For most members of the Orthodox Churches the doctrine, or teaching, about the Apostolic Succession is not often discussed, even though it represents an essential foundation of every Apostolic and Orthodox community. Orthodox Christians might be aware of the consecration of their particular Patriarch or Catholicos. Perhaps the might have seen video or photographs of their own bishop being consecrated. But they will experience the Apostolic Succession in the sense that it was first described in the earliest centuries, and not in the manner that it is often misrepresented in our own times.
To express it simply, the Apostolic Succession means the continuity of the leadership, life, teaching and practice of the ancient Orthodox communities from the times of the Apostles. For most Orthodox this is something experienced and not something to be thought about too much. It is related to the sense that the Apostolic Tradition is not a list of texts, and canons, and prayers, which could be used by anybody, but is a living continuity of life in the Holy Spirit, passed on from generation to generation in the same community.
The ancient Orthodox communities and those truly Orthodox communities which have been established throughout history as the daughters of these ancient communities, do not decide what sort of Church they wish to be. Rather the living continuity calls them always to preserve and express that unbroken continuity which is the Apostolic Succession. If a small group, or an individual, is insisting on their Apostolic Succession this is rather an unusual sign, even a warning sign. Those Churches which have the Apostolic Succession do not need to keep justifying themselves. We might know that our bishop was consecrated by this or that Patriarch or Catholicos, but we will hardly know which other Bishops participated in the consecration. Nor does this matter, since the Apostolic Succession is not about a list of names but about the unbroken continuity of a community and the continuity of leadership within it, and with a shared and preserved Tradition of teaching and practice.
A member of any of the Apostolic and Orthodox communities will never wonder if his own Bishop has an Apostolic Succession, since this does not belong to his Bishop but to the Church and community to which he belongs. In the case of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, it is the unbroken continuity of almost 2000 years of Christian history which establishes and gives authority to its Apostolic Succession. It has no other origin, and it is no other community, than that which was established on the Apostolic message and ministry. Pope Tawadros II is truly the 118th Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, and the bishops gathered around the Archbishops of Alexandria in every age from the beginning form the unfailing and unbroken continuity which represents the Apostolic Succession.
This concept originates in the early Church. It was the answer to the necessary question of – Where is the Apostolic Church? Even in the first centuries there were groups which insisted that they were Christian, and that they were the Church, but which taught a variety of incompatible doctrines, or had established themselves from nowhere and with no authority. How was it possible to identify the true and Apostolic Church when others also called themselves the Church?
Clement of Rome, the Bishop there in about 80 A.D. describes how the Church transitioned from Apostles with a wide and even universal authority, to Bishops who had a local authority. He says,
“Through countryside and city, the apostles preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier… Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”
We can see here that the Apostles appointed bishops over the various communities they established in different places, and then, as those bishops passed away, other men succeeded to the ministry of the bishop in each of those places. Clement had known some of the Apostles himself, and still lived at a time when some of the Apostles, and many of their disciples, were alive. This was not a practice he had learned about, but it was one which he saw in action, even in his own ministry as Bishop of Rome, in every place associated with the Apostles.
Writing a century later, about 170 A.D., Hegesippus, a Jewish convert and early Chronicler, says, “When I had come to Rome, I visited Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And after Anicetus died, Soter succeeded, and after him Eleutherus. In each succession and in each city, there is a continuance of that which is proclaimed by the law, the prophets, and the Lord.” He also found that in every place there was a succession of bishops, who preserved a continuity of teaching so that he can provide the names of those who were in this true succession of bishops and the cities and communities which they shepherded. There is no sense that the succession could exist apart from the community, or that the succession of the community operated separately from the continuity of the ministry of the Bishop.
But it is Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, writing in about 189 A.D., who establishes the teaching of the Apostolic Succession as a means of identifying the true and Apostolic Church in the face of various counterfeits. He writes,
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about.”
Irenaeus insists that it is possible to know where the true and Apostolic Church is to be found, even in the confusion of competing claims. The Apostolic Tradition depends on the reality of the Apostolic Succession, and the Apostolic Succession represents the reality of the continuity of the Apostolic Tradition. We can know who has a history stretching back to the Apostles and who does not, but those who are truly in this Apostolic Succession have preserved the Apostolic teaching and have not embraced any of the heresies. Of course, there were already those who had taught error and been expelled from the Church. They were not of the same Apostolic Succession because they had formed other communities and were teaching another Tradition. He continues, using the example of the Church of Rome, to explain what he means.
“The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. … To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. … To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now and handed down in truth.”
Irenaeus is not interested in individual bishops. He is not seeking to justify the authority of these particular figures. He is wanting to show the Apostolicity of the Church of Rome, and he does this by providing an unbroken continuity of those who led this particular local Church, and preserved in this particular local Church the Tradition which had been received from the Apostles. The proof of the Apostolic Church is this continuity of life and teaching, provided by a continuity of leadership which preached this same life and teaching.
Those outside the Church could not provide this continuity. Either they taught things that were not the same as the teaching of the Apostolic Church, or they had already been expelled from the Apostolic Church and were no longer in continuity, or they had proclaimed themselves a bishop apart from the Apostolic Church. Apostolic Succession belonged only to the Apostolic Church and had no meaning apart from the Apostolic Church. He explains what he means when he says,
“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church. … Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, in that case, to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?”
We are to be concerned about the Apostolic Tradition, that is what the Apostolic Succession is all about. And if we have a question, we need to turn to those Churches that have an unassailable and ancient connection with the Apostles. Even if we had no New Testament, we would turn to the Church of Rome, to the Church of Antioch, to the Church of Alexandria, to discover the Apostolic teaching, because Irenaeus insists that it has been preserved in these Churches by the succession of bishops and the continuity of teaching and Tradition, in a continuity of life and community. These three aspects are inseparable. The Apostolic Church, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Apostolic ministry. None can exist without each of the others.
Who are those who propose anything different? They are those in the various groups who insist that they are the Apostolic Church but lack one of these key aspects. Irenaeus says,
“For, prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion. … For Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus, who was the ninth bishop. … he was excommunicated from the assembly of the brethren. … But the rest, who are called Gnostics, take rise from Menander, Simon’s disciple, as I have shown; and each one of them appeared to be both the father and the high priest of that doctrine into which he has been initiated.”
What is he saying? It is that all of these who do not have the Apostolic Succession have appeared in later times, and before them there was nothing of their movement. So, all of those groups which call themselves Orthodox in our own times but have only begun in recent decades cannot be Orthodox or Apostolic, because like Valentinus and Marcion their group had no history before them. He is also insisting that those who have been excommunicated or separated from the Apostolic and Orthodox Church cannot continue as if they were Orthodox. Whatever they are, they are no longer in the Apostolic Succession. This is also the case with many and most of these modern groups, and there are a great many of them. All are led by people who have never been a member of one of the ancient and true Apostolic communities, or those who have been excommunicated in one way or another, by themselves separating from the Orthodox Church, or by being separated by discipline from the Orthodox Church. No one separated from the Orthodox and Apostolic Church and not in a living community and communion with the ancient Churches can be Orthodox, whatever they think of themselves. No one separated from the Orthodox and Apostolic Church and not in a living community and communion with the ancient Churches can establish an Orthodox community themselves. It is always the activity of the existing and actual and ancient Orthodox and Apostolic community.
What are we to think of those who are outside the Church but call themselves Orthodox in one way or another? Irenaeus says,
“It is incumbent on us to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, looking upon them either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth.”
We don’t have to make any personal judgement about any person. But anyone who is not in the ancient and Apostolic Succession, which must be associated with the ancient and Apostolic Church and the ancient and Apostolic Tradition is to be suspected and rejected. Some are heretics and teach error, often significant error. Others are schismatics and have separated themselves or been separated from the Apostolic and Orthodox Church. While others enjoy the title of Bishop and enjoy the theatre of the Apostolic heritage with no commitment to the teaching or community, and with only thought for themselves.
What does this mean in practice? It is that if I visit Egypt, as a Coptic Orthodox priest, and I meet a man who introduces himself as a Bishop, but says that he is a Bishop of the International Coptic Church of Europe, I will be suspicious of him. I will ask what connection he has with the authentic and Apostolic Coptic Orthodox Church, or the authentic and Apostolic Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria. If he is not a Bishop in either of those communities then he is not a Bishop in the Apostolic Succession, whatever he says of himself. It is not possible to start a new Orthodox Church in Egypt. The Church already exists. There is no sense that a person who is not already Orthodox by baptism and chrismation into the ancient and Apostolic Orthodox Church could possibly become a bishop of the Apostolic Church outside of that community, or by receiving some authority outside of that living community.
We can see this in Church History. The Apostolic and Orthodox Church in Ethiopia was established by Orthodox missionaries from Egypt and elsewhere. In that sense it received the Apostolic Succession in Community, Tradition and Ministry from the Egyptian Church. Indeed, it was always closely united with the Orthodox Church of Alexandria until granted independence of organisation in the second half of the 20th century. Likewise, the Church in Libya, or Nubia, developed out of the life and living continuity of the Apostolic Church of Alexandria, and did not spring into existence simply because some new believers asserted themselves to be a new Orthodox Church.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa there were many groups who started calling themselves Coptic in one way or another, with no real knowledge of the Coptic Orthodox Church. None of them were Orthodox, and certainly none had any Apostolic Succession of Community, Tradition and Ministry until, in the 20th century they were ministered to by missionaries of the authentic and Apostolic Orthodox Churches and received this succession through membership of the Coptic or Greek Orthodox Churches of Alexandria.
In every place there was no possibility of someone simply calling themselves Orthodox, as if that was all that was required to actually be Orthodox within the Apostolic Succession in Community, Tradition and Ministry. Indeed, such a view is manifestly not Orthodox nor in continuity with the teaching of the earliest and Apostolic Church. Kiev became Orthodox through missionary activity from an authentic Orthodox Church with the fulness of the Apostolic Church, and Kiev received this Apostolic Succession by unity with and membership of the existing Orthodox communion. Likewise, the Orthodox Churches of Romania, Bulgaria and all the Eastern European countries. Nowhere was it possible simply to choose to become Orthodox apart from the Orthodox communion that has existed from the beginning.
How is it then, that a search on the internet finds perhaps even hundreds of small groups, tiny groups of a few people in many cases, which call themselves Orthodox, but are teaching a variety of ideas, many of which are not consistent with Orthodoxy, or represent a single Bishop often with no other clergy? We know the authentic Orthodox Churches in the Oriental and Easter Orthodox communions. In the Oriental Orthodox these consist of the Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches. There are no others. But what of these small and tiny groups, which insist that they are also part of the Oriental Orthodox communion, though recognised by none of those churches with an authentic Apostolic Succession in Community, Tradition and Ministry?
These have almost entirely developed from the activities of two men in the 19th and early 20th centuries. All reflect a non-Orthodox understanding of Apostolic Succession. When a man is consecrated a Bishop, he surely receives a grace from God for his ministry in the Orthodox and Apostolic Church. But this is not something that belongs to him. If a man, even having been consecrated a Bishop, falls away from the ancient and Apostolic community through teaching error, or having been disciplined, or having wilfully entered into schism, then he is no longer a bishop. He no longer has any grace, and all of his actions have no meaning or value at all. This is found throughout the history of the Orthodox and Apostolic Church as an established teaching.
As an example, the VIth Canon of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. is very clear.
“If any should in any way attempt to set aside the orders in each case made by the holy Synod at Ephesus, the holy Synod decrees that, if they be bishops or clergymen, they shall absolutely forfeit their office; and, if laymen, that they shall be excommunicated.”
Any Bishop who acts or teaches contrary to the decrees of the Council is to absolutely cease to be a Bishop at all. If he absolutely ceases to be a Bishop then he cannot continue to ordain or consecrate others, or in any way act as if he were a Bishops still. And the IVth Canon of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. is also very clear about those who not only are dismissed from the episcopate but considered not to have it, even having gone through the form of a consecration, when it says,
“Concerning Maximus the Cynic and the disorder which has happened in Constantinople on his account, it is decreed that Maximus never was and is not now a Bishop; that those who have been ordained by him are in no order whatever of the clergy; since all which has been done concerning him or by him, is declared to be invalid.”
He had certainly been consecrated according to the form of consecration by those who were themselves Bishops. But his orders and ministry were considered entirely and completely void by the Council. Nothing he had done was considered to be authoritative and he was considered not a Bishop at all. There is no sense at all in Orthodoxy that having been consecrated a Bishop according to a certain form, and by someone who is a Bishop, that person must be considered a Bishop, and is a Bishop, and is free to act as a Bishop in consecrating others. The Orthodox and Apostolic Church absolutely rejects such an idea, so that everything that Maximus did was entirely and completely of no effect. Severus of Antioch speaks in the same way of a certain Gregory who claimed to be a Bishop,
“If there are some others who derive the ordinations alleged to have been performed over them from the man called Gregory or from others, who are not even bishops, let these be reckoned as laymen, and not dream of the name of service or priesthood.”
There is no sense that the ministry and grace of Bishop belongs to a person so it can be passed on independently of the authentic and Apostolic Orthodox Church. One who acts in such a way is not a Bishop and cannot make other Bishops. How then, could someone consider that it is possible to become an Orthodox and Apostolic Bishop apart from the Orthodox and Apostolic Churches?
Returning to the two 19th century figures referred to previously. They were Jules Ferrette and Rene Villatte, and almost all of the small religious groups claiming to be Orthodox are derived from them in one way or another.
Jules Ferrette was a Frenchman. He was born in 1828 of a Protestant family. In 1850 he converted to Catholicism and was received into the Dominican Order and took the religious name, Raymond. After studies in Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1855 and sent as a missionary to Mesopotamia and Kurdistan. After a short period, he left the Roman Catholic Church and joined himself to the Irish Presbyterian Mission in Damascus between 1858 and 1865, and assisted in the Protestant missionary work of this organisation in the Lebanon. In 1866 he was consecrated a Bishop in or of the Syrian Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Peter acting solus, that is on his own and in his own authority. It is not clear at all what was the intention of Metropolitan Peter, who late became Patriarch Ignatius Peter IV in 1872.
Jules Ferrette arrived in England in 1866, claiming to be Bishop of Iona and her dependencies, and offered re-ordination to those Anglican clergy who would support his endeavours. It seems that he hoped to restore Orthodoxy to the West, as a means of establishing church unity. He was strongly resisted in this by the Anglican hierarchy and establishment. He did ordain some Anglican priests, who continued to serve as Anglican clergy, even while having supposedly received Orthodox ordination. But facing opposition, and the Church of England threatened to defrock those clergy who attended his meetings, he abandoned his plans in England and moved to the United States of America in !867, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1874. He finally died in Switzerland in 1904.
Much later, in 1922, a lengthy, historical piece in the Church Times, purported to describe some of the incidents which had followed the arrival of Ferrette. Certainly, he was ordained a bishop by Metropolitan Peter, but he had already changed his religious affiliation several times in his life and had been a staunch Protestant just a few months before his consecration. He spent only a short time in England and left no community at all. He had offered to ordain Anglican clergy as Orthodox clergy, against all canons of the Church, and appears, on a later visit after 1874, to have consecrated an Anglican priest, Richard Morgan, as a Bishop, taking the name, Pelagius, Bishop of Caerleon.
If we consider again what the Apostolic Succession consists of, we will see that Morgan had no part in it. At this time, Jules Ferrette had no contact at all with the Syrian Orthodox Church, therefore he represented no continuity of Community. He had no gathered congregation himself, nor did Morgan, and therefore his actions were against the canons which forbid a person being made a bishop without a significant congregation. Morgan remained an Anglican priest to the end of his life, and so he represented no continuity of Tradition. Therefore, he cannot represent the Apostolic Succession. Whatever Jules Ferrette did he could not make an Anglican with no congregation and no connection with the Syrian Orthodox Church, or any Orthodox Church, into an Orthodox bishop. More than that, Ferrette consecrated Morgan acting alone, or solus, against the Orthodox Tradition, and Morgan himself was a married Anglican priest, and therefore doubly ineligible to become an Orthodox Bishop.
According to the Church Times article, Morgan then participated in the consecration of Charles Isaac Stevens, together with an Anglican priest, Rev. F.G. Lee, whom it was suggested had been consecrated a bishop by a Greek Orthodox bishop in communion with Constantinople, and a third person. This rather complicated outcome could not provide an Apostolic Succession in any authentically Orthodox sense. Rev. Lee could not be an Orthodox bishop. There is within Orthodoxy no idea of a person simply being a bishop apart from an Orthodox Community and an Orthodox Tradition. He was an Anglican priest and continued as an Anglican priest. There was no Orthodox community which he served, and which was in continuity with any other authentically Orthodox community. Nor could any Orthodox bishop, whether known or not, pass on the Apostolic Succession to an Anglican priest. Whatever had happened was not an Orthodox episcopal consecration. Not only was he an Anglican, and remained an Anglican, but he was also married, and so doubly ineligible to become an Orthodox bishop.
Charles Isaac Stevens, could not therefore have become an Orthodox bishop or received any Apostolic Succession, because in him there was not only a lack of continuity with any Orthodox community, or any Orthodox Tradition, but none of his consecrators were themselves Orthodox bishops. They were married Anglican priests.
What was the Tradition that Stevens followed? In 1897 he merged his small community with the Free Protestant Church of England, and the Nazarene Episcopal Ecclesia, two other groups created by others in the same situation, and he became the head of the Free Protestant Episcopal Church. It hardly matters what he thought of Orthodoxy himself, he was the head of a small group of people who chose to call themselves Protestant. He was not an Orthodox bishop in any sense and cannot be said to have participated in the Orthodox Apostolic Succession at all.
Those who followed him had similar views or adopted much worse positions. They were Protestants, and some were Spiritualists and Theosophists. They were certainly not Orthodox and had no Orthodox Apostolic Succession to participate in or transmit through participation to others. Nor is the second major figure in this necessary history able to provide an Apostolic Succession either, especially since Orthodoxy does not understand it as a personal possession which can be experienced apart from the Orthodox communion and the Orthodox Tradition. This second man was Rene Vilatte, another Frenchman.
Vilatte was born in 1855 in France and had been a Roman Catholic as a child. He had hoped to become a priest. In 1876 he began private preparation for the priesthood and then he spent three years in Seminary. He left after the third year when he began to have doctrinal doubts. In 1884 he was serving as a French-language missionary pastor for the Presbyterian Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. At this time the Anglican Church was supporting Old Catholic groups in various places. These were communities of Catholics, including bishops and priests, who had left the Roman Catholic Church over various doctrinal changes, and wished to continue to consider themselves Catholic. Vilatte began to minister to a community of ex-Catholic French speakers and was supported by the local Anglican bishop. He was sent to Switzerland in 1885 to be ordained as an Old Catholic priest since it was thought that ex-Catholics would not easily accept a Protestant or an Anglican, but he was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States.
In 1890 Vilatte suggested to his Anglican bishop that he be consecrated as an assistant or suffragan bishop himself. Bishop Grafton thought Vilatte was neither “morally or intellectually fit for the office” of bishop, and it was not possible in any case, within the Anglican structure at that time. At about the same time he made contact with the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, stating that he had been elected as bishop by the congregation he served. But he also contacted the Roman Catholic Church to investigate the possibility of reconciliation and service as a priest, and even the Russian Orthodox Church.
The breakdown of relationship with his Anglican bishop, and the resolve of his congregation to remain within the Anglican Diocese, led to a period of isolation for Vilatte. But he was able to contact Bishop Antonio Francisco Xavier Alvares of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Orthodox Church, who offered to consecrate him as a bishop on a visit to the USA. Vilatte insisted that he would travel to Sri Lanka, quite possibly to avoid the consequences of Alvares discovering that he had so few followers in Wisconsin, no more than 500 adherents.
He was certainly consecrated a bishop by Alvarez in 1892, with the authority of Patriarch Ignatius Peter, who had formerly consecrated Ferrette. But back in Wisconsin his community, such as it was, drifted back to Anglicanism or Catholicism. In 1894 he was seeking reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church again, in a process that continued for four years. At the same time, he was elected the head of the American Catholic Church, which had been a group of independent congregations separating from the Roman Catholic Church. One of the priests of the American Catholic Church was ordained a priest by Vilatte, and then, at the same time, in a transit through Britain, he made the Anglican monk, Joseph Leycester Lyne, known as Father Ignatius, a priest. In 1899 he was in Rome and seeking reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church again. By 1902 he had lost all connection with the Orthodox Church in India and Sri Lanka, and with the European Old Catholics.
Vilatte gained some influence over Polish Old Catholics at this time. They had elected a man to be consecrated bishop, but Vilatte offered to consecrate a competitor, and withheld consecration until he was willing to pay a large fee. Such payment for ordination, or simony, is absolutely rejected by Orthodoxy. But reaching such a state of poverty, Vilatte reduced his demands and consecrated the man, Kaminski. This caused Vilatte to be repudiated by the Old Catholics, who called him the “French rogue”, and by the Syrian Orthodox Church who excommunicated him for acting without authority and insisted that the Syrian Orthodox Church “therefore does not recognize such consecrations or their derivative consecrations and ordination.”
The Orthodox Church, no less than the Roman Catholic and Old Catholic, had repudiated the ministry of Vilatte, and all those whom he consecrated, and he consecrated many, and not of the best quality. In Italy the Old Catholic movement could also be found, and when one priest was rejected as being unsuitable by the Old Catholics, Vilatte himself, and alone, consecrated him. Kaminski had to leave the US in a hurry because of debts, and the Italian bishop found himself deported from the USA as an undesirable alien after having made himself head of his own Catholic Independent Church of Rome, charged with selling fake diplomas and obtaining alms under false pretences.
Those who followed, consecrated by Vilatte, and then by those he had consecrated, were to often of a similar quality. Acting only for themselves and their own interests, holding a variety of religious views, and creating hundreds of tiny groups. None of these have or could have the Apostolic Succession. Vilatte was excommunicated and had acted apart from the authority of the Syrian Orthodox Church, so that none of his actions, and none of the actions of those who followed him have any meaning or value within Orthodoxy. They were performed apart from the Orthodox Community, and against the Orthodox Tradition, and without any continuity of Ministry.
He continued in the same irresponsible manner, so that there are many who claim they are bishops because of this connection, but no Orthodox succession was ever passed on or could be passed on. It never belonged to Vilatte, it belongs to the Church which repudiated him and all he had done. Nevertheless, in 1903, he was in Britain again and he consecrated Henry Marsh-Edwards, a former Anglican priest, to the episcopate with the title of Bishop of Caerleon. Then both men consecrated Henry Bernard Ventham with the title of Bishop of Dorchester. In 1907, Vilatte ordained Louis-Marie-François Giraud, a former Trappist monk, who had been excommunicated for dabbling in magic and the occult. Nor was this the only case of at least a lack of wisdom in those whom he ordained and consecrated. Such promiscuous consecrations, with no authority or value according to Orthodoxy were repeated countless times by Vilatte, and then by those who followed him.
But none of them provide any Apostolic Succession at all. As the Orthodox Church insists, and stated in 1938,
“after direct expulsion from official Christian communities” some schismatic bodies exist, including “all the sects claiming succession through Vilatte”, that claim “without truth to derive their origin and apostolic succession from some ancient Apostolic Church of the East.“
“[…] some of these schismatic bodies have with effrontery published statements which are untrue as to an alleged relation “in succession and ordination” to our Holy Apostolic Church and her forefathers, We find it necessary to announce to all whom it may concern that we deny any and every relation whatsoever with these schismatic bodies and repudiate them and their claims absolutely. Furthermore, our Church forbids any and every relationship, and above all, intercommunion with all and any of these schismatic sects and warns the public that their statements and pretensions […] are altogether without truth.”
Nor could there ever be any true and Apostolic Succession in the work of these men and those who followed them, because they acted apart from the Apostolic Community in any and every way, they repudiated the Orthodox Tradition in countless regards, not least in the consecration of married men who were active clergy in a non-Orthodox community, and all sense of continuity with the Apostolic Ministry was lost.
In the end, in 1925, Vilatte himself repudiated all that he had done, saying,
“I, Rene Joseph Vilatte, declare that I express my most sincere regret for having taught many errors and for having attacked and presented under a false light the Holy Roman Church. Without reserve I retract all such teaching. I believe in and profess the Holy Roman Church, and I submit entirely and unconditionally to her authority, recognizing and confessing that it is the one true Church of Christ, outside of which there is no salvation.
In submitting myself, I regret and repent having received Holy Orders and having conferred them on others contrary to the teaching and laws of the Holy Roman Church, in which I hope, by the grace of God, soon to be received.
In issuing this formal declaration by which I deplore the past, I ask pardon of God for the scandals I have given and I promise to repair them by the good example of my new life, and I invite all those who have followed my errors to imitate my example. I make this declaration freely and spontaneously to repair the evil which I have done and the scandal I have given.”
It is not a matter of unkindness, or lack of inclusivity, to insist, as the Church always has, that Apostolic Succession belongs only in the Orthodox and Apostolic Church, and that none of the so-called successions deriving from Ferrette or Vilatte have any worth whatsoever in Orthodox terms. This is a matter of fact not of fellowship. Both of these men failed to establish anything that could be called an Orthodox community, and those who came afterwards were, in the main, those who held entirely non-Orthodox, and even non-Christian, teachings, and in the past were often not of the quality necessary in a bishop.
We are doing no more than stating a fact if we say that the Baptist Union does not have the Apostolic Succession, nor does it claim it in an Orthodox manner. But there is no need to accept the claims of these hundreds of others, usually with tiny congregations that do not justify a bishop in any case, simply because they have had particular prayers said over them. The consecration to the episcopate is not a matter of words but of a continuity of life and teaching and leadership which is missing in these groups. Only those who belong to the Apostolic and Orthodox Church are able to be consecrated as a Bishop in the Apostolic and Orthodox Church. As Irenaeus pointed out, it is not hard to see where this Church is. It is not found in the group that has suddenly sprung into existence or was formed as part of the confusion introduced by Ferrette and Vilatte. It is found only in those Churches whose life and history is genuinely and manifestly traced back to the Apostles.
Nor is it hard for us to be joined to this Apostolic and Orthodox Church if we desire to embrace the Apostolic Tradition in the Apostolic Community under those who have an Apostolic Ministry.
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