The terms apostolic succession and historic episcopate describe the belief that bishops are the successors to Christ’s apostles. In this paradigm, a bishop’s authority is derived from the apostles by an unbroken ministerial lineage. The outward sign of this lineal sequence of authority is manifested when ordaining bishops physically lay their hands on a new bishop during the new bishop’s consecration. Bishops have been regarded as succeeding the apostles because: 1) they perform apostolic functions; 2) their commission goes back to the apostles; 3) like apostles, they succeed one another in jurisdictions, and 4) at their consecration as a bishop, the bishop inherits from the apostles the transmission of the Holy Spirit. The apostolic succession is said to be a “sign, though not a guarantee” of the church’s basic continuity with the apostles and their time. The maintenance of the “historic episcopate” was a major issue during negotiations that eventually established co-communion between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC). The breakthrough came when the ELC, which had not maintained the historic episcopate, allowed Episcopal bishops to be present at all ordinations of ELC ministers to establish the historic episcopate in both churches.
~Written by Gil Haas