The Gift of Authority?

The harder question is certainly how do these documents and this ongoing conversation filter down to the grassroots level… These documents will only exist in the theological-geek world unless we can find ways to put them into practice in working together.” These words were spoken last April by Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls.

I agree with her; it’s high time that great ecumenical agreements and statements get more attention from the folks in the pews. So for starters, here are some of my musings on an important ecumenical document entitled: The Gift of Authority – Authority in the Church III © 1998 Anglican – Roman Catholic International Dialogue)

While this document was published some 18 years ago, it is sadly still little known by ordinary Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Sad really, for it is a prime example of good ecumenism in practise. The agreement takes a comprehensive look at the exercise of authority in the Christian tradition in a spirit of humility and honesty, openness and courage. Given the current challenges authority structures experience in both the Anglican Communion and in the Roman Catholic Church, it would behoove all of us to receive its content and to apply its insights sooner rather than later. The document confirms what I have been thinking and learning for a quite some time now, i.e. that the Roman Catholic way of exercising authority has been too centralized and hierarchical, and that the Anglican way of exercising authority within a synodal structure can be perceived as too nebulous and overly tentative. The former risks being experienced as increasingly disconnected from the lives of the lay faithful and the latter as too wishy-washy and lacking teeth. It seems to me that what the one tradition has too much of, the other tradition needs more of and vice versa.

The first section of the document is a beautiful sweeping look at the theological and spiritual underpinnings of authority in the Christian tradition throughout history. This is, in a way, the articulation of the Christian vision of how authority is supposed to work – where it originates, how it is refined and informed, and how it needs to be exercised:

In Jesus Christ … the “Yes” of God to humanity and the “Amen” of humanity to God become a concrete human reality. This theme of God’s “Yes” and humanity’s “Amen”     in Jesus Christ is the key to the exposition of authority in this statement. (par. 8)

When a believer says “Amen” to Christ individually, a further dimension is always involved; an “Amen” to the faith of the Christian community. … The believer’s “Amen” is so fundamental that individual Christians through their life are called to say “Amen” to all that the whole company of Christians receives and teaches as the authentic meaning of the Gospel and the way to follow Christ. (par. 12)

The interplay of God’s “Yes” and the believers’ “Amen” continues in the document’s exploration of the roles of Tradition and Scripture in the formulation and exercise of authority before it moves on to the importance of Reception and Re-Reception from one generation to the next in all time and place (par. 24—31). All this sounds as if Anglicans and Catholics are of one mind on the understanding and exercise of authority in the Church until par. 31 clearly acknowledges the challenges:

Anglicans and Roman Catholics can agree in principle on all of the above, but need to make a deliberate effort to retrieve this shared understanding. When Christian communities are in real but imperfect communion they are called to recognise in each other elements of the apostolic Tradition which they may have rejected, forgotten or not yet fully understood. Consequently, they have to receive or re-appropriate these elements, and reconsider the ways in which they have separately interpreted the Scriptures. (par. 31)

From here on the document lays out quite explicitly what the challenges are in each tradition  in order to recover the elements which have previously been “rejected, forgotten or not fully understood.

The Roman Catholic Church is challenged to examine its commitment to lay participation in  decision-making and governance structures of the Church. While the document concedes that “the tradition of synodality has not ceased” in the RC Church, as a lifelong Roman Catholic I know full well that this gracious assessment has not been embraced as fully as it deserves. While the vision of the Church fathers at the Second Vatican Council certainly included a revitalization of the synodal processes in the Church, effective implementation of that vision was seriously halted for nearly half a century, even at the level of Bishops’ Synods.

It is only now with Pope Francis that some concrete efforts are being made, illustrated by Rome’s initiative to send questionnaires to all dioceses prior to the Synod on the Family to invite the thoughts and questions of lay Catholics through their local bishops. The fact that efforts at collecting real-life data from the lives of real people, and the fact that bishops were urged to listen deeply to their people and then to speak from their hearts on these matters, resulted in what some have called chaotic and messy debates at the two Synods on the Family — surprise! The lid has been held on tight for too long on concrete and controversial issues and new questions. The synodal model still has lots of dust to get cleaned off, collected from centuries of neglect in Rome. As Roman Catholics are waking up to the messy character of synodality, Anglicans must be smiling – recognizing something all too familiar in their own synodal deliberations. When it comes to restoring the synodal principle in exercising authority, Rome has much to learn from Canterbury.

However, Anglicans do not have the golden formula either: Anglicans have shown themselves to be willing to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion (par. 56), thereby risking to diminish the very meaning of communion. While the Anglican concern for the quality of relationships of love and respect trump rigid adherence to rules, and while the Anglican concern for historical contextuality, dispersed authority, synodal consultation at all levels and proceeding through careful discernment and reception of new ideas are all laudable attributes of the Anglican approach to authority, they come with subtle yet real traps revealing its fragility. No issue has brought this weakness to the fore more, and no question has tested this model more, than the current debate on same-sex marriage. (A next blog post will address this debate in greater detail — stay tuned) Some Anglicans now look longingly across the Tiber for more centralized authority, while some Roman Catholics look longingly to the Anglican model of relational and moral persuasion and consensus.

The current situation is a telling one, highlighting how much both traditions need one another:

In the Anglican Communion there is a reaching towards universal structures which promote koinonia, and in the Roman Catholic Church a strengthening of local and intermediate structures.
The Commission poses some questions frankly but in the conviction that we need the support of one another in responding to them. We believe that in the dynamic and fluid situation in which they are posed, seeking to answer them must go together with developing further steps towards a shared exercise of authority. (par. 55)

There are other challenges contained in the ARCIC Document on Authority, challenges and critical questions issued to both traditions. Much is expected from bishops in each tradition to help realize the potential for further growing in unity:

For the sake of koinonia and a united Christian witness to the world, Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops should find ways of cooperating and developing relationships of mutual accountability in their exercise of oversight. At this new stage we have not only to do together whatever we can, but also to be together all that our existing koinonia allows. (par. 58)

When I first read this document a number of years ago I read it as a Roman Catholic, and now I have re-read it as a new and developing Anglican. I am still as heartened and inspired by it as before – I’d like to think of this as a testimony to the document’s integrity. Currently the Anglican model of authority is being severely tested, painful as that it, and it is on full display for the world to see. The latest installments of this display are the Primates Meeting in Canterbury last January, the published statement from the ACC House of Bishops this past February, and soon the General Synod in July. But when the second largest denomination in the country is disaffected Catholics and when the process of reception by the faithful fails massively on important matters, Rome’s authority is by no means exempt from being tested, albeit in different ways.

I recently finished reading a book by Jeffrey W. Driver, the Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide, Australia, entitled A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and Grief of Anglicanism (2014, Wipf & Stock). It contains the following text on its back cover:

The injunction of Jesus, “it is not so among you,” challenged his followers to use power and live in community in a way that contrasted with what occurred “among the Gentiles” (Mark 10:41-45). This is why the sometimes tedious debates about authority and structure in the Anglican Communion could actually matter—because they might have something to say about being human in community, about sharing power and coexisting, about living interdependently on a tiny and increasingly stressed planet. The Anglican experiment in dispersed authority, for all its grief, could be a powerful gift.

It has been 18 years since “The Gift of Authority” was published. Have our churches acted on its recommendations? Have our churches taken its suggestions and questions seriously? Maybe. Eighteen years is nothing in a tradition that thinks and breathes in centuries. The people in the pews still know regrettably little about any ecumenical agreements, a tragic fact. Both the Roman top-down model and the Anglican bottom-up model are going through their respective refiner’s fires at this time. I pray that “The Gift of Authority” can be a tiny guiding light in the current dilemmas. I can hardly wait for the day that both our traditions’ approaches to authority get remarried into a coherent whole, deserving of Jesus’ words as quoted above: It is not so among you. (Mark 10:41-45)

Prairie Encounters

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Step by Step

With no less than three certificates declaring me a member of the Anglican Church now, it was very moving to be formally welcomed through the Rite of Reception in a beautiful celebration of the Easter Vigil – Christ is risen, alleluia!

So, you may ask — how am I doing in all this? Extremely well, thank you. This entire experience continues to be a fascinating school in spiritual lessons and especially, in discernment. The fruits of these lessons are God’s gracious gifts. Could it be that fruits such as these further authenticate the path now embarked upon? Could it be that such lessons can serve as markers in any situation, a way of assessing whether important life steps are truly being taken honestly and thoughtfully, with both personal and communal integrity? I’m sharing some of these lessons below, inviting you the reader to find parallels in your own ways of making life choices. This sharing is not an end in itself nor a way to draw attention to myself. Rather, my prayer and hope is that the sharing can help all of us develop healthy and wholesome pathways to fullness in Christ, which is the baptismal call of all God’s holy people.

I sensed the authenticity of this call into the Anglican family of faith from the moment this new beckoning began over one year ago; its time had truly come, it was for real, and it originated in God. That certainty never wavered – each day in this past year of preparation peace, clarity and joy were my constant companions. Even when faced with seeming “setbacks” or unexpected challenges this threesome provided an anchor, orienting me gently and surely to the learning and the growing here and now. There is a calm wholeness to the current move that was noticeably absent ten years ago when I first considered turning onto this Canterbury trail. God is so very good and full of surprises …

Honesty, intentionality and integrity are among the primary values I strive to live by. That is why the denominational transition did not proceed 10 years ago; I knew in my heart of hearts that proceeding then would have seriously lacked the personal and ecclesial integrity both I and the Anglican tradition deserved despite all my best efforts (and the support of many) in that intense love affair. I know others who have changed traditions out of frustration and anger; that did not sit right for me. I couldn’t ground such a switch in motives that were too mixed and utilitarian, in energy that was too negative, with too much unresolved ecclesial baggage tagging along like a stowaway. Even if no one notices on the outside, the fact is that I would know on the inside. And it would feel way too much like building my house on sand … Maybe that’s why I received three certificates — just to make sure the Anglican piece sticks this time … 🙂

For today is a different story. Don’t get me wrong though; the past ten years have been filled with rich ministry opportunities, both in RC and ecumenical circles, and I am deeply grateful for God’s faithfulness in all these years. But today is a new day, a new invitation. There is a distinct qualitative shift to the way the Anglican beckoning entered my life’s orbit this time: unexpected, unbidden and undeserved, yet playing intimately and skillfully the strings of my desire in ways calling forth the very best I can be for God and with God’s holy people. The beautiful gift of today’s undivided heart now makes possible a new capacity to embrace and surrender to whatever the future holds in peace, trust and joy.

Every Sunday, for two whole months before Easter, I made a 215 km round-trip to go to the mother church in this Anglican Diocese, St. John the Evangelist in Saskatoon, along with my sponsor. We joined other adults with their sponsors who were preparing for their final step in joining the Anglican Church (Confirmation in their case). After having coordinated RCIA in my years of RC pastoral ministry, it was interesting to now find myself on the other end of that process, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity.

Every Sunday we began the Eucharistic service with the entire congregation until, after the homily, the priest would call us up, pray a blessing over us and dismiss us. We would then go to the adjacent parish hall where we would have our catechetical session for the day. We shared prayer, our lives, our questions and thoughts about how to grow more fully into our common baptismal calling as Christ’s disciples. We learnt about the distinct features of Anglican discipleship in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus.

I thoroughly appreciated this preparation process; it was exactly what my heart and spirit needed, making the journey towards formal reception in a spirit of community and prayer. On the outside it maybe looked tiny and insignificant, esp. for me who has studied and ministered so extensively in many church settings, both Roman Catholic and ecumenical. I discovered and experienced the gift of slow, the meaning and power of an incremental and ritual “yes” Sunday after Sunday. Each deliberate step into this yes deepened and strengthened my decision in a most inclusive both/and way, i.e. without denying any of what was before but bringing it along in a new configuration – how very Anglican. And each Sunday my joy, peace and clarity grew in depth and breadth, enabling me to make the Anglican tradition my new home. Ritual truly does deepen one’s experience.

Hard as it was, I fasted from receiving communion for the two months of preparation at the Cathedral along with the other group members. This made Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil extra special, almost as a “first communion” all over again. What a nourishing gift the Eucharist can be to famished souls and parched spirits. This awareness grew steadily in the weeks of Eucharistic fasting. Sometime in early March, I attended a Eucharist on a weekday. I had become acutely aware of my hunger for the Bread from Heaven; here was an opportunity to receive and I so desired to do so. Yet receiving would have broken my solidarity with the group and would undoubtedly have affected my experience of receiving Holy Communion at Easter. I struggled in the pew with my famished spirit; even when I went up to the communion rail I still didn’t know what I would end up doing. But then I knelt down, crossed my arms across my chest, received a blessing,  and thanked God for the depth of my Eucharistic hunger – what a beautiful gift this awareness is now.

On Good Friday I sought out the sacrament of Reconciliation (yes, Anglicans can do this and some in fact do!). It was an emotional experience to name and leave behind all the hurts of the past, all those I have hurt and to forgive those who have wronged me. It was an opportunity to check for unwelcome and unhealthy stowaways in heart-mind-spirit, and to seek God’s mercy in ridding myself of these. I even asked forgiveness for things that happened ten years ago which, I learnt recently, have sown distrust in some Anglicans about today’s denominational change because of memories of feeling used and betrayed by my transition struggle at that time. Through tears of repentance God’s mercy flowed generously, setting me free for this new leg on the journey.

And so, my joy was full and deep in that Easter Vigil, fueled not only by a renewal of faith in the risen Christ, not only by the gracious hospitality of the Cathedral parish, but also buoyed by the supportive presence of my RC spouse, my oldest son, members of my Anglican home parish who made the 215 km round-trip just for me, and several Roman Catholic friends. How important community is …

Each step savoured and cherished,
each word pondered and chosen to perfection.
No running and rushing, no tripping or regrets …
Slow motion in momentous choices
adding spice and reflection, depth and meaning
while sprinkling clarity and peace
in heart and mind.
Infusion of courage and patience
in a spirit trembling in fear and joy …

Each slow step affirming yes
falling into a future known
only by tomorrow
featuring glowing colours
of pregnant promises of life
ever green, ever fresh, ever new…

And so, in confidence and trust, I surrender to a future known only to God. That is okay, for surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Saviour. (Isaiah 12:1-2)

Prairie Encounters

For previous reflections pertaining to my experience of denominational transition, see the following blog entries:

A Time of Transition

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments use the contact form below. For public ones, scroll down further to write your thoughts.