If you ask this of a pastor or most theologians, you’ll get a fog of Scripture. But the problem with starting with Scripture is, we bring certain preconceived notions to the text – even as we say we’re deriving meaning from the text. One of the reasons that the Puritans were cold to the Authorized Version of the Bible (KJV) was because the king laid down certain strictures about translating “old, comfortable church words.” In other words, the translators were required to say “bishop” instead of “overseer,” “church” rather than “congregation,” etc. The Puritans wanted words that allowed for a Calvinist understanding of ecclesiology; King James insisted on words that supported a moderate Catholic one.
The implication is that our tradition preconditions our understanding of Scripture, at least at first. So let’s start by talking about the English Church Tradition, out of which our Methodist movement comes. Only after examining how this tradition has shaped our understanding of ordination can we profitably go back and look at the Scriptures and church history in order to critique that understanding.
Part One: the English Church tradition
The English were evangelized in the Sixth-Eighth Centuries. Missions from both Iona and Rome brought their understanding of ministry to the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. And among the doctrines they brought with them was that of apostolic succession (AS).
Apostolic succession flows from the understanding that the apostles received the Holy Spirit from Jesus himself. As they set apart leaders for other places, they imparted the Holy Spirit to them by means of the laying on of hands and prayer. This conferred a special grace that allowed the recipients to act with a certain authority within the church, especially in the celebration of the sacraments. No one not so ordained by someone in possession of this special grace of the Spirit could act as those ordained could, since by definition, he didn’t have this special grace.
There are plenty of nits to pick here, but we’ll attempt to construct a better history later.
Along with the idea of AS, the early missionaries to the English would have understood that the ministry of the church is in a threefold order: Bishop; Priest/Presbyter (Elder); Deacon. These were hierarchical in nature. The bishop possessed the fullness of ordination; he gave a lesser measure to the priest, and a lesser measure than that to the deacon. Priests and deacons could do certain things, but not others. There were a number of minor orders (sub-deacon, exorcist, lector, etc.), but these did not cross the boundary to be considered “ordained.”
In Catholicism, the Pope had been understood to occupy the pinnacle of AS since at least the Fifth Century (Leo I is often called the First Real Pope). In the Catholic view, Jesus set Peter apart and gave him authority over the other apostles. The bishops were the successors of the apostles, but the Bishop of Rome was the successor to Peter’s position, and therefore had authority over all other bishops. In the Eastern Orthodox view, every bishop in every diocese held Peter’s position, and the various Patriarchs were not more episcopal or apostolic than any other bishop.
The English Church was formed in this tradition. Whether we understand it or not, our presumptions about ordination, about the sacraments, and about the nature of the church are all affected by our beginning. You can overwrite the palimpsest, but the words underneath remain part of the manuscript.
The Reformation was an attempt to overwrite the manuscript. It was an attempt to renew the Church by going back in its history to a time before the popes had taken it over. The Renaissance had brought to light all kinds of ancient learning. Erasmus had published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament. The resources were there, the Reformers thought, to scrape away all the barnacles and reduce the drag on the ship.
The Reformation on the Continent was largely a revolution against the established way of doing church. Luther didn’t want it to be so; he attempted to keep as much of the old way of doing church as he could. But despite years of wooing reform-minded bishops (many of whom agreed with Luther about the abuses within the church), in the end, the bishops sided with the Pope. In order to reform the German church, then, Luther turned to the secular arm, recruiting the princes of the land as emergency bishops (Notbischoffe). (Wesley would later face a similar problem, but come up with a different solution.)
Calvin took a different tack. He was an academic, and it shows. In fact, he is the only major Reformer who was not himself ordained. As a theologian, he took a blank sheet of paper and began to systemically expound a theory of the church. This created novel definitions of the various orders. He did away with bishops. Elders were split into teaching elders and ruling elders (the office of teaching elder was completely novel – in effect, he created a place for himself in the governance of the church he also created). Deacons were basically laypersons charged with certain temporal responsibilities, and weren’t necessary for the conduct of worship.
Under pressure from Henry VIII, the Anglicans seceded from the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, with their hierarchy and theology largely intact. “Catholicism without the Pope” has been offered as a label for the Henrician Church, though Cromwell and Cranmer were certainly Lutherans at heart, and had their effect. Under Edward VI, the English Church veered further toward radical Protestantism; under Mary, it rejoined the RCC; under Elizabeth, it became an independent national Church, essentially Catholic in its character, but with certain Protestant understandings, especially of the sacraments. AS was assumed, at least by the bishops.
Conflict between the Elizabethan Settlement and the Puritans was not long in coming. For the next century, Anglicanism (and its tendency to hanker after its Catholic roots) was under constant attack by Puritans (and later, Presbyterians) who wanted to complete the Reformation and purge the English Church of its last vestiges of Catholicism.
The Puritans/Presbyterians largely failed. But they spawned the Separatists, and then the Dissenters. The English (and American) Baptist tradition comes from these former Puritans who had finally given up on trying to modify their ancient church home and decided that only complete freedom to do it the way they thought God wanted it done was acceptable. In this Free Church understanding, ordination was no more than licensure, the sacraments merely ordinances. Nobody needed permission to set up a church, or to set apart ministers. Congregations governed themselves. We will meet these people again on the American frontier.
Wesley was a product of the English Church Tradition, of which he very largely approved. He called the English Church “the best-reformed Church” in existence. He found no problems with its founding, and he thought the Reformation had solved its ecclesiology. Its problem was that it was ignorant of Scripture and spiritually dead.
So Wesley believed in apostolic succession and was fussy about reserving the celebration of the sacraments to the clergy. At the same time, he had inherited a bit of radicalism from his parents. Both Samuel and Susannah Wesley came from Dissenter stock, though Samuel was thoroughly Anglicanized. (John would later reprint his father’s sermon on baptismal regeneration and give it his own stamp of approval.) Susannah remained a bit more radical; after the death of Queen Mary II, she thought the crown should have passed immediately to her sister Anne, rather than letting William III continue to reign. This strained relations between Samuel and Susannah for a while, but after Anne’s accession, they were completely reconciled.
Wesley was moved to further developments in his understanding of ministry through his relations with the Moravians. Their small group practices greatly influenced the classes and bands he later instituted among his own followers. Some people see this as a further step away from Catholicism toward Free Church institutions; they’re wrong. The Moravians were also called the Unitas Fratrum (they are still with us); they were the followers of Jan Hus. In their break with Rome, they had also retained AS. Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, the founder of their community at Herrnhut, was not a layman; indeed, he was a bishop of their church. Their small group practices were reminiscent of monasticism at its best, and Wesley combined the class structure of his movement with a seeking after Christian perfection that was reminiscent of the “counsels of perfection” that motivated the medieval monks. Wesley and Zinzendorf were doing “monasticism for the masses.” What was novel about their practice was the idea that ordinary laypersons could achieve perfection in love without leaving their ordinary occupations.
As Wesley’s preaching attracted greater and greater crowds, and a movement began to form around him, he took steps to conserve the harvest. One step was the creation of the United Societies, with its classes and bands. Another was accepting the calls of lay preachers, and assigning them to circuits to extend the reach of Wesley’s message. When the C of E finally rejected Methodism, Wesley started founding chapels for the exclusive use of his preachers and their hearers.
At the same time, John and Charles Wesley remained Anglican priests, and obedient to the discipline of their order. Wesley’s preachers could not celebrate the sacraments unless they were also ordained ministers (most weren’t). So Wesley himself and the other ordained ministers moved among the societies, offering holy communion as frequently as they could.
This practice, by which the Methodists were kept (barely) within the C of E, came up against the necessity of holy orders for the American Methodists. Following the American Revolution, the C of E in the new USA simply collapsed. All ordained ministers had left the country, either for Canada or Great Britain. There was no baptism, no communion available for the Methodists of America. Wesley felt strongly moved by this. He tried to interest various bishops in ordaining a few Methodist preachers to go in support of the movement in America; none would help. In the end, he not only started ordaining ministers for America, he also consecrated Thomas Coke as a “general superintendent” for America, with the understanding that Coke would consecrate Francis Asbury for the same role. He was put out when Coke and Asbury called themselves “bishops,” because it offended his sensibilities as an Anglican, but the name stuck. That, after all, is what they were. And the Methodist Societies in America became the Methodist Episcopal Church, complete with ordained Deacons and Elders.
How did Wesley come to this decision? Since he was not, himself, a bishop under apostolic succession, how could he violate his conscience so? The process by which he wrestled with himself is interesting.
But first, we must debunk the Bishop Erasmus story. Erasmus was a Greek Orthodox bishop from Cyprus visiting England. Wesley and he struck up an acquaintance. Wesley no doubt was interested in Eastern Orthodoxy as an interpreter of ancient custom; what Erasmus wanted was probably support for the Christian Cypriots struggling under Turkish rule. Many Methodist historians have attempted to establish that Wesley was consecrated a bishop by Erasmus, and so Wesley did not violate his orders (and also, that Methodists can make a claim for AS). There is no evidence for this. Wesley would have violated the rules of the C of E by accepting it (a thing he had a tender conscience about). Nor did he ever make reference to it, not even citing it in his justification for his actions. Furthermore, the idea than an Eastern Orthodox prelate would consecrate a Western (Catholic or Anglican) priest a bishop would have violated his orders, as well. This one has to be put aside as a legend.
Wesley's actual basis for action came out of 1) his radical background, 2) his study of the early Church, 3) his own understanding of the will of God and 4) his freedom to act under the laws of the English Church. His radical background included reading a lot of Dissenting-sympathetic material. The work of Edward Stillingfleet, a 17th Century theologian and scholar who was a leader of the Latitudinarians and favored compromises with the Presbyterians, was certainly known to him. And there was at least one other (whose name escapes me – King?), who wrote in a non-standard way on the office of bishop.
In his study of the early Church, Wesley took particular note of the observation of St. Jerome, who wrote that the presbyters of ancient Alexandria not only chose their own bishop, but consecrated him directly by the laying on of their own hands, without necessarily inviting another bishop to do so. So there was at least one precedent for ordination by elders. In his reading of the Scriptures, Wesley saw that the pastor/bishop was an overseer of others, but that he was not necessarily territorially based. Wesley looked at the role that he had taken in the movement that centered around him, and decided that he was “a scriptural episkopos.”
Furthermore, he believed that the success of Methodism had objectively demonstrated that God was creating a new movement to serve him. God had placed Wesley over it, to provide for it, so his action (whatever it might be) was predicated upon necessity. Necessity is always a queasy argument, since it can be appealed to for anything one wants to do, but Wesley believed – perhaps more so because he was trying to argue himself out of it – that he was called upon to act.
Finally, the collapse of the C of E meant that there was no Anglican hierarchy into whose boundaries he would be trespassing. English law set the boundaries for English clergy – in England. But American law was different. There was no law concerning clergy there, and nobody in Wesley’s own church functioning there. He said therefore that in consecrating Coke and ordaining other preachers, “I invade no man’s right.” He was legally free to do as he had done, and no charges in England were ever brought against him by the English hierarchy.
This is how Methodism fits into and derives from the English Church Tradition. We don’t claim apostolic succession, but we see ourselves in continuing connection to all the past. The Anglo-Saxon Church, the medieval English Church, the Reformation Church, the English Civil War, the Restoration, the Anglicanism of Queen Anne, the Wesleyan Revival are all one story. Our understandings of ordination come from this story even before we have consulted the scriptures. This is who we are, and we have to come to terms with our heritage. That will take a bit of critique, but first we’ll examine how American Methodism has operated on what it received from Father Wesley.