When thinking about apostolic succession it's easy to presume that there's nothing more to learn. When researching another topic, I was surprised by some things that Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has written in an article called "The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements" (TLEM in html without footnotes; or TLEM in pdf format with footnotes). I just offer a brief outline here. For the full context, see the sources listed in parenthesis.
To begin with, Ratzinger describes the basics of a Catholic (or Orthodox) perspective on apostolic succession, taking care to highlight the persistent role of the Holy Spirit in apostolic succession.
«"Apostolic succession" means precisely the opposite of what it might appear to mean, namely, that through the continuous chain of succession we become as it were independent of the Spirit. Linking to the line of succession in fact means that the sacramental office is never simply at our disposal, but must be given each time by the Spirit, that it is precisely the spirit-sacrament, which we can neither create nor institute ourselves. Functional competence as such is not by itself sufficient for that, the Lord’s gift is necessary. In the sacrament, in the Church’s representative, symbolic action, the Lord reserves to himself the permanent institution of the priestly ministry. The totally specific combination of "once" and "always" characteristic of the mystery of Christ appears very beautifully here.» (TLEM, IB)
Thus, apostolic succession is not merely institutional but profoundly christological- pneumatological (ordered to Christ and His Spirit).
Ratzinger also considers the purpose of apostolic succession. Yes, bishops provide a sacramental continuity (a), but their office also includes a charism for cultivating the universal horizon of the Church.
«a) Apostolic succession entails, first of all, the familiar idea that the bishops guarantee the continuity and unity of faith — in a continuity that we call sacramental.
b) But apostolic succession implies an even more concrete task, which goes beyond the administration of the local churches: the bishops must now ensure the carrying on of Jesus’ mission to make all nations his disciples and to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. They are responsible —Irenaeus underscores this— for keeping the Church from becoming a sort of federation of local churches that as such are juxtaposed and for ensuring that it retain its universality and unity. The bishops must sustain the universal dynamism of the apostolate.» (TLEM, IIA)
Broadening the concept of apostolic succession
Although the petrine office is the focal point of apostolic succession (understood from a Catholic point of view), this office is assisted in this mission by lay renewal groups. Paradoxically, the centralization of this task is accompanied by a radical movement at the broadest level: the faithful (which includes lay people, priests, and hierarchy on the basis of their common baptism).
«But the Petrine office itself would in turn be understood incorrectly and would become a monstrous exception, if we burdened its bearer alone with the realization of the universal dimension of apostolic succession. There must also always be in the Church ministries and missions that are not tied to the local church alone, but serve universal mission and the spreading of the gospel. The pope has to rely on these ministries, they on him, and the collaboration between the two kinds of ministries completes the symphony of the Church’s life. The apostolic age, which is normative for the Church, conspicuously displays these components as indispensable for the Church’s life.» (TLEM, IIC)
«And just as vocations to the priesthood cannot be produced, cannot be established by administrative protocol, it is all the more true that movements cannot be organized and planned by authority. They must be given, and they are given. We must only be attentive to them—we must only learn, using the gift of discernment, to accept what is right while overcoming what is unhelpful. One looking back at the history of the Church will be able to observe with gratitude that it has managed time and again in spite of all difficulties to make room for the great new awakenings. To be sure, the observer cannot overlook the succession of all those movements that have failed or led to permanent divisions: Montanists, Cathari, Waldensians, Hussites, the Reform movement of the sixteenth century. And we must, I think, say that both sides share the guilt for the permanent division in which these finally resulted.» (TLEM, IIC)
According to the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, then (which builds on that of Hans Urs von Balthasar and others), Protestant denominations have a genuine apostolic raison d'être at their origin.
Finally, it should be noted that the denominations staked their claims according to their lay status. Some leaders were monastic and clerical(Luther), but others were lay Christians (Prince Frederick III, Henry VIII). When Vatican II referred to Protestant groups as 'ecclesial communities', it recognized the lay origin and claims of these groups while maintaining the sacramental and episcopal structure of the Church. Within the Catholic Church, lay renewal movements are called 'ecclesial movements."
In this context, the rise of a New Monasticism among Protestants is significant, as is the experience of Clear Creek Monastery.