Project Canterbury

The Apostolic Ministry

By Robert E. Terwilliger

New York: Committee for the Apostolic Ministry, 1973.


THIS ARTICLE by Dr. Terwilliger is prepared from a sermon preached by him at a Service of Witness to the Apostolic Faith at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City, on Sunday, October 28, 1973. On that occasion the Right Reverend Horace W. B. Donegan, Twelfth Bishop of New York, presided.

The Reverend Robert E. Terwilliger, Ph.D., is Director of Trinity Institute in New York City and Adjunct Professor at the General Theological Seminary. Dr. Terwilliger designed and founded Trinity Institute, which, since its inception six years ago as a center of theological renewal for the Episcopal clergy, has brought outstanding theologians and Christian leaders of the world to New York. Dr. Terwilliger was a deputy to General Convention in Louisville in October 1973 from the Diocese of New York.

The Committee for the Apostolic Ministry came into being two years ago for the maintenance of the apostolic ministry in the Episcopal Church, and more specifically to oppose legislation at General Convention 1973 for the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. CAM worked with other concerned groups to educate and arouse our church to the implications of such a course. The Convention did in fact oppose such ordinations. The Committee proposes in this present triennium to sponsor both a series of tracts and larger works designed to elucidate the nature of the ministry in our church. This fine address by Dr. Terwilliger is the first in this proposed series.

Requests for more copies of this pamphlet—10¢ apiece; 100 for $6.00—and other communications concerning the Committee for the Apostolic Ministry may be sent to

Committee for the Apostolic Ministry
c/o All Saints Church
226 East 60th Street
New York, N.Y. 10022

(The Reverend)
R. DEWITT MALLARY, JR., Chairman Committee for the Apostolic Ministry


A sermon by

Robert E. Terwilliger

And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity... These twelve Jesus sent out charging them ... "He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me."—Matthew 10: 1, 40

Paul, an apostle—not from men, neither through man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.—Galatians 1: 1

THE GIFT OF THE APOSTOLIC MINISTRY is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a part of the Gospel of God. This is the conviction of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church names itself from this ministry. It is the church with the episcopate. But words like "apostolic" and "episcopal" smell stale these days. They do not awaken an imagination of brightness, of glory, of hope. They seem to speak of the past: perhaps of a dead past, perhaps of battles long ago, perhaps of something that now we should pass beyond as the church looks toward the future.

Not so long ago, I was talking to a brilliant English theologian, asking as I sometimes do, "What's new among theologians?" I mentioned the name of a man of some distinction in the Church of England who edits a rather important theological journal. I said, "What about him?" He said, "He's not interested in anything important. He's just interested in the ministry." This in some way focused for me the catastrophe of the theology of the ministry as it exists in the church—in our church in the Episcopal Church.

There is a crisis about the ministry. It is a crisis throughout the length and breadth of Christendom. It's a crisis of many, many causes. One reason for it is that recently we have been aware of the need of renewal, which in one of its aspects means making the connection once again between the church and secular society. This is a powerful and important work which we must do. During the sixties we did it with enormous fascination and vigor. But sometimes, in the process of doing this work, we permitted the church itself to become secularized. One of the ways in which it showed itself was in our choosing false models for the ministry—from politics, from business management.

Sometimes we thought that the work of the ministry was basically to move things politically; indeed, that we could understand the Christian priest as a political representative of a certain group, a certain interest, or a certain constituency. The most important thing was for him to be representative, with the consequence, sometimes, that we felt he was supposed to be instantly responsive to the mood and mind of the congregation, of those to whom he'd been called to minister—which is hardly the mind of a prophet!

Or again, we thought that it would be well for the clergy to become more professional in the way in which we understood our work. We viewed, with a certain amount of dissatisfaction, the superior status of the medical profession or the legal profession. Realizing that we did not have that kind of status, or show that kind of efficiency, we felt the best thing we could do would be to take our cues from the business world and the world of professions, and use all their techniques. We cast our ministry in the mood of (business. As a consequence, we felt that we should do a job with a job description, and that perhaps we should not do things not in the job description. We began to talk in terms that would have been unthinkable in the New Testament or in any other age of the Christian church. These are perversions of the ministry.

Formerly, when we've sought to renew ourselves, particularly in a Catholic direction, we cast a longing look at the Church of Rome. When for our church we sought to find signals of the supernatural, we used to think there would be something in the tradition of Latin Christendom which would bring us to life. But in many ways the predicament of the church in Rome concerning the Christian ministry is as severe, if not more severe, than the predicament which we suffer ourselves. In fact, when we read someone like Hans Kiang on the ministry, we wonder not only why he is a Roman Catholic, but we wonder why he is a priest. He has so lost the sense of the essential identity of Christian priesthood, that he is left with the suggestion that the best concept for the Christian priest would be "Leader."

In our own church, recently, we have gone through an acute crisis about the nature of the Christian ministry. This became apparent in the discussion of the proposition that women should be ordained to the priesthood. This came to a vote in our General Convention. I was a deputy to that convention, and for my sins I was made a member of the Convention Committee on the Ordination of Women. Now this involved a certain amount of expiation which I hadn't anticipated, because every morning at eight o'clock, for one hour and a half, day after day, we had to listen to debates. One evening came the greatest hearing in the history of General Convention (some 3,000 were present) where the debate continued in an impassioned way. In this incredible process, we listened to over 90 speeches. But that's hardly the way to put it: essentially we listened to two—two speeches that were given 90 times. What was revealed in this was the impoverishment of the conception of the apostolic ministry within the Episcopal Church.

You are well aware that this proposition did not pass. But it failed to pass not because people were so sure, so clear, and so affirmative about the nature of Christian priesthood, but rather because the mind of the church was so confused and so divided that people did not believe that now is the time to act. From this situation we learned something which is tremendously important about our vocation. We are called as a church to repossess the identity of the apostolic ministry, and to understand exactly what it is, before we dare to make a decision about a matter of this moment. This is true not only of those who wish to ordain women to the priesthood, but equally, and in many ways more so, of those who felt that this was not an appropriate action. There was a lack of freshness and indeed a lack of sureness about the kinds of things that were said by those who spoke most about "apostolic ministry." Therefore, it may be that the meaning of all this tumult and turmoil, all this crisis of identity which we are experiencing is simply this: that we shall think again and discover again what the apostolic ministry is in the purpose of God by the power of the Spirit.

Let us for a moment think again, here and now, this night. How shall we think? The apostolic ministry is the ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord. The place to begin is with Jesus of Nazareth—not in the fact that he chose apostles but in the fact that he was God's own apostle. As the Scripture itself says, he is the one sent. He is the only priest there is. He is our great High Priest. He lives as our priest and he is the one whose life was lived on earth as a priest. This may not seem so because Jesus did not belong to the priestly caste. No, in him all priestly castes come to an end. In him there is a life lived before God and before man, with a tremendous outpouring of total love which is the very flame and fire by which he is consumed. This is the fire of his own sacrifice of himself. He was a man driven, driven by a strange sense of uniqueness and destiny; driven, he said, to bring the kingdom of God and a new relationship between God and man that he and only he could bring. He was sent, he said, by the Father, obedient to the Father; sent to go into the place of danger, into Jerusalem at the time of sacrifice, at the time of Passover, there to offer himself, there to be crucified. In the Garden of Gethsemane he was to accept that crucifixion in an agony and 'bloody sweat in which he said yes to the demand of God. He was to act out this utter, absolute uniqueness which was necessary for us all because of our sins, because of our bondage to pain, to death. The only way in which this could be done was not by teaching, not by good example, but it was by going through those things which man deserves, and which destroy him.

Jesus Christ made that Passover, that exodus from life through death to life again. And God accepted this life of his, this priesthood of his, and raised him from the dead and gave him to us as a priest. All this is real and present in his glorification, not simply as a memory, but in eternity, in the very presence of God in which he unites us to him. This is the mystery of the Priesthood of Christ.

Jesus said to his apostles, "He who receives you, receives me." This was the purpose of the apostolate; that this which he was and this which he did, should last forever. Jesus Christ, who was born in a particular place at a particular time; Jesus Christ, who was born long ago in the first century and we think, apparently, in the wrong century, this Jesus Christ is for all men everywhere and always. Therefore, there must always be apostles. He gave the apostleship to those whom he had chosen. Not because of their gifts or their goodness, but for some reason hidden from our gaze and not even reflected in the Scriptures, he chose them. What they became he made them. He chose them to be with him. He chose to give himself to them. He chose them again after his resurrection, though they had forsaken him and fled, to be with him once again, to restore them to faith, to recreate them in hope. And it was upon them that the Spirit came. They went forth into the world to be these strangely empowered people—people who gave Christ; not themselves, but Christ. They were made apostles, as Paul was made an apostle, not by man but by God the Father through the Risen Christ. Their ministry was not a ministry of themselves; it was a ministry of Christ. That's what they gave. They gave him. And when they healed, they did it in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and his power broke forth again.

They had a time; like all men—they had a time. And within that time they extended this apostleship. Within that time, somehow, they gave to the church that tremendous sense of mission. Under their powerful presence, which is the presence of Christ in them, they communicated this ministry.

We do not know the details of the history of those first, earliest, charismatic days. But as soon as we have a history, we have a strange and permanent continuation of this apostolic reality in the ministry of the Christian bishops. If we are to understand the nature of apostolic ministry and sacramental priesthood, and what it is that we celebrate here tonight, we have to think of it not in terms of the priesthood which we call priesthood—that is, the priesthood of the presbyter of the church—but the priesthood of the high priesthood of the Episcopate, because this is the continuation of the apostolic power. It is precisely in this area that we seem to have the most confusion, and in some cases the most breakdown of imagination and perception. If there is one order of the church's ministry that requires renewal at this time, it is the Episcopate. This is not to criticize the bishops, but it is to criticize our expectation of the bishops.

What then is this ministry, this apostolic ministry that lives on in the Christian Episcopate, strangely, marvelously, miraculously continuous in this form for 2,000 years? What is this thing, this thing that in many ways is one of the oldest things on earth? It is a covenant. It is an engagement between God and his people, a covenant through Jesus Christ, part of that new covenant which Jesus bestowed upon the church that night in which he was betrayed and took bread; and after he had given thanks, he gave it to them and said, "Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you." After supper he took the cup, and he said, "This is the new covenant in my blood." What is this covenant that he gave that night to those apostles and which continues in the Christian ministry, in the Christian Episcopate? It is simply the thing that he gave in that marvelous gift in the apostolate: "To receive you, is to receive me." The Episcopate is one of the forms of the Real Presence of Christ in his church. It is one of the ways that Christ participates in his church.

First and foremost, a bishop is a sacramental person. He is consecrated. He is a man who is set apart, who is given the gift of the Spirit to do things he can't do. He is the sign of Christ. He's not a vicar of Christ, a representative in the absence of Christ. He is a sign of the presence and power of Christ. That is the reason why his first work is the celebration of the Eucharist; and for 300 years no one but a bishop celebrated it.

One of the reasons why we fail to know what a bishop is, is that we visualize him too much as though he were the chairman of the board, or an administrative official, or the person who in some way or other is the political representative of the church. First and foremost, he stands in the place of the apostles who were given the Eucharist on that night. He stands there to bring us Christ in bread and wine, to hallow the Eucharist in this awful sacramental moment when the very power of the supernatural breaks through. This is a holy calling. You never visualize the bishop better than when you visualize him at the altar. Our ministry, the ministry of presbyters, is but a participation in and a delegation of that ministry. This is a holy thing.

The bishop is also a pastor. We say this time and time again. He caries a staff. It's a shepherd's crook. He's a pastor. He's the shepherd of the sheep. He is a pastor in the sense that he is supposed to know his sheep. He can't know them personally—only a few; but he must be a man of the most incredible sensitivity, with a charismatic gift of perception and healing. He must be a man who is constantly in the presence of the people of God as the shepherd is in the presence of his flock. That seems like such a beautiful metaphor, a rather pretty metaphor.

But remember, this is a Palestinian shepherd, a nomad shepherd; and the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. It is a dangerous thing, and the wolf comes. It is a dangerous thing, and the sheep are stupid. Sometimes this requires correction; and it always, always means an act of saving. That is, of course, the reason for the crook on the end of the staff—to bring back the sheep that is caught or is lost. It means sometimes being shepherd in that great, strong sense of leading the people of God where they do not want to go, and leading the people of God, and feeding the people of God with the Word. We have almost lost this conception. It is because he is a shepherd that he is an administrator, not the other way around. Because he is a pastor, he is an administrator. This is a marvelous and glorious picture of strength. This pastoral ministry he also shares with the presbyterate.

Yesterday I went to the hospital to see a young man who had just had his gall bladder removed. He didn't want to talk. He hurt too much. But I realized he was glad to see me, not because I had come as his friend, but because I had come as a priest—because I had come as a pastor. He wanted one thing from me: a prayer, a blessing. To put it otherwise, he didn't want me; he wanted Christ. This is a true mark of a pastor, the true mark of the Episcopate, the true mark of the apostolic ministry. To be a pastor is not to soothe and comfort but rather always to bring Christ.

The bishop is also a doctor of the church. He is supposed to be the one who teaches, who preaches, who feeds the flock of Christ with the word of God. Within our communion for years upon years, we had the most amazing, the most reliable, the most distinguished scholarship. We had doctors of the church, particularly in the English Episcopate, that were the envy of all of Christendom. The learning of the Anglican Episcopate was supposed to be the "stupor of the world." This is a situation which must come again not in learning but in conviction and in power because the work of the bishop, the teaching of the bishop is the teaching and the work of an evangelist of Christ. To the Episcopate Christ gave the work of evangelism. How often we forget this.

The bishop is an evangelist. He is a man who is called to create faith; to create faith in the faithless; to produce conversion, transformation, the resurrection of the dead. This is the work of the evangelist. This is the work of the bishop. At this moment we have discovered within the church that there is a new passion and a new need for evangelism; but how seldom we identify this with the renewal of our concept of the Episcopate. This is the work of the apostolic ministry. It is the work which is also given to the priesthood of the church because it is the work of an apostolic ministry. Until this church of ours regains its apostolic fire, it's going to suffer from crises of identity. It's going to suffer from all kinds of anguish and brokenness. This church will not know the power that is given to us by the Spirit in this ministry.

The bishop is also an agent of unity. Tonight we have here in this great church a bishop of the church—my bishop for most of my ministry—whom we all love. Now that he's retired, I think that I ought to tell what we've said about him for some time. We often say that Bishop Donegan is the last prince bishop of the church because in his graciousness, in his presence, in his total lack of any crisis of identity, we have seen what a bishop is; and we know that it is a kind of royalty in Christ. I think of him most for his ministry of unity. I saw him consecrated—the first bishop I ever saw consecrated. I knew something about the diocese as he received it. For years it had been a divided diocese. It had been a diocese sometimes almost in a passion of divisiveness. Quietly, without compromise, lovingly and in faith, through the course of his long Episcopate, he welded this diocese of New York into a unity and kind of joy which we had in each other, in our variety and in our diversity, that made us what the Episcopal Church is supposed to be. This is the work of the Spirit, and it's nothing peculiar to Bishop Donegan. It's just what bishops are supposed to do. It's what bishops are supposed to do now in a broken, divided, confused, and faithless church. It's a ministry of reconciliation, which is a way of giving Christ who made peace by the blood of his cross. It's a work which is given to the priesthood by the bishop. Reconciliation does not simply mean learning some work of group dynamics whereby we are able to come together in some strange, neo-psychiatric way. It does mean some marvelous perception of the unity which we have in Christ, of which the Episcopate is an organ, and we are the deputies. It makes us know something of the glorious and wonderful dimension of the body of Christ.

Now who is sufficient for these things? There is no one who is sufficient for these things: "To receive you is to receive me." Time and time again a bishop, a priest, realizes that he is in a situation with which he cannot cope. Time and time again he is confronted with decisions which he feels he cannot make. How often he is aware of the fact that he is in the very presence of the demonic! Often he is afraid. In these moments, maybe more than in moments when he feels his competence (which is often nothing more than his pride), he is aware of the fact that it is not himself that he must give but that in truth what happens to him must be the work of God—must be the gift of the Spirit. That is the reason he is empowered and ordained by the laying on of hands. This laying on of hands, which makes the apostolic ministry, is a gift of the Spirit which begins at the ordination—not ends. It is something which comes into this man and makes him what he cannot be. It is the nature of a miracle. Again and again people watching have marveled to behold this miracle progress throughout the life of a simple man, sometimes a complex man, sometimes a sinful man, who by the power of the Spirit is transformed and formed in his ministry.

If we are to possess a sense of the apostolic ministry, we must sense this—in this time of the Holy Spirit, when we speak so much of the Holy Spirit—that the Episcopate in the church, and the priesthood which it commissions, is a charismatic reality. There is no ministry, no Episcopate, no priesthood which is other than God's own gift. No man takes it upon himself. No man determines the conditions. No man has a right to this ministry.

This is only, and ever and always, the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, this night, when we are witnessing to our apostolic faith and when we are repossessing the sense of the apostolic ministry, let us ask God above all things that he may revive among us by the power of the Spirit a sense of this work of the Spirit; that this gift which has been given to our church may be renewed and empowered again; that we may have a new sense that God has visited and redeemed his people; that we may realize that within our church, though it may be passing through a time of crisis and anguish, there is still this gift. By this gift we are made fellow citizens of the saints and of the household of God, built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.

(This sermon was preached extemporaneously, and has been reprinted from a tape.)

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