New Report On Authority Opens Doors

LONDON—A panel of Catholic and Anglican theologians and Church leaders, seeking to nudge efforts at unity between the two Churches forward, has called for increased cooperation among bishops of the two bodies, and for both bodies to move to accept a reformed version of papal primacy.

The call was issued May 12 in a 45-page report, The Gift of Authority, by the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, which took up the thorny theological — and practical — issue of how authority, especially that of the pope, should be understood and exercised in Christian churches.

The statement, five years in the making, concluded with challenges both to the Anglican Communion — to avoid the anarchy caused by provinces and dioceses acting unilaterally — and to the Catholic Church — to recognize the legitimate competence of the local church.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal church said the statement challenges both Anglicans and Catholics “to think in fresh ways” about authority in the church.

He noted that while the issue of papal primacy has been previously explored by the two churches, the new statement “carries us further and asks Anglicans and Roman Catholics to consider the ministry of the Bishop of Rome as a gift to be received by all the churches while at the same time relating the ministry of universal primacy to the authority exercised by the whole Church.”

Both Anglican and Catholic representatives said the office of the pope is a “specific ministry” concerning the discernment of truth.

“It seeks to make clear how in certain circumstances the Bishop of Rome (pope) has a duty to discern and make explicit, in fidelity to Scripture and tradition, the authentic faith of the whole church,” said Anglican Bishop Mark Santer of Birmingham, England, and Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Arundel and Brighton, England, the two co-chairmen of the panel.

Catholics and Anglicans have been in theological conversations at the international level since 1970 in an effort to bridge the schism created four centuries ago, in part over the issue of the authority of the pope.

While much of the attention likely to be focused on the document will be on the role of papal primacy and especially the question of infallible teaching, much of the stress of the document was in outlining a version of authority that includes what it called “the whole people of God,” including theologians and laity.

According to the agreed statement, the fourth on the touchy topic by panels of officially appointed representatives, authority is a gift bestowed on the Church for mission, so that the exercise of authority within the Church has a radically missionary dimension.

“Authority is exercised within the Church for the sake of those outside it, that the Gospel may be proclaimed in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction,” it said, citing 1 Thessalonians 1:5.

And, it stressed, the exercise of authority involves the laity as well as the clergy.

“In changing situations producing fresh challenges to the Gospel, the discernment, actualization and communication of the Word of God is the responsibility of the whole people of God,” it argued. “The Holy Spirit works through all members of the community, using the gifts he gives to each for the good of all.”

‘Give and Take’

Theologians serve the communion of the whole church by “exploring whether and how new insights should be integrated into the ongoing stream of tradition. In each community there is an exchange, a mutual give-and-take, in which bishops, clergy and lay people receive from as well as give to others within the whole body.”

It also stressed that catholicity, through both space and time, does not mean uniformity.

“Where diverse expressions are faithful to the Word revealed in Jesus Christ and transmitted by the apostolic community, the Churches in which they are found are truly in communion,” it said. “Indeed, this diversity of traditions is the practical manifestation of catholicity and confirms rather than contradicts the vigor of tradition. As God has created diversity among humans, so the Church's fidelity and identity require not uniformity of expression and formulation at all levels in all situations but rather catholic diversity within the unity of communion. This richness of traditions is a vital resource for a reconciled humanity.”

In this way those who exercise episcopal authority, or oversight, in the Church “must not be separated from the ‘symphony’ of the whole people of God in which they have their part to play.” Bishops, clergy and laity must all recognize and receive what was mediated from God through each other.

Bishops thus meet together collegially not as individuals but as those who have authority for the life of the local Churches. Consulting the faithful is an aspect of episcopal oversight, the statement said.

“Each bishop is both a voice for the local Church and one through whom the local Church learns from other Churches. When bishops take counsel together they seek both to discern and to articulate the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) as it is present in the local Church and in the wider communion of Churches. Their role is magisterial: that is, in this communion of the Churches, they are to determine what is to be taught as faithful to the apostolic tradition.”

Changing situations could demand new formulations of faith.

“The exercise of teaching authority in the Church, especially in situations of challenge, requires the participation, in their distinctive ways, of the whole body of believers, not only those charged with the ministry of memory,” it said.

“In this participation the sensus fidelium is at work. Since it is the faithfulness of the whole people of God that is at stake, reception of teaching is integral to the process” and doctrinal assertions are received as authoritative “in virtue of the divine truth they proclaim” and not just because of the “specific office of the person or persons who proclaim them.”

‘Fragile Christians’

The teaching office of the pope is thus situated firmly within the Church and the college of bishops. And, it said, papal teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Holy Spirit than did the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils.

Authority, the statement said, is exercised by “fragile Christians for the sake of other fragile Christians.”

“Human weakness and sin do not only affect individual ministers: They can distort the human structuring of authority,” it said. Hence loyal criticism and reforms were sometimes needed, as when Paul rebuked Peter.

The statement ended with a number of challenges to both Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Noting that the Anglican Communion is already exploring how authority among its autonomous provinces works, the statement asked: “Is the (Anglican) Communion also open to the acceptance of instruments of oversight which would allow decisions to be reached that, in certain circumstances, would bind the whole Church?” The issue is especially touchy for Anglicans because of the deep rift among Anglican Churches over the issue of homosexuality.

“Above all,” the statement asked, “how will Anglicans address the question of universal primacy as it is emerging from their life together and from ecumenical dialogue?”

On the Catholic side, the statement asked, “Is there at all levels effective participation of clergy as well as of lay people” in the authority structures of the Church?

Has enough provision been made to ensure consultation between the pope and local Churches prior to the making of important decisions affecting either a local Church or the whole Church, it asked, and how is the variety of theological opinion taken into account when such decisions are made?

In particular, it challenged the role of the Vatican bureaucracy, suggesting it “adequately respect the exercise of episkope (oversight authority) at other levels.”