In my last three posts, I have been going through three of the “notes” of the Church in the creeds: the Church is one, holy, catholic. The last note is the question of apostolicity, and it is central to the challenge not only of the ecumenical movement, but to humanity’s future.
Is a church apostolic because it has bishops in the succession, as opposed to those that do not? Following John Flett, that is not enough. The first apostles ranged far and wide, and established churches across the Roman Empire. These were more than the Twelve, and they included women. What they launched was a tradition of crossing boundaries to bring the Good News to people. “You shall be my witnesses,” Jesus said as he ascended, “in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8)
The word “apostle” means someone “sent with a message.”
Ebb and flow
There was then and still remains a “tidal” movement: apostles go out to new lands, and then they or their successors “return” to consolidate the gains made. Collecting letters from them and then the gospels, developing common ways of worship, creating short resumés of beliefs to accompany baptisms, and fixating on an ordinary way of organizing a church, all reflect the incoming (or homecoming) tide. As these developments reinforce a church, they make further apostolic mission possible.
It is important to note that what I have called a tidal movement is all apostolic work, and in the historic churches, is formally under the leadership of a bishop, an episcopos, an overseer or superintendent who is chosen from among the clergy and ordained and consecrated to be a successor of the apostles. As a mark of the Church, however, bishops in the succession are not enough, because apostolicity or lack thereof is a societal trait, an ecclesiastical cultural marker. Are all the faithful going into all the world to proclaim the Gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15)? And are they coming home rejoicing, shouldering their sheaves (Ps. 126: 7), in order to prepare to go forth again?
Clearly this picture is very idealized, since all obviously do not participate in this flow and ebb of an apostolic church. In reality very few may concern themselves with sharing the gospel with others (“if…