Many Christian denominations are organized with bishops that oversee a number of priests or pastors, who in turn minister to individual congregations (the bishops may also have their own congregation). These bishops are ordained by means of a practice known as “laying on hands”. Other bishops gather around the candidate and place their hands on that person in prayer and blessing. The laying on of hands also serves as a public demonstration of giving authority to the candidate, and the new bishop is consecrated for ministry in the service of God. This practice of ordination is described in the Bible (see Scripture below).
The Apostolic Succession refers to the chain of consecrations as bishop extending back into history. Presumably each new bishop was consecrated by an existing bishop, who was also consecrated by another, and so on. The Apostolic Succession is the sequence of these ordinations all the way back to St. Peter, who was an Apostle of Jesus Christ Himself. The Apostolic Succession is also known as the Historic Episcopate.
The modern Apostolic Succession is not simply the sequence of persons who held the highest office in a denomination (Catholic Popes, Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury, Orthodox Patriarchs of Constantinople). The previous Pope did not necessarily consecrate the new Pope as bishop. For example, Pope John Paul I did not ordain Pope John Paul II as Bishop of Krakow, Poland in 1958 – that consecration was performed by Eugeniusz Baziak. Neither did the old Pope install the new Pope directly, because the selection of Popes is done when the previous Pope has passed away. I’m sure that Pope John Paul I knew Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and probably shook his hand in greeting, but those casual encounters were not the ordination as bishop. This is why the links in the chain of the Apostolic Succession often pass through the highest church office, but not all consecrations as bishop occur there.
In theory the church could guarantee an unbroken Apostolic Succession simply by adopting the practice that only pre-existing bishops may ordain new bishops. In that way we would always preserve the line back to St. Peter. In practice it is harder than that. The Apostolic Succession reaches back 2,000 years through some murky periods of human history, and it is not enough for a person today merely to assert “We’ve always done it that way!” We desire proof, or at least some historical evidence, that the consecrations were done properly, and that the chain is unbroken. The evidence is a list of actual consecrations reaching back to St. Peter.
If you take your concordance and search for the word “hands” in the New Testament, you will find a selection of Bible verses that refer to the laying on of hands. Here are the verses I found in the New International Version from Acts onward:
- Acts 6:5-6: This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procurus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
- Acts 8:14-19: When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands will receive the Holy Spirit.”
- Acts 9:12,17: [God said] “In a village he [Saul] has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” . . . Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
- Acts 13:2-3: While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
- Acts 19:6: When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
- Acts 28:8: His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.
- 1 Timothy 4:14: Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
- 1 Timothy 5:22: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
- 2 Timothy 1:5-6: I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
- Hebrews 6:1-2: Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.
The Holy Spirit is involved in five out of six passages in Acts from the list above (Acts 28:8 involves healing). Two out of three passages in Timothy refer to a spiritual gift. From these passages it should be evident that churches who practice the Apostolic Succession and do not value the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit might want to re-examine what they’re doing.
The granting of authority is also a theme in the above verses, although by my reading that aspect is secondary to receiving the Holy Spirit. Note that Stephen in Acts 6:6 and Paul in Acts 13:3 were already filled with the Holy Spirit; this laying on of hands was to commission them.
JOHN MOORE, D.D, Archbishop of Canterbury 1783-1805, Consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Frederick Cornwallis) and the Bishops of Ely(Edmund Keene), Oxford (Robert Lowth) and Rochester (John Thomas), 12 February,1775 in Lambeth Palace Chapel, London. Died 1805.
WILLIAM WHITE, D.D, Bishop of Pennsylvania Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA,was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Moore), the Archbishop of York (William Markham) and the Bishops of Peterborough (John Hinchcliffe) and Bath and Wells (Charles Moss) 4 February, 1787 in Lambeth Palace Chapel, London. Died 1836.
JOHN HENRY HOPKINS, DD, Bishop of Vermont,Presiding Bishop of Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, was consecrated by Bishops William White, Alexander Viets Griswold and Nathaniel Bowen, 31 October 1832, in St Paul’s Chapel, New York. Died 1868.
BISHOP GEORGE DAVID CUMMINS, M.A., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. John H. Hopkins, the Rt. Rev. Benjamin B. Smith, the Rt. Rev. Henry W. Lee,the Rt. Rev. Joseph C. Talbot, the Rt. Rev. Chides T. Quintard, the Rt. Rev.Robert H. Clarkson, and the Rt. Rev. John B. Kerfoot, of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in Christ Church Cathedral, Louisville, Kentucky, on November 15, 1866.Died at Lutherville, Maryland, June 26, 1875, aged 54.
BISHOP CHARLES EDWARD CHENEY, B.A., S.T.D., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. George D. Cummins, assisted by five presbyters, in Christ Church, Chicago,Illinois, on December 14. 1873. Died at Chicago, Illinois, November 15, 1916,aged 80.
BISHOP SAMUEL FALLOWS, M.A., LLD., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Cheney, the Rt. Rev. William R.Nicholson, and the Rt. Rev. Carman of the Methodist Episcopal Church, assisted by nine presbyters, in Emmanuel Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on July 17, 1876. Diedat Chicago, Illinois, September 5, 1922, aged 87.
BISHOP ROBERT LIVINGSTON RUDOLPH, M.A.,D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Samuel Fallows, the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Cheney, and the Rt.Rev. William T. Sabine, assisted by the Rev. Dr. W. Russell Collins, the Rev.Dr. William A. Freemantle, the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Hendricks, the Rev. George W. Huntington,the Rev. Dr. R. Westly Peach, the Rev. Dr. William D. Stevens, the Rev. Dr.William Tracy, the Rev. Dr. Joseph D. Wilson, and the Rev. Dr. John H. Oerterof the Reformed Church in America, in First Church, New York, New York, on January 12, 1909. Died at Doset, Vermont, September 16, 1930, aged 65.
BISHOP JOSEPH EDGAR KEARNEY, D.D., was consecrated bythe Rt. Rev. Robert L. Rudolph, the Rt. Rev. R. Westly Peach, and the Rt. Rev.Frank Vaughan, assisted by the Rev. Dr. Frank V. C. Cloak, the Rev. Dr. ForrestE. Dager, the Rev. Dr. William A. Freemantle, the Rev. Dr. Howard D. Higgins,the Rev. Dr. Alexander M. Hubly, the Rev. Richard A. Madison, the Rev. Dr.Francis H. Reynolds, the Rev. Dr. Henry H. Trotter, the Rev. Dr. William T.Way, and Rev. R. Milton Webster, in Redeemer Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 23. 1930.Died at Summerville, South Carolina, January 21. 1981, aged 89.
BISHOP HOWARD DAVID HIGGINS, M.A., Th.M., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Joseph E. Kearney, the Rt. Rev. Frank V. C. Cloak,and the Rt. Rev. George Marshall, assisted by Rev. Charles O. Bayard, the Rev. Howell S. Foster, the Rev. ThomasW. Fox, the Rev.Dr. Francis H. Reynolds, the Rev. Joseph Robinson, the Rev. Dr. Robert K. Rudolph, theRev. Henry Short, the Rev. George R. Stout, and the Rev. Dr. Henry H. Trotter, in FirstChurch, New York, New York, on January 19, 1937. Died at Southampton,Pennsylvania, April 6. 1980, aged 77.
BISHOP THEOPHILUS JOHN HERTER, M.A., Th.D., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. Howard D. Higgins, the Rt. Rev. William C.Culbertson, III, the Rt. Rev. William H. S. Jerdan, Jr., the Rt. Rev. Joseph E. Kearney, and theRt. Rev. Sanco K. Rembert, assisted by Rev. M. Nelson Buffler, the Rev.Dr. Edwin A. Bustard, the Rev. Dr. Fred C. Kuehner, the Rev. Howard J. Miekley,the Rev. Alton F. Olsen, the Rev. Dr. D. Ellsworth Raudenbush, the Rev. Karl R.Rudolph, the Rev. Dr. Robert K. Rudolph, and Rev. Edwin C. Shisler, in Christ Memorial Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 15, 1966. Died at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 2, 1987, aged74.
BISHOP ROYAL UPTON GROTE, JR., Th.B., D.D., was consecrated by the Rt.Rev. Theophilus J. Herter, the Rt. Rev. William H. S. Jerdan, Jr.,the Rt. Rev. Sanco K. Rembert, the Rt. Rev. Leonard W. Riches, and the Rt. Rev. Franklin H. Sellers, assisted by Rev.Dale H. Crouthamel, the Rev. Samuel M. Forster, the Rev. R. Charles Gillin, the Rev. Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, theRev. Thomas R. May, the Rev. Robert N. McIntyre, the Rev. Dr. James C. West, Sr., and Rev. Richard W.Workowski, in Covenant Chapel, Basking Ridge, New Jersey, on June 7, 1984.
Rev. Petar Petrovic was consecrated as presbyter by the Rt.Rev.Royal Upton Grote, Jr., and Rt.Rev.Gerhard Meyer, on May 17, 2011.