Arthur Middleton on John Keble and Apostolic Order

Through the seventeenth-century Anglican divines, John Keble became immersed, not in an abstract tradition, but in the living tradition -the continuity on English soil of the Primitive Church in its apostolic faith and order that anchors it in the original events of the Gospels. The apostolic teaching is not an unchangeable example to be repeated or imitated, but an eternally living and inexhaustible source of life and inspiration, the constant abiding Spirit, not only the memory of words. With Scripture it contains the truth of divine revelation, a truth that lives in the Church. Then theology becomes, not a matter of intellectual clarity, but the union of human lives with God in the way of holiness. This is saving life. Keble’s poem tells us that the climax of purity is the threshold of theology: ‘Blest are the pure in heart / For they shall see our God.’

Hence his outrage when the government abolished six Irish bishoprics. His objection was theological, not political. Bishops are a divine institution, not man-made. Man cannot tamper with God’s gifts. Episcopacy guarantees the sacramental order of the Church and tampering with it risks losing the means of our salvation.

In Adherence to the Apostolical Succession the Safest Course, he says, ‘It is a high privilege, that we belong to an Apostolic Church,’ and regrets ‘that so many of us are so cold and indifferent in our thoughts of this privilege.’ It results from ‘the comparatively low ground which we ourselves, the Ministers of God, have chosen to occupy in defence of our commission.’ Too often we have rested our claim ‘on the general duties of submission to authority,’ and failed to appeal to that warrant, which marks us, exclusively, for God’s ambassadors. Silently and insensibly, the high ground taken by the bishops and presbyters of the Primitive Church had been abandoned.

The ground of that principle was Eucharistic, an essential to salvation. Christ intended it to be constantly conveyed through the hands of commissioned men. Unless this warrant is evident, we cannot be ‘sure that our hands convey the sacrifice.’ We must preserve and transmit the seal and warrant of Christ. ‘It makes a difference if the ministry is thought of as a mere voluntary ecclesiastical arrangement,’ or is traced ‘to our Lord’s own institution.’ Christ’s own commission ‘is the best external security I can have, that in receiving this bread and wine, I verily receive His Body and Blood. Either the Bishops have that commission, or there is no such thing in the world.. .It is our business to keep fast hold of the Church Apostolical.. .not merely on civil or ecclesiastical grounds, but from real personal love and reverence, affectionate reverence to our Lord and Saviour.’

Apostolic ministry is ‘part of that ineffable mystery.. .the Communion of Saints.’ It is above our understanding. On a practical level it comes within our reach, for people receive the Gospel ‘literally on their knees.’ Our theology is given to us in our prayer, corporately when we receive the sacraments and personally in our closet. This contrasts with that argumentative spirit that saw it coming through our head in sermons. To see the ministry of the Church, and the Church itself, as part of the mystery of the communion of saints would have a transforming effect on how we understand the relationship of priest and people.