Methodists/Apostolic Succession


QUESTION: Rev. Neal,

These questions was prompted by recent your answer concerning 'Sacramental Validity.' I have read that in 1763 John Wesley met with a Greek Orthodox Bishop visiting London at the time who consecrated Wesley himself as a Bishop. I believe he also ordained a few of the Lay Preachers as Priests also. My understanding is that Wesley felt he needed this level of authority -- which the Anglican Church would not provide -- so that he could validly ordain lay members into the ministry within the historic succession of Bishops from the Apostles to the present day.

I know that the Orthodox and Catholic churches do not accept this today, but still Wesley apparently believed that this brought Apostolic Succession into the Methodist Movement.

So I would like to ask: Apart from the Catholic/Orthodox opinions, what is your view of this? Are Methodist Clergy ordained within the stream of Apostolic Succession because of Wesley's action?

ANSWER: (re-edited for clarity - 10/24/12)

Dear James,

I'm sorry for the delay in responding to your question.

I am aware of the story regarding Bishop Erasmus of Arcadia supposedly consecrating John Wesley.  Most modern day historians don't deny that Wesley and Erasmus actually met, however they have serious doubts regarding Erasmus having consecrated Wesley as a bishop.  That Wesley and Erasmus prayed together would be expected; that Erasmus ever offered him advice and even a blessing wouldn't be beyond the realm of reason; however, it seems unlikely, for several reasons, that Erasmus consecrated Wesley a Bishop.

Firstly, Wesley never mentioned that Erasmus did this, neither in any of his public writings nor in his private journal.  While Wesley almost certainly would have taken great care to protect himself from prosecution by the crown for violating the Praemunire Act, his private un-published journal (which was written in a code that has only recently been broken) should have said something about it ... and it didn't.

Secondly, such a secret consecration would have been highly irregular, even according to emergency stipulations of great need, and particularly-so given that usually 3 Bishops are required for the consecration of a new bishop.

And, thirdly, Wesley himself was clear that he believed himself to be and "extraordinarious" in his mission and ministry, and that while it wasn't normal, nevertheless he viewed the office of the Episcopacy as being within the Order of the Presbyterate and, hence, in his case he was perfectly capable of ordaining Deacons and Elders and consecrating "General Superintendents" for the United States and a new Church, there.  While it is true that he really didn't want to do it apart from formal episcopal authorization, in the end he believed that the pressing nature of the occasion authorized his action.

The idea itself has been extensively discussed and debated by Methodist historians and theologians from the late 1700s through the mid 1800s.  For the most part, early Methodists accepted the theory; Asbury appears to have accepted the idea of Erasmus having consecrated Wesley, and even referenced it when arguing against Bishop Seabury that re-consecration and a merger of the PEC and the MEC were were not necessary.  

Theologically, I tend to agree with Wesley that, given the emergency circumstances at the time, he was biblically authorized to ordain and consecrate for the church in America.  This is particularly the case given that he had made many attempts over a long period of time to obtain consecration for himself, for Coke, or for any number of other Methodist preachers, so as to establish the church in the New World, only to be refused by the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The political reasons why the CofE couldn't provide Episcopal consecration -- at least for Wesley so that Wesley could act for the new Church in America -- are understandable, and they placed Wesley in such a bind that circumstances essentially compelled him to act.  And, when Wesley acted, he "did what the church does," and God has clearly been in that action and, indeed, in all subsequent ordinations and consecrations.  If what Wesley did had not been "valid," it seems incomprehensible that God would have so richly blessed all the subsequent Methodist and Wesleyan Churches and movements that followed from his actions.

All of this being said, I also agree with our own Council of Bishops in that steps should be taken to "heal the breach," as it were, by the UMC Bishops accepting a "laying-on-of-hands" by Anglican Bishops in an act that would convey unquestionable apostolic succession.  While I believe that we have that succession already, if such an act would further unity among Christians, I am in favor of it.

I hope my response helped, and again I am sorry for the delay.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Rev. Neal,

Thank you for answering my question -- both versions!

The last paragraph of your answer made me want to ask whether, to your knowledge, there is a real possibility (as opposed to wishful thinking) that Methodist Bishops may someday be "officially" incorporated into the apostolic succession by the Anglican Church? Or, just to throw the idea out there, whether the UMC and the Anglican Communion could rejoin in some fashion, since Anglicanism is, in a sense, our mother Church?

I love my Church but I'm asking this because I truly feel it is a scandal that Christians have become so divided over the last 2000 years.


Dear James,

You're really getting into murky waters, and my crystal ball is broken.  HOWEVER, consider for a moment that it is true that, about 6 years ago, the UM Council of Bishops stated that they would be willing to submit to whatever would be necessary to heal the breach and further the apostolic ministry and witness of our church.  Furthermore, if a "laying-on-of-hands" from Anglican Bishops would be required to accomplish this goal, that was acceptable to them.  The one thing that such a ceremony couldn't be allowed to do was repudiate the efficacy and validity of our existing, historic ministries.  The pattern that has been suggested is that which prevailed when Bishops of the Anglican Communion blessed and "brought into succession" the Bishops of the ELCA and the Moravian Church; something similar could be done to bring UM Bishops into succession, and hence full-communion with Anglican Bishops ... if not membership within the Anglican Communion.  This willingness on the part of our Bishops to receive such a blessing grew after George Carey, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, visited and spoke at our 2000 General Conference and took responsibility on behalf of the CofE for the breach between Methodism and Anglicanism.  

Would this mean that the UMC might become part of the Anglican Communion?  Probably not ... or, at least, probably not any time soon: there are enough problems with style of worship within the UMC, as well as serious issues on who has authority to celebrate the Sacraments, for that to be the case in the near future.  Someday, maybe we'll get out "act together" on those subject, but I'm not going to hold my breath.  Most UM clergy don't' have a clue as to how to preside at the Lord's Table in style that is meaningful, reverential, and "natural."  Similarly, many UM clergy have no respect or appreciation for liturgical worship, preferring instead either loose-form Baptist styles of worship or Praise and Worship forms.  Those issues will be a serious block to our being received into the Anglican Communion ... even though, according to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, there shouldn't be any  impediment to it.

So, the long and short of it is:  

1.  Are the Bishops willing to receive a laying-on-of-hands that would bring succession according to the Anglican model?  Yes.
2.  Does it matter to the UMC of today?  No.
3.  Could the UMC ever become part of the Anglican Communion?  Yes, it could ... but ...
4.  Would the Anglican Communion want us or we them?  Probably not.

Personally, I would be entirely in favor of it.  Not that I doubt the veracity or validity of my orders ... I don't. Indeed, I believe myself to be just as much "in succession" from the Apostles as any of my Anglican or Roman Catholic clergy friends.  However, I would favor anything that brings Christians closer together.  


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Rev. Gregory S. Neal


I can answer questions dealing with all issues of United Methodist Doctrine and Wesleyan-Arminian Theology. In particular I can answer questions dealing with the Sacraments and other liturgical and worship-oriented questions. I can also answer questions dealing with the form, structure, and organization of the United Methodist Church and our relationship with other denominations.


I am an ordained United Methodist Elder with more than 20 years of ministerial service experience in the local Church.

I am a Clergy Member in Full Connection and have been a member of the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church since 1991. I am a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. I am also a member of the Emmaus Community, and am currently serving as Senior Spiritual Director for the Dallas Emmaus Community. I am a member of the Order of Saint Luke in the United Methodist Church.

I have my own website:   I have written two books, "Grace Upon Grace" and "Seeking the Shepherd's Arms," both available at and in bookstores.

I have a BA in Religious Studies, History and Russian. I have an M.Div in Systematic Theology and Biblical Studies and a Ph.D in Sacramental Theology and New Testament.

Awards and Honors
Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church
Fellow of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

©2016 All rights reserved.