2015. május 6., szerda

Thoughts on the 'apostolic succession'



The old Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, its readings of Matins and Evensong after Easter, focuses on the very beginnings of the Church. It is worth observing the first brush-strokes in the priming of the icon of the Church. This is the genius of Cranmer, who composed the Book of Common prayer: he forces us to read the Bible continuously, in the full length of the texts. This ascetism leaves no room for distraction. We are compelled to repeat the subtle movements of history in God's hand, our 'icon writer'.

These first coatings became invisible underneath the layers of later institutional and doctrinal development. Yet recalling the origins of the Christian kerugma is a vital orientation for today. If it is true that we live in a post-denominational age, there are indeed great lessons to learn. Our world has become irreversibly pluralistic and complex. There is no point, for us who arrived from a once homogeneous Christendom, of denying it. Every attempt would only throw us back to the futile hells of redrawing our self-centred legal and doctrinal borders. (Which borders are only ghettos self imposed upon us. In them, Christianity can but shrink ever more into the uncomfortable postures of secularisation.)

Revisiting the core-doctrine of 'apostolic succession' can offer a positive motivation to face our world ‒ in a renewed hope. Understanding the 'apostolic' nature of the Church can indeed generate fresh energies for the mission which not only singles us out from the world as Christians but also reassigns the true borders of the Church. This new 'priming' might offer a fresh orientation. Even though it does not offer a complete programme, at least, it is an inevitable starting point for facing the (complex) crisis which Christians face.

While reading Acts, the vivid presence of the first converts strikes us. We have inherited a mindset from Christendom which tends to focus exclusively on the apostles. Though it is indeed important what Peter, Paul and the others did, it is only half of the story. Their witness to Christ fully merges with the lives of the first converts. What we see is in Acts is how their whole being is immediately absorbed into the 'apostolic nature' of the 'first Twelve'. 'Handing over of tradition by the Apostles, based on the leading role of Peter, is inseparable from the life of the first Christian communities. This is the network of the newly founded churches, their unfolding life, which bears and nourishes the apostolic paradosis, the handing over of faith. This 'subsists' in the life decision by ordinary people like Ananias,Tabitha, Simon, Cornelius, Rhoda, Sergius Paulus, John, Lydia, Silas, Timotheus, Dionysios, Damaris, Aquila, Priscilla, Justus, Crispus, Apollos, Gaius, Aristarchus, Sopater, Secundus, Tychius, Trophimus, Eutychus, and many others.

We need to rediscover in us this 'apostolic community of succession'. The idea of 'apostolic succession' cannot remain an isolated element of doctrine or 'canon law'. In our post-denominational age, when the rediscovery of Christian unity is the utmost call, the concept must be re-read. We live in an age, under cultural conditions, when the classic Roman Catholic (hardly challenged) position must be liberated from the narrow 'ritualistic' reading. Apostolic succession simply cannot be constrained to 'the laying on hands'. Accordingly, the authenticity of the church is solely defined by the chain of 'touches' in 'priestly ordinations' starting from the 'apostles'. Surely, there must be other factors like the commitment to the unity of the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit in ordinary peoples' life.

From Acts, a further widening of 'the apostolic tradition' is a group of nameless people. It is so easy to lose sight of them. They are the ones who were healed from different diseases, the lime, the blind, and the crippled. Their 'archetype' is 'the man lame from birth… at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate' (Acts 3,2).

In rereading of the successio apostolica, our unexpected focus is what Peter said to the lame from birth and the reaction to it. 'I have no silver of god, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.' (Acts 3,6). 'All the people… were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.' (Acts 3,9-10). Peter's widened the notion of the 'Levitic succession', the way Tradition, its safeguarding and interpretation was conceived by the Jewry. (This 'patriarchal succession', safeguarded by the religious elite, can be seen as a kind of equivalent of our core doctrine.) Peter's act is driven by the same dynamic that we saw above: the need of bringing the community of faith fully alive.

What is surprising in the apostolic age is the understanding of their mission. There is no distance between Christians and their world. This immediacy in the Spirit can happen again, and actually does happen, in our sight. The 'apostolic succession' is about sensitising everyone in the church to extend the healing embrace, which we have experienced, to our world.






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