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Historic Episcopate

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The episcopate is the collective body of all bishops of a church. In the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, Old-Catholic, Moravian Church, and Independent Catholic churches as well as in the Assyrian Church of the East, it is held that only a person in Apostolic Succession, a line of succession of bishops dating back to the Apostles, can be a bishop, and only such a person can validly ordain Christian clergy. The succession must be transmitted from each bishop to a successor by the rite of Holy Orders. Bishops in valid Apostolic Succession compose the historical episcopate. Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also claim to be ordained through the laying on of hands of bishops in the apostolic succession[1].

The Roman Catholic Church holds that a bishop's consecration is valid if the sacrament of Holy Orders is validly administered with the intention of doing what the Church does by ordination and according to a valid sacramental form, and if the consecrating bishop's orders are valid, regardless of whether the rite takes place within or outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Roman Catholics recognize the validity of the episcopacy of Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East and Old Catholic bishops, but the situation is less clear regarding Anglican bishops and Independent Catholic bishops (see Episcopi vagantes).

The Eastern Orthodox Church's view has been summarised as follows: "While accepting the canonical possibility of recognising the existence (υποστατόν) of sacraments performed outside herself, (the Eastern Orthodox Church) questions their validity (έγκυρον) and certainly rejects their efficacy (ενεργόν)"; and it sees "the canonical recognition (αναγνώρισις) of the validity of sacraments performed outside the Orthodox Church (as referring) to the validity of the sacraments only of those who join the Orthodox Church (individually or as a body)."[2] This applies to the validity and efficacy of the ordination of bishops and the other sacraments, not only of the Independent Catholic Churches, but also of all other Christian Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Assyrian Church of the East.

The Eastern Orthodox position on Anglican orders (in the hypothesis of Anglican bishops joining the Orthodox Church individually or as a body) is a grey area, involving disagreements among national churches, theologians and bishops. Because of changes in the Ordinal (the rites of Holy Orders) under King Edward VI, the Roman Catholic Church does not fully recognize all Anglican Holy Orders as valid, but the latter are recognized (and participated in) by Old Catholics, whose Holy Orders are considered valid by Rome.

Lutheran and other episcopally ordered Protestant successions are not recognized by Roman Catholics. The Anglican Church does not recognise the orders of non-episcopal denominations.

More than 91% of the world's more than 5,000 Western bishops alive today trace their episcopal lineage back to a 15th Century bishop Scipione Cardinal Rebiba. In the early 18th century, Pope Benedict XIII, whose orders were descended from Rebiba, personally consecrated at least 139 bishops for various important European sees, including German, French, English and New World bishops. These bishops in turn consecrated bishops almost exclusively for their respective countries, effectively causing other episcopal lines to die out.[3]


  1. Called to Common Mission Text, paragraph 18
  2. Professor Dr. Vlassios Pheidas: Τhe limits of the church in an orthodox perspective
  3. Bransom, Charles.'Ordinations of U. S. Catholic Bishops, 1790-1989' United States Catholic Conference, 1990. ISBN: 978-1555863234

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