Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Anglican Communion's Crisis of Authority

On the surface of things, it appears that the Anglican Communion is becoming increasingly polarized over same gender marriages and the ordination of active homosexuals. But if one looks beneath the surface one finds more profound issues such as the finality of Christ's saving work in a religiously plural world and the role of the Church is a post-Christian, relativist culture. At the center of all these issues is the theological question of authority, a question which many Anglicans seem to be not very anxious to address. Given the fact that the once in a decade Lambeth Conference, which is the Communion's most representative body and (given the fact that it is an assembly of bishops) its most authoritative body, will probably not even address the Communion's tensions, one has to wonder if the Communion has any functional structures of authority at all. And behind the question of authority there is another question, a question which Anglicans also seem anxious to avoid: What is Anglicanism?
Talking about authority in a democratic and relativist culture is never easy because the default position even of many Christians is that each person should decide what he or she believes without instruction from the Church. Quite simply, many see authority as a threat to what they cherish most which is a sense of individual autonomy.
In 1998 the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission released a document entitled The Gift of Authority. This document attempts to map out a consensus position on the issue of ecclesial authority between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. One of the key notions advanced here is the idea that authority is necessary to preserve the Church's integrity: "The duty of maintaining the Church in the truth is one of the essential functions of the episcopal college...The authenticity of the teaching of individual bishops is evident when this teaching is in solidarity with that of the whole episcopal college." It would be immensely valuable if the bishops now gathered at Lambeth would give this notion serious consideration.
The Anglican Communion now seems to be caught in a series of contradictions. One one hand we are told that we must preserve the Communion at all costs and on the other hand those who urge this can not say exactly what it is that holds the Communion together. One one hand those who fault the Communion's structures for not correcting errors in teaching made by certain provinces and dioceses are called "schismatic" and on the other hand the bishops who have done the most to undermine the Communion's integrity now claim that it is an unpardonable sin to boycott Lambeth in protest.
Putting aside all speculation about whether whether the Anglican Communion will survive intact for a moment, it certainly seems that the continued failure to guard the integrity of the Communion and the determination of some bishops to have no authority higher than their own so as to have complete freedom to engage in "prophetic" actions can only have the effect of undermining faith in the episcopal office, the college of bishops and the whole notion of communion. Before the word "schism" gets used too freely one has to ask the question if it is schism to depart from a ecclesiastical structure which can not even move itself to protect its own integrity? The "gift of authority" is not given to the Church simply to create a coerced or artificial unity but to teach the Truth. And apart from some acknowledgement of the Truth and commitment to keep it, the Church's teaching office and those who exercise it look rather silly.
Michael Petty


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

The tag line of "Imperial Automomy of Me" is used rather frequently to identify an attitude that is solidly anti authority. Thus, when Bishop Spong published, he could have been identified as haviing a semblence of Imperial Automomy and perhaps seen in his true light.

July 18, 2008 at 4:10 PM  

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