Where does Authority live?

Originally published October 3, 2011

I’m still reflecting on ideas of reorganization currently in the air in the Episcopal church blogosphere.  I don’t have any answers or schemes to offer, I really just want to work out theologically what it all means.
When Jesus walked with the disciples it was pretty easy to figure out what was right.

James “So Peter, I was thinking such and such about predestination”
            Peter   “James, you’re totally off base”
            James “Oh Yeah, well let’s ask Jesus – he always has the right answer”
Authority always rested with Jesus. But after Jesus ascended he was no longer bodily available to sort out the questions and disagreements among the apostles; but, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them while he remained with the father.

“When, however, the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth”. (John 6:13)
But how do we discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit?


Well, it’s a little hard to tell how the earliest church determined this, but it becomes pretty clear by the 3rd or 4th century that church imagined the authority of Christ through the Holy Spirit resided in those who were seen as the inheritors of the ministry of the Apostles, namely the bishops. And so, as the great controversies raged, it was councils of bishops, mimicking the Jerusalem Council in Acts, who gathered to hammer out the boundaries of Christian belief and practice. The Nicene Creed, recited weekly by many Christians today, is the work of just such a council. It was also out of the work of bishops and councils that the canon of scripture was judged and debated and finally decided. The Bible was the creation of the Christian community and not the other way around.


Fast forward a thousand years to the late Medieval period and we find that the authority of bishops is being questioned because so many were openly corrupt and greedy; enmeshed so deeply in worldly affairs that their spiritual responsibilities were neglected. The Protestant reformers looked to an authoritative voice from the institution of the Church, and found it hollow. If, they thought, we cannot rely on the church to aptly represent the authority of the Holy Spirit, to what are we to turn? The answer that seemed obvious to them was the Bible. The Bible represented the witness of Israel and the earliest Church, and being an ancient document, it carried great weight. It was seemingly unencumbered by the accretions of a millennia of Church interpretation and possible corruption.


But for the Church today, the bible as the authoritative voice of the Holy Spirit can be difficult. There is no such thing as a plain reading of scripture, as the Reformers claimed. It is a complicated and often confounding work, full of contradictions. Its witness carries the weight of tradition and it is a valuable standard to weigh our own witness against, but it is not straightforward and so to find the spirit within it requires interpretation and discernment. Who is to do that work?


In our churches today, at least in Western culture, we seek the Spirit not just in the Bible, and not just from ordained leaders, but also from the whole of god’s people through representative and democratic assemblies. In the Episcopal Church, the highest authority is not the Presiding Bishop, but the General Convention.   To me this makes a lot of sense. We are a people of God, a royal priesthood who do not require any mediators between ourselves and God because we are Christ’s body and Christ is the mediator with the Father. But we are only the body as we gather. You can’t be a Christian all by yourself; you can only do it in community.


So as we look at ways to restructure and reorganize ourselves as the Church we must be careful, I think, to ensure that we retain the ability to discern where God is calling us as a whole church. History has shown that relying only on institutional insiders can lead us astray. We have also learned that the Bible is not an owner’s manual and that as Church we are not called to recreate the 1st century, but to walk with the LIVING Christ and share his message of hope in our century. But democracy alone is also insufficient; we must also remember that democracies easily give way to tyrannies of the mob. I would call for a structure that is nimble and able to take advantage of modern communications technologies in order to bring as many voices to bear on a question as possible, but also one that can step aside and deliberate in prayer and reflection.

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