WHAT is the doctrine of Apostolic Succession? We are all very familiar with its simplest form of statement--that our Lord intended to found a visible Church and spent most of His ministry training the twelve Apostles who were to carry on. In the visible society there was to he a ministry, with power and authority and command to he the dispensers of Truth and of the Sacraments. As the Prayer Book preface to the Ordinal says, quite simply, there is evidence in Holy Scripture and Ancient Authors that this has been so. Three Orders have always existed through the centuries--Bishops, Priests, and Deacons--and these, ordained to holy functions, speak with the Church's authority, administer her Sacraments--and no one else may.
The sacramental powers of a Priest do not depend upon any ability or virtue of his own, but are powers conveyed by God at his ordination. We must clearly distinguish between his call and his ordination. By the first, he feels called to minister, but he knows no authority until, in the Ordination Service, the Bishop says, "Take thou authority."
The worthiness of a Priest adds nothing to the value of sacramental acts, nor does his unworthiness deprive them of value, for the work is not his, but Christ's. His is the responsibility for doing or leaving undone the acts of his Priesthood, but the power which attends his words and acts is not his own, but Christ's; derived through the Body which hears His Spirit and exercises His authority. Your Priest can offer many or few opportunities to you, hut those which he does offer get their power not from him, but God.
To be a Preacher, Evangelist, or Pastor, requires personal gifts of knowledge, eloquence, earnestness, and love; but to consecrate and offer the Holy Sacrifice, and to absolve--here the Priest contributes of his own, only a voice, an outward action, and the intention of performing the Church's work. The Church asserts great things of the office of Priesthood, but makes little account of the personality of the Priest himself. He is but the earthen vessel of the sacramental grace of God. To receive the spiritual life and maintain it in us is assured to us through the Sacraments, and they are assured to us through the Priesthood.
Let us next consider those outside the ministry of Apostolic Succession. We do not limit the Spirit to the Sacraments. We know that God can give grace in manifold ways. We know that the Sacraments are definite ways appointed for our good. Rut there are other certain points to have clearly in mind. First, many Protestant ministers, if not most, do not claim a ministry of sacramental character. They do not claim any grace conferred in ordination. Their clergy are as presidents of a society, men like all others, depending on native powers, and disclaiming the possession of higher qualifications. In a Church where there are no Sacraments to he administered conferring grace, there is no need for a sacramental ministry to ensure that grace. They would not need or desire a sacrificing Priesthood. They offer bread and wine as a memorial of Christ's death, seeking by that memorial act to lift up their hearts into Spiritual Communion with Him. They do not have the Sacrament of Penance, but have only their own feelings by which to judge the reality of their forgiveness. In the Protestant, non-sacramental sense, ordination confers the right to function, but no claim is made that it confers "ordo"--the grace, the power, to be the channel of grace. But this is what makes Holy Orders a Sacrament. The Church would not make our clergy merely mouthpieces of the congregation, and although they are, on the human side, personally, as other men, they are not so regarded in their functions, for here they do not depend on their own powers and graces. To put it baldly, Protestants do not need an Apostolic Ministry for what they claim as the nature of their Sacraments; but Catholics do.
We come now to the actual question--the value of Apostolic Succession. It is not just a practical, official machinery, to hold things together. It is not just a family tree to he proud of or to he used as a basis for scorn of others. But it is of tremendous practical value in the spiritual life. It is of great spiritual value. There are certain things harmful in the spiritual life. Let us consider three and their relation to our question:
Though we have admitted that God is not limited, and can work through other ministries, and deal with men according to their opportunities, yet it is evident that such ministrations have not the security of the Covenant. We live in an age of constant insecurity, an age of change, of tottering institutions. We naturally find ourselves seeking always those of greatest permanence. Here in the Apostolic Church are Sacraments of greatest security. Here are most definite channels of grace. Here is a faith handed down throughout the centuries. Through Apostolic Order, we have the greater definiteness of the faith, of the pledge of sacramental grace, greater security for the upbuilding of the spiritual life.
Most Protestants, although they regard the Bible as the Word of God, often fail to understand it rightly because they rely upon individual or private interpretations. They do not know the mind of the Church. Many follow the teachings of their founders in the main, but tend more and more to exalt the individual freedom to believe what they want to; hence there is increasing variety of opinion--abandonment of basic articles of faith--innumerable sects. So, also, in the held of discipline and morals. Each is a law to himself, his own conscience being his only guide. There is no ideal of a visible body which is a channel of truth to all its members together. Religion is a matter of the individual only. The Church is invisible. In this individualistic point of view we see again the former indefiniteness and insecurity. The Catholic Sacraments and Order are the protection against such individualism. We are baptized into a Body. We are united and nurtured together in the household of the Saints. We are absolved into a new and fresh life in that Body, which we have harmed by our sins. Our life of the Spirit is nourished, directed, guided, and maintained by outward and visible acts giving inward, spiritual grace, which is the whole principle underlying the Incarnation--a visible Church, with a visible, definite, corporate life, administering corporate discipline, providing for corporate growth.
An individualistic religion as just described becomes much a matter of feeling. For instance, you have only your feelings by which to judge the reality of your forgiveness. To the receiver of Apostolic Sacraments, the guarantee of their reality does not lie in the receiver's feelings, which can never give him reliable assurance, but in his knowledge that power has been given to the Priest. Even we Catholics often forget this important truth--that our religion is objective and not subjective. It is not a matter of feeling. Our Lord Jesus Christ is not present in the Blessed Sacrament because you feel it. You do not have to feel grace to have it. Though you may, and probably will, it is not the test nor the guarantee of its reality. We see a simple analogy in our daily food. Some meals we enjoy especially. We say--"That was a good meal." We feel so about it. Yet, so far as nourishment is concerned, it may be of less value than some uninspiring one that we ate and thought nothing about--that was even perhaps dull. It nourished us, but we felt nothing. So is it, often, with sacramental grace. We are not to be looking for thrills, for feelings, but to realize the objective truth of our religion, and, when the Priest, for our Lord and by His command and power, says--"I absolve thee," know that it is so. What feelings we have should come only from that knowledge, and not vice versa.
We are not left to the miserable self-delusion of our own emotions and feelings, but, by the definite pledge and promise of our Lord, by the definite assurance of His grace, through divinely-appointed means, and through the ministration of a divinely-appointed Apostolic Ministry. Thus to our life of grace, to our life in the Spirit, is brought definiteness, security, and corporateness--a physical continuity becomes the pledge, the assurance, and the means of spiritual continuity.