Thursday, 21 March 2013

Authority and the Church - a Radical Re-examination

In the Beaker Folk, the matter of authority is very simply settled. They do what I say. If people tell me that's not very Biblical, I refer them to the Biblical story of Deborah, and then ask if they fancy the fight. It tends to work.

In other churches, however, authority is a more complex affair. I'd just like to consider a few examples.

The Methodists, for example, see earthly Church authority as being, for them, being exercised by Conference. On a local level there are Ministers, and over them each Circuit has a Superintendent minister. In the great scheme of things they don't actually have what other churches might regard as a great deal of authority - this is because they are terrified of the flower arrangers, and the Committee structure is sufficiently robust (ie complicated) as to make any actual decision-making pretty well impossible.

The Baptist minister, especially among the more independently-minded congregations, is pretty well the source of all authority under God for her/his congregation. They are infallible beings whose every word is to be obeyed. Until they get thrown out by the congregation for turning out to be just like all the previous ones.

In the Anglican world, it's quite simple. It is a episcopally led, but synodically governed, organisation. Which means nobody is in charge.

At a local Anglican level, where authority rests depends upon your church tradition. The more Protestant Evangelicals have a high concept of "headship" but a low view of hierarchy. Which means they want strong leadership, but only if they agree with it. At the other end, the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics have a high view of bishops, which is why if they don't like the one they've got they reserve the right to ask for another one.

Liberal Anglicans are radically tolerant of a diverse range of views, as long as they agree with their own.

I'm still trying to understand the Catholic view on authority. It strikes me that the majority just get along with the hierarchy. But they have a love for their Pope that is not, for some of them, in accordance with their view of the bishops from whom he (it is normally a "he") is drawn. In more extreme cases, those with a particularly radical love for Papal authority will decide that, if the Pope isn't all that, he can't be a proper Pope, so they'll wait to see if another comes along. There aren't many of these but, like the Westboro Baptists, sometimes it's the empty vessels that make the most noise, the squeaky wheels that get most oil, and those least like Christ who make the most fuss about being "proper" Christians. In cyberspace, no one can hear you being reasonable.

Finally, some Charismatic Christians (and some of a group that I may turn "nomadic evangelicals" are above all about finding a charismatic leader, in a charismatic church. The ideal of leadership is to be inspiring, gifted, anointed and above all temporary. Like all leadership, there is a time limit on anointedness. Anointedness conveys authority, but drips away over time like oil running down Aaron's beard. In a few months, somebody more anointed will appear in the town next door. And there's only one thing for a dedicated follower to do, when they find someone more anointed.

Reading the above, I find myself refreshed by what I see as the similarities. No matter how water-tight we want the authority of those above us to be, and no matter how much divine authority we invest in them - we reserve to walk out at a moment's notice if we decide we don't like their tie, or their spouse, or their way of pronouncing "Jungian philosophy". And I think that's healthy. We should respect our leaders in God - but don't let anyone think they've got a divine right,

Except me, of course.

1 comment :

  1. The topic of finding a new priest has arisen, and I'm observing the process with some interest since the last time this happened in a church I was attending I was too young to take much notice or interest. However, even I was surprised when a friend from another denomination said 'So your bishop doesn't just send along another priest?'. I briefly visualized your average vestry's probable reaction to this process, and decided that it seemed rather unlikely to be pleasant and conciliating.

    It does have the value of simplicity over the current process, and certainly invokes an astonishing respect for authority.


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl