought about by a practical and perceived necessity. As I pressed him on it, he seemed to be of the opinion that Wesley's change of heart was more of a rationalization to legitimize what he did. That is, he did what he felt had to be done (understanding he was stepping outside orthodoxy) and then came up with a rationalization for doing it.

I am not sure I buy this argument. We debated it and I wanted to get your opinions. Thanks!

Eric + said...

... just an observation (yes it is a sweeping generalization not without exceptions), those traditions that have maintained a strongly historical view of AS have also maintained a deeply sacramental life. Those who have walked away from the traditional view of AS have also walked away from sacramental life.

more later.

SusanU said...

Eric said "Those who have walked away from the traditional view of AS have also walked away from sacramental life."

I have noticed this, too.

It is interesting though for me that while one part of me really wants to have all our churches have a higher view of the sacraments, there is another part of me that hasn't arrived at a point where I see AS as an imperative. Hmm....

Todd Stepp said...

Not in my study (supposed to be my day off!), but, a couple of thoughts:

First, Kalev, it is the case that Wesley concluded (was convinced) that priests essentially have within their orders that which is necessary to ordain. - But it is not quite that simple.

First, not any priest could legitimately ordain. The bishop and the elder were/are essentialy the same order, but not all priests function as bishops.

As a priest, Wesley could not simply, legitmiately ordain. However, a couple of things come into play that convinced Wesley that his ordaining for America was the lesser of two evils and also that his action, while not necessarily "regular, " were, nevertheless "valid" and legitimate.

First, the case with ordination for America simpley was not a "regular" situation. The English bishops refused to ordain for American, and there was no established church in America.

Second, Wesley understood himself to be a biblical episcopos (bishop), having providentially been given oversight (superintendency) over the Methodist movement.

With both of those things in play, Wesley finally opted to act on what he had already believed; he decided to ordain. He gave his oversight (superintendency) authority to Coke and Asbury for America.

Cont., . . .

Todd Stepp said...


Your friend seems to have his time table a bit off.

Wesley indicates that he was convinced of that elders and bishops were essentially the same order prior to his ever deciding to ordain for America.

Also, in the mix was his historical argument that presbyters in Alexandria consecrated bishops, and that even Rome accepted their validity.

Also, the current state of the sacraments in Methodism is not a result of WEsley's actions, but of the frontier setting in which Methodism found itself. Even with the sortage of elders, if they continued to follow Wesley's directon of 1.) using The Sunday Service (the Prayer Book), and 2.) elders administering the sacrament every Lord's Day, then once the number of elders to churches was evened out, Methodism would be practicing a weekly Eucharist.

American Methodism, against Wesley's advice, gave up The Sunday Service, and allowed the circuit circumstances dictate a quarterly Eucharist.

Todd Stepp said...

When I get in my study, tomorrow, I will give more information on the book, but I highly recommend an out of print book called, "Wesley: Apostolic Man," concerning the apostolicity of Wesley's orders.

Another thing, though, if we are somewhat concerned about some form of AS, and if we assume a presbyterial AS, then Methodism does maintain this (for the most part).

Nazarenes have to take this a step further (or two steps further).

First, not all Nazarene g.s. trace their orders to the Christmas Conference and to Wesley. A good half of those ordained end up lost in the Advent Christian Church.

In order to make that connection, one has to rely upon the "consent" of those other elders who are also laying hands on the one being ordained. In this secondary sense, it can be said that all those ordained in the CotN also trace back to Wesley and then beyond, but only if we rely upon the presbytery.

Second, one might ask by what authority our g.s. took up the episcopal role. Coke and Asbury did so under WEsley's authority. Bresee did so only by consent of the (local?) church. (In other words, though we are now 2 million strong, what is the difference between Bresee's election as g.s., and someone starting an independent house church, today? - Of course Bresee did have Methodist orders, and he was/had been a "presiding elder" (district superintendent), thus he "shared" in an episcopal function as an extension of the bishop.


Eric + said...

Thanks Todd. I wan't able to press on the timeline issue as I am not well versed enough to do so. And perhaps it was my summary of his argument that is incorrect, so that point is well taken.

So perhaps the larger question regards accountability and AS. As it played out, the new Methodist "Bishops" were not accountable really to anyone and so Methodism took the course it did. Would that have changed if Wesley would have insisted that Methodism stay within the CoE and wait for the CoE to send bishops in AS to oversee the church in the US under the accountability of the CoE? Would Methodism be radically different?

Here is exactly the point, I think, of the argument:

Todd said, "if they continued to follow Wesley's directon of 1.) using The Sunday Service (the Prayer Book), and 2.) elders administering the sacrament every Lord's Day, then once the number of elders to churches was evened out, Methodism would be practicing a weekly Eucharist."

Because there was no accountability -- accountability that is provided through bishops in AS -- Methodism did not follow either "The Sunday Service" or elders administering sacraments. If there had been CoE-Methodist bishops in AS, then Methodism would have still used the prayer book, and ordination would still be required to celebrate the sacraments. So in that since, it was the lack of Bishops in AS that allowed - at least in part - the Methodists to go down the path they went which led to the loss of the prayer book and the loss of a sacramental identity and life.

Is that fair to say?

Todd Stepp said...


I'm not sure that it is fair to say, and I'm not sure that it is really tied to AS or accountability.

First, let me say, if Methodism waited for Seabury (the first American bishop), it would have been a radically different story of Methodism.

For one thing, this would not have been waiting for the CoE, it was the Scottish Church that consecrated Seabury, and, as I understand it, it took 50 years for the CoE to recognize the American church as a part of the Anglican Communion.

I also understand that Coke attempted to communicate with Seabury about the Methodists, once Seabury was an American bishop, but nothing came of it.

Back to the AS/accountability issue. The Methodist bishops were accountable to the conference. The conference eventually moved away from the PB, keeping parts of the rituals for the Lord's Supper, etc. in the Book of Discipline.

Methodism, like no other church, took to the frontier and grew astronomically in a way that no other denomination did (especially including the Episcopal Church).

If Methodism were under the Episcopal Church, it simply would have been too confined to make the kind of mark it made during that period of time for the gospel and Kingdom of God.

On the other hand, American Methodism was defined by Bishop Asbury. Wesley is the father of Methodism, but Asbury is the father of American Methodism.

American Methodism had more in common with the Methodist Societies in England, which Wesley struggled to convince that they needed the worship service of the CoE.

So we can play the "what if" game, but all we can truly say is that it would be different.

Another thing to point out, though, is that Asbury understood his orders to be valid. And the American Methodists (for the most part) did not think of administering the sacraments w/o valid elders.

So, again, 1.) they stayed true to the need for valid orders, and 2.) They provided the sacraments where the other Anglicans did/could not.

For Seabury and the other Anglicans, they were firm in their desire to be Anglicans. (I don't think the Methodists were.) Seabury and the Anglicans were firm in their commitment to the (Scottish) BCP. And they had agreed to use the (Sottish) BCP. (No such "agreement" was made by the American Methodists.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that it wasn't just about the Episcopalians staying true to weekly Eucharist. If I recall correctly, even the CoE was not doing weekly Eucharist in Wesley's day. They provided for it, but it was not happening (if I remember correctly).

That was part of Wesley's contribution. Only later (Oxford Movement?) did they embrace and make normal the weekly Eucharist.

So, it was a matter of the kind of authority that the Anglicans had that allowed them the ability to make that happen in local churches.

Methodism did not have the same kind of ability to make that happen in the local church. (That's a whole different wrinkle to consider. - This is not as simple as the original question implies!) - So the UMC can have the official position that weekly Eucharist ought to be the norm (which they do), but they cannon enforce it in local churches any more than we could expect the Nazarene G.A. to be able to do so.


Todd Stepp said...

BTW, the book I mentioned before is:

"Wesley: Apostolic Man (Some Reflections on Wesley's Consecration of Dr. Thomas Coke," by Edgar W. Thompson. London. The Epworth Press. 1957. (Out of print, as far as I know.)

Eric + said...

Thanks Todd. What makes it fascinating is that it is not as simple as the argument might seem. But the argument looks at Methodism from a perspective I would not have. I was challenged by the discussion, and thought it might challenge some of us as well.

The issue of authority is really the key issue as you pointed out. The more I think about it, the more I think that Apostolic Succession is the central question of ordination. The real question is who has the authority to ordain, and through is Apostolic Succession continued.

I think the answer has to be "the church" -- whatever the heck that means. So in high church traditions, the church is present through the bishop. It is not the bishop that passes on AS, but the church through the bishop. In the CotN the church is present through the "choir of elders" who all lay hands on the ordinand. It is not the elders who pass on AS, but the church through the elders.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for your contribution to this discussion and for your help unpacking this argument.

Todd Stepp said...


I think you are right on in this. It has been the(or a?)Nazarene position that AS comes through the Church. (I thik Dunning said, "Who suceeds the apostles?" His answer, "The Church."

However, I don't think I had heard anyone apply that to the Anglicans, RC, etc.

Your tie in with ecclesiology, identifying the Church with the presence of the bishop is a great observation! I have heard the ecclesiology of "where the bishop is, there is the Church," but I wonder if those who hold such ecclesiologies would agree with your idea that it is the Church through the bishp that passes on the AS.

If they would agree with that, then, it seems to me that we have made a major breakthrough in the discussion (at least from our side of the discussion). It is no longer a discussion about AS, but about the nature of the Church.

I like where you have headed with this!

Eric + said...

I am not sure that they would agree.

BThomas said...

Feeling like I just went to school. Thank you! What a fascinating discussion, and thanks for the book recommendation.


Joseph said...

Check out David Rainey's recent article: 'The Established Church and Evangelical Theology: John Wesley's Ecclesiology' in The International Journal of Systematic Theology, Volume 12, Number 4, October 2010.

This conversation is current in Wesley studies as new works are in process and have recently been published.

Understanding the context of Wesley's and America's situations is key to this discussion. Todd rightly points out that the decision to 'set apart' Coke, Whatcoat and Vasey was not pragmatic or practical, but developed over years (he began to work on it in 1740s).

I could say more, but I can't divulge certain information before it's published :-)

Good stuff, people.


Todd Stepp said...


That sounds interestng. Keep us up to date about publications!


Anonymous said...


I’ve been on vacation this last week, but I did want to respond. Wesley may have reasoned (or become convinced) he was permitted to ordain others and that such ordaining stood within AS, but he did declare that AS (understood as from bishops) was a myth. He wrote: “. . . uninterrupted succession to be a fable which no man ever did or can prove” (Wesley, xxxi, 77; quoted by Holden, John Wesley Among the High Churchmen, 57).

cont . . .

Anonymous said...

. . .

From this denial of traditional notions of AS, Wesley may have formulated his own in order to ordain Coke (and I am completely ignorant as to his reasoning or the validity thereof), but such an action was unanimously understood by all those traditions which held to some notion of AS, not as a reformulation of AS, but as a radical denial of it . . . even by Charles Wesley as I quoted above. I guess I’m struggling with this: If Wesley redefined AS, then is it even AS . . . or something else entirely? It seems everyone is against Wesley here - Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican . . . even his own brother. If the “redefined AS” was important to Wesley, it doesn’t seem it was to American Methodists. I’m unfamiliar with the UM Church. Do they officially hold to an explicit notion of AS as does the Anglican Church?

Anonymous said...

This is tangential, but from what I understand, any denomination which officially holds to some notion of AS understands it within the confines of the Historic Episcopate. Even the Episcopal Church, in all its wafting around of late, has refused to give this up for ecumenicism (BCP, 876-7). Thus, when the ELCA and TEC joined in full communion, the condition was that Bishops from TEC be present at the ordination of ELCA clergy in order to “return” AS to the ELCA.

Chris Spencer said...

It appears to me the John Wesley understood that some sort of past break in Apostolic succession when he said,

“It does not appear that [the] of the...Spirit were common in the church for more than two or three centuries... The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens... [They] were turned heathens again, and only had a dead form left.”

Robert said...

Fundamentally, and this is a Methodist apologetic, Anglican orders are null and void to Rome, since they are not ordained sacrificing priests offering Mass for the living and the dead,--therefore the necessity of orders from Anglican bishops is not necessary; and therefore, because of Christian Liberty (in Luther's notion) and Holy Baptism we are all priests with the power the perform sacraments and preach there is no necessity for clergy -except-for Order's sake.

However, since all Christians by virtue of Baptism share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ the King and we are constituted the People of God--for Order's sake various ecclesiastical Offices developed in the Church which may be abrogated, enlarged or sustained as the baptized People of God see fit.

The necessity for pastors is for Order's sake and in cases of emergency or expediency there is no reason that an appointed lay person may not administer the sacraments, unless one wishes to assert that pastors of the Wesleyan tradition indeed do have the catholic Apostolic Succession--which would be a feat of Olympic theological gymnastics.

The doctrine of justification by faith itself negates the need for a separate ministerial priesthood, unless one again sees Wesleyan theology as a John the Baptist to Roman Catholic theology. Ritualism and Tractarianism didn't work for Anglicanism except to feed converts to Rome; surely, the Nazarene Church should learn from history that ritualism leads to Romanism.

Robert Horwath