Thursday, July 19, 2007

Questioning Authority

When I drive behind a bumper sticker that says “Question Authority” I always wish that my car were equipped with a siren and flashing lights. I would love to pull the driver over so that I could ask one simple question: “Is that an order?” To expand, the meaning of the question would be “by what authority do you command this thing? Who gave you this authority? Was it from heaven or from men?”

Well, of course the whole point of displaying this imperative is to deny the idea of authority itself; and it is likely that the driver who put this on his car would be surprised to learn that he has issued a command to everyone behind him. It is unlikely that he would want to be thought of as authoritarian, just the opposite. This problem becomes more serious when it has consequences in the lives of people and of churches.

In August of 2003, within minutes after the approval to elevate Vickie Gene Robinson to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church, the news was flashed across the world that a divorced and openly “gay” man, living with his homosexual lover, was going to be a bishop. An Episcopal priest who was present at that General Convention in Minneapolis that had done the deed by majority vote, stood beaming from ear to ear as he answered questions put to him by Bill O’ Reilly of Fox News.

“What about the Biblical injunction against homosexuality?” asked O’ Reilly.

“The scriptures aren’t the final authority in Anglicanism,” said the cleric, “the Holy Spirit is.”

From the many apologetic responses that were subsequently issued by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and by others, it is clear that what this priest said to O’ Reilly was the simple version of their defense. In the final analysis, they were claiming to have been led by the Holy Spirit to overthrow 2,000 years of Church teaching from the Bible. Any such claim only makes sense in light of the promise that Jesus Christ gave to the apostles, “However, when He, the Spirit of Truth is come, He will guide you into all truth (John 16:12).”

In an ecclesial body which claims for its validity the Apostolic Succession, this promise of Christ has to be connected to a claim that that body is at least part of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” As such, when they insist that the Holy Spirit made them do it, it means that their very liberal sounding agenda is that we must question every commandment of God and the whole authority of the Church in a Tradition going back past the Apostles to the Lawgiver of Sinai. And, also, that this anti-authoritarian agenda has been ordered by the Highest Authority. So that now “Question Authority” is clearly seen to be the command that it is, and a command from on high no less.

A further irony is that a change of Tradition in an ecclesial body that claims the Apostolic foundation is impossible without adding to itself the exclusive title, The One True Church. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy make this claim, and each has reasons for doing so. But Anglicans have never made this claim about their whole Communion, let alone one national church- until now. What was alleged to be simply another General Convention of the Episcopal Church, resulted in this rather shrunken little denomination acting as if it were holding the Ecumenical Council of Minneapolis.

And, this was not the first time. This Council should properly be called Minneapolis II, because the “First Ecumenical Council of Minneapolis” should be the name by which we remember the General Convention of 1976. It was held in the same city, and seen to have exercised the same authority to question authority concerning that other milestone “leading of the Spirit”, women’s “ordination”. “Hear the word of the Lord: Thou shalt question authority. Obedience is better than sacrifice”

If we take a close look at the policy of the Episcopal Church in the years that followed, we see that the situation grew from one in which dissent was not only tolerated, but treated with provisions out of respect for the consciences of Parishes and dioceses, to one of outright intolerance. The diocese of Quincy and the Diocese of Forth Worth found themselves under pressure from the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in New York to find a way to accept women “priests” in order to come into uniformity with the denomination as a whole. The fact that these Anglo-Catholic dioceses, and their respective bishops, could not conform without violating their consciences became unimportant.

In 2001 Acting “Bishop” Jane Dixon of the Diocese of Washington D.C. had sued St. John’s Parish of Christ Church in Accokeek Maryland in order to force out their Rector, Fr. Samuel Edwards. This was because he was known to be opposed to women’s “ordination” and could not, therefore, accept her position as a bishop in the sacramental sense, even though he had declared his willingness to accept it as a fact of Episcopal Church Canon Law. This is not the only case in which the promoters of the liberal agenda acted in a very authoritarian manner to force their will through legal power, or through denominational pressure. The liberals are not very liberal, especially when it comes to issues of power.

The Episcopal Church is a very easy target to strike, and lest it seem that this essay is unfair for picking on a little denomination, let me point out that this problem is wider in scope. It is the problem of the entire liberal movement in theology. Certainly it is found among rebellious members of the Roman Catholic Church. I have been present at Roman Catholic Masses, most recently the funeral of my own grandmother in January 2002, in which trendy Baltimore parishes offered in place of the “Our Father” an innovative offering that must have been to Baal and Ashteroth: “Our mother and father in heaven…” One person suggested that I write a complaint directly to Rome.

The difference is that in the Roman Catholic Church this rebellion cannot become policy. The problem, however, is that wherever it is inflicted on the people who come to Church it is done so by the authority on the scene. The priest who uses the sermon in the Mass to preach against the Church’s teaching, as my wife heard one Catholic priest do when she was visiting relatives in Virginia, is abusing the authority he has in that congregation in that time and place. In this case, a priest told the congregation that the See of Rome was wrong to deny women the “right” to be ordained. He spoke from the pulpit, using a place and symbol of authority to demand that authority be questioned. In such a place, the pulpit, he is speaking with authority to denounce authority.

As we look at various examples of the liberal agenda in churches, we see that the system of authority is always called into question by those who promote heresy. Higher criticism challenged the authority of the Bible in late Nineteenth Century German Lutheranism. Rebellious Catholic theologians and clerics rebel against the authority of the Pope throughout many Western countries, sometimes openly contradicting the Church. And Anglicans use Episcopal thrones and the similitude of Councils to assert their power by creating groundless Canons to overthrow the authority of Scripture, Right Reason and Tradition. But, once the authority is questioned, with what is it replaced?

Even more insidious than the use of legal power through the courts, as a means to overthrow orthodox authority, is the replacement of God’s authority with that of the anti-authoritarian liberals themselves. If the doctrine of the Church is to be overthrown, those who do so are claiming a higher authority than all which has come before. They must claim that they have revelation, that they are guided by the Holy Spirit, and that their word ought to be law, if only Canon Law. The theology and teaching of the Church is to be replaced by their revelation, even if this revelation is that they deny that there is such a thing as revelation.

When they speak of their new doctrine as the leading of the Spirit, they claim the authority of the prophetic charism; when they do so in the name of the Church, they claim the authority of apostles. The irony is that even while claiming that we should question everything, they put themselves above being questioned. They claim that the Holy Spirit is revealing all truth to them, and that every objective standard of public teaching must be overthrown.

But, without a known publicly taught doctrine, the people become utterly dependent on the purveyors of “revelation” in order to know right from wrong, and to do the will of God. When the authority of the Church’s teaching office is overthrown, the new “prophets” carve for themselves unlimited power to teach and demand anything they please. And, they become indispensable.

The perfect opposite of their whole endeavor is well symbolized by the papal office, especially when it is held by a humble man who sees clearly his episcopal and pastoral duty to defend the faith. A few years ago, when Pope John Paul II issued a statement about the question of women’s “ordination”, to close the door on the discussion, part of the statement said that the Church has no authority to make this change.

This is the trademark of orthodox pastors in the Church, and among Christian communities: They know the limits of their own authority. A defender of the faith has authority precisely because he has none whatsoever; he is only the instrument of the authority that already is understood to belong solely to God. Whether it is a Pope defending the teaching of the Church which has been entrusted and handed down to him, or the local Baptist Pastor trying to be faithful to what the Bible says, we see the humility of leaders who never would dare to assert themselves and their own ideas.

Authoritarian liberals love to tell us that “such men are dangerous,” that they are despots and tyrants who command us to obey. But what do these innovators offer in place of the authority to which faithful pastors answer as unprofitable servants? Nothing but their own authority, authority such as no Pope ever claimed for himself, and that none of the Ecumenical Councils pretended to; for they have all been the defenders of the faith. But those who order us, in the name of “enlightenment,” to “Question Authority” claim the highest authority of all; to change the truth of God for a lie.

2 comments:

poetreader said...

Hear! Hear!

ed

Sandra McColl said...

I'm with Ed.