The Role of Authority and Governance in the Life of the Church.
A theological meditation by Andrew Bebb after reading the beautiful first encyclical of Pope Benedict.
The notion of Authority and Governance as ‘the power to compel obedience’ has occasionally infected the life of the Christian Church from two distinctive and sometimes dangerously corrupting sources.
Firstly, it derives from the ideal of Christendom, which was generated after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity then became the established religion by law. This influenced both the political and social structures of the Church as, increasingly in the Middle Ages; it began to imitate the hierarchical organisation of the State.
Secondly, the threat of liberal modernism and individualism in the nineteenth century led the Church to turn inwards away from the ‘modern’ world and to form a complete and ‘perfect’ independent society. It chose to organise itself as an hierarchical centralised organisation confronting a threatening alien world beyond its frontiers. This required a powerful totalitarian structure demanding obedience and submission from its adherents under the penalty of excommunication and ultimately damnation. Rome became the centre of an inflexible orthodoxy as all spiritual power was focused in it. Creative scholarship and any recognition of diversity and pluralism were excluded. This process reached its climax in 1870 during the First Vatican Council with the proclamation of Papal infallibility.
This idea of Authority as ‘the power to compel obedience and submission’ would seem to be directly contrary to the Gospel teaching. There ‘Authority’ and ‘Truth’ belong to God alone. All other manifestations of them are ‘participations’ only and not ‘possessions’. Indeed to claim to ‘possess’ either ‘authority’ or ‘truth’ as their complete and ultimate source is to turn them dangerously into despotism or lies. Authority is not to be as it is with the ‘gentiles who lord it over them’ but rather as one who serves. It is the power and authority of love.
God’s own authority and truth are most fully manifested in the self-humiliation and death of Jesus. In him, they are shown as impotence and tender loving service: ‘learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart’. The most powerful sign of Christian authority was offered in the events leading up to the Last Supper, when ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God, got up from the table, removed his outer garments and taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and began to wipe them with the towel he was wearing’. A simple statement about Divine authority!
It is an authority grounded in love, as Benedict says, which compels neither by force nor fear, but rather by the power of attraction and desire. It draws rather than repels. It is not a power to command through strength in the ruler or fear in the ruled. When God displays the utter shamelessness of his self-humiliation, it is not for our edification and imitation. It is a display of the very nature of God. This is the truth about the Divine reality.
God’s revelation of Himself is made in a person, it is experienced in a personal relationship and hence is infinitely explorable. It is a disclosure made, not as a body of information concerning an absent reality, a fixed set of doctrinal formulae used to browbeat people into submission. All doctrine is symbolic, sacramental, rooted in the authentic experience of the presence of Jesus in the life of his Body, the organic community of the Church. It must reflect a trustful pluralism, which is a necessary consequence of the presence of a living Spirit at its heart. Orthodoxy in word and action must constantly be open to the changing and humble witness of all Christians. This role of the community is central as it celebrates the presence of the Lord in Word, Eucharist and action. This is the sensus fidelium. Order within the Christian community is of course necessary but it must be an order, which facilitates and encourages witness, not one that suppresses it. The leader, the minister, the priest has the task of refining, guiding, serving, professing and above all of serving. Ministry is a dialogue: a dialogue which is embedded, through the presence of the Spirit of Jesus, in every member of his Body through Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, and is also embedded in the witness of countless Christians who have explored the meaning of the gospel throughout the last two millennia. That is precisely what we understand as the traditio.
The constant danger is to permit structures to predominate over life, for the Church to become primarily a juridical institution and to cease to be the family of God. It is this experience of an unyielding inhuman authority that many in the past have encountered. Should that happen, it is then that the prophetic voice of the lonely, individual conscience, with all its awesome dangers, has to be heard.
The church’s authority must above all avoid the danger of being identified with secular and juridical notions of authority. It must be an authority based upon the experience of God in the love of Jesus. Authority in the church at all its levels is neither absolute nor democratic in character. It is unique. Its source is neither a philosophy nor a political science, but the New Testament. The New Testament is in the proper sense quite anti-authoritarian. There is a hatred of the type of dominion seen in secular power or religious autocracy. No member is to occupy a position of dignity or eminence. The one who carries responsibility for others is only their lackey or servant. Somehow authority within the Church must discover a wholly new way of exercising itself. Its use must be determined solely by its mission, namely the proclamation of the Gospel. It belongs to the whole Church and is not to be the exclusive possession of a few. It is subject to the workings of the Holy Spirit.
It is more than democratic. All must be ready to speak. All must be ready to listen. It is directed to persons not to ideas, institutions or things. Anything resembling a power structure must be forever excluded. Authority within the Church is based upon its unity with Christ.