Elephant in the Chancel


The elephant in the chancel for our traditional Anglican brothers and sisters is the question of authority.

Traditional Anglicans are agonizing over the issue of homosexuality in the Church, but many of them have not asked the more fundamental question of why their particular interpretation of Scripture should be right and their opponents wrong.

The traditional Anglican takes a view that the Bible, tradition, and the Holy Spirit are on their side. They are convinced of this and are willing to go through huge suffering and stress for the truth. I agree with them, but I do not see how they got there in the first place. The problem with their argument is that their opponents also believe that the Bible, the tradition and the Holy Spirit is on their side. They really do, and they believe it just as passionately as the traditionalists do.

The traditionalist says the Bible is clearly against homosexuality and they quote Old Testament prohibitions. The homosexualist says the Old Testament is also against eating shellfish and pork chops and calls for capital punishment for adultery. The traditionalist quotes St Paul, but the homosexualists asks why the traditionalists are in favor of women’s ordination when St Paul clearly forbids women to have authority over men in church. “Clearly!” the radical cries, “the Bible is not so plain as you traditionalists wish.”

The traditionalist says the tradition is against homosexuality. The homosexualist quotes Acts 10 where the Lord tells Peter to eat the forbidden food and says that on the contrary, the tradition of Christianity has always been radical, surprising and revolutionary. “Christianity” they cry passionately, “Has always been at the edge–always been for the dispossessed, and has always sacrificed much to win justice for the downtrodden.”

I experienced this same puzzlement first hand fifteen years ago when I was an Anglican priest. We were debating women’s ordination. I was instinctively opposed, but was determined to listen to the other side. It turned out that the other side were not demon possessed after all. We thought we were prayerful, Bible reading, Spirit filled Christians. They thought they were too. We had our Bible scholars, linguists, psychologists, sociologists, theologians and mystics. Problem was, they has a whole range of experts too. The other side also seemed to be prayerful, Bible reading, Spirit filled Christians. Who was right? How was one to decide? There was no greater authority. The only way was to pig headedly insist, ‘Well, we must be right because we’re right.’

If one tried to claim Scripture or tradition or reason (the usual Anglican ‘three legged stool’) the other side claimed support of Scripture, tradition and reason as well. Each side used Scripture, tradition and reason in good faith and yet suspected the other side of twisting Scripture, distorting the tradition and being unreasonable on purpose. Could both things be true? Hardly.

The elephant in the room is simply this: “Who says so?”

The irony of it all is that beneath all the bitter arguments the traditional Anglican and the radical Anglican actually have the same flawed authority system. Both of them rely on sola Scriptura. They do not do so as the Baptist fundamentalist, for they wish to rely also on the tradition and on human reason. But then we have to ask, what tradition and whose reason?

At the end of the day the traditionalist Anglican and the radical Anglican both depend not on Scripture, but on private interpretation of Scripture. How can they do anything else without an external infallible interpretive authority on which to rely? Frank Pate, a revert to Catholicism from Anglicanism has an excellent take on this.

The attempts of traditional Anglicans to piece together some new confederation of Bible believing Anglicans is laudable, but can they really agree? What shall they do with the Anglicans who reject homosexuality but accept women’s ordination? How shall the Anglo Catholics agree with the Evangelical Protestant Anglicans? Can they forge new alliances? They cannot unless they agree on the one basic Anglican principle above all Anglican principles: compromise and tolerance of those with whom they disagree. Without an external infallible authority they must fall either into the latitudinarian error or the sectarian error. They must either sacrifice unity of form for unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine for unity of form.

John Henry Newman observed this problem for Anglicans long ago, and the elephant looms in the chancel larger than ever before.

Only with an infallible authority can Christians have a final reference point. A wise man builds his house upon the rock, and the wise Christian builds his church on a rock, and it is no co-incidence that the parable of the houses built on rock and sand occurs in the same gospel where Our Lord calls one particular man to be that rock.

That man was Peter, and his successor lives today just a few yards from where Peter was buried. His name is Benedict.

"Catholicism has always defined the ideal but there are no limits on God's mercy and ..."

Tony Palmer: Is There Salvation Outside ..."
"With all due respect, Shaun, are you relegating the actual Faith to whatever the local ..."

Notes on Tony Palmer’s Funeral
"There are good parking valets and bad parking valets. There are good housesitters and bad ..."

The Case for Conversion to Catholicism
"did you vote for Bush Fr Longenecker? would you have?"

Understanding Iraq

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • We’re kindred spirits, to be sure, Father Dwight. My essay on Anglican authority issues:http://andalsowithyou.blogspot.com/2006/08/dr-strangechurch-or-how-i-learned-to.html

  • Thanks! I think my e-mail got bumped off when I switched to Blogger Beta, but I’ve made it visible again on my profile page.

  • One more comment, which I’m afraid will offend many Anglicans and possibly a few other Protestants as well. I have come to see Anglicanism as a rather dangerous movement because it is so close to, yet so far from, Catholicism. In my experience, most conservative Anglicans are converts from Congregationalist Evangelicalism who were attracted to Eucharistic worship, the prayer-book tradition, or Anglican piety in general (all of which are commendable). But when push comes to shove, they will still be Evangelical, including a fairly pervasive bias against anything Roman. The problem is that they have been “inoculated” with Catholicism without getting the real thing. They can say, “I am Evangelical (or Charismatic, or whatever) AND catholic.” They see “Catholicism” as a kind of add-on, reading the Fathers, using a prayer-book, and waving a thurible. But they still reserve unto themselves the right to stand in judgment of Catholic doctrines which they don’t like, don’t understand, or have been told are wrong.The Catholic Church in the 21st century can learn things from its Evangelical brethren—and it’s not un-Catholic to say so. But Evangelicals (and Charismatics, and “convergents”) can’t just appropriate Catholicism by donning a cassock. Yet they think they have, and that’s what’s dangerous; they don’t see their need for anything else. Ultimately, we must pray for a conversion of heart, because that is what is required in order to humble oneself before Christ’s Church.

  • Let me first explain where I come from. I grew up Catholic in Austria, which was (in 1955) still predominantly Catholic, at least nominally. Being Catholic was part of being Austrian, back then; about 60% of of Austrians actually went to church every Sunday, about 25-30% of Austrians regularly prayed before meals, and far fewer had what my Evangelical friends would call “a personal relationship with God”.I was blessed with a family that took its faith fairly seriously, but even they were not able to communicate that to me, so that by the time I was 14 or 15 I only went to church because it was the expected thing to do — and that was true of my siblings, and even more so of my school mates — by the time I was 15 only about half of my (all Catholic) class mates still went to church regularly.When I was 17 I encountered Evangelicals and for the first time heard about the possibility of having a “personal relationship” with God. My Catholic acquaintances, including our priest, considered that to be a fanatical, irrational idea; the notion of God actually answering prayer was disregarded; etc. etc.So I became an Evangelical.After an initial phase of being against anything Catholic (quite typical of Evangelicalism back then, and still, although less so, today), I began to realize that not all I had heard and read as a child was bad; that not all I was hearing and reading in my Evangelical environment was good and perfect, and I began to wonder where “the truth” could be found.Fr Dwight’s “elephant” is there, and it is often tempting to say, the answer is easy, lets go back to The Church and be done with it. I probably agree with more Catholic doctrine and even practice than most Austrian Catholics (after all, “We Are Church” started here, with its demand for a relaxing of all sorts of standards), but I don’t only see that elephant but also the “walrus” of such things as changes in the Church’s teaching over the centuries which are not acknowledged as such because that would undermine the authority of the magisterium; teachings which are hard to document in Scripture or the early fathers which nonetheless are presented as part of the “apostolic faith”; an emphasis on form at the expense of content, in many contexts throughout church history; etc.While I see the big advantage an autoritative magisterium has in the modern and post-modern climate I simply am not convinced that it has always been an advantage, or that it really has been established by Christ, in the form it has taken over the centuries.So, in a sense, the elephant does not stop at the gates to Rome; the question remains, when you tell me that the Bishop of Rome is the final authority, “Who says so?”.Need I remind you that the Eastern Church does not share your conviction in this regard, and in any number of other matters; and (unlike Evangelicalism) it can point to as much antiquity and tradition as Rome, can claim as much apostolicity as Rome.So I am not defending Anglicanism, whether Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic (which, in my experience, also emphasizes form over content), nor even Evangelicalism in general, and certainly not liberal/revisionist Protestantism, but I would just like to urge more charity towards those for whom the authority question is not so easily answered.To Frank: I understand what you are saying, I don’t find it offensive, but I think that the majority of conservative Anglicans are not converts but “cradle Anglicans”. It may well be that the majority of those very vocal in the blogosphere are converts; that is also true of the Orthodox (people like Franky Shaeffer or Frederika Mathewes-Green) and even of you Catholics (yourself, Fr Dwight, the Hahns, etc.) But there is, in each of these traditions, a silent majority of conservatives;

  • wnpaul,If I had to clarify my statement a little bit, I think I would say “most conservative U.S. Anglicans who are leaving TEC for other Anglican expressions…”. I was involved in 2 TEC splits, and I knew very few in either parish who were cradle Episcopalians (and most of those were in the remnant staying in TEC). But admittedly, I came from a very conservative TEC diocese.As far as your point about East vs. West…I have to admit that one of the stumbling blocks along my journey back to Rome was the sense I got from Catholic apologists that “Rome is the One True Church…unless it’s also Orthodoxy.” For me, as a cradle Catholic, it was simply more sensible to go back to Rome. My closest friend leaving TEC became Greek Orthodox, but that was a passion of his since college. But most Catholics and Orthodox I know find either one preferable to the instability of Evangelicalism, and are glad when someone comes into one of those communions, even if it’s not their own. Even though I am a Catholic and find the arguments for the papacy convincing, I am glad for my friend and others who have become Orthodox, that they are at least in connection with the Apostolic Church. As for me, like Al Kimel, I found it hard to imagine a Church without Augustine and Aquinas…

  • thank you for a thoughtful post wnpaul The only thing I have to add is to your question, after the papacy…’who says so’…Jesus says so when he founds the church on Peter and when he hands over his role as shepherd to Peter.Orthodoxy has antiquity and Roman Catholicism has its problems, but the bottom line is the Church founded on Peter.

  • “Jesus says so when he founds the church on Peter and when he hands over his role as shepherd to Peter.”That’s certainly a contested interpretation, isn’t it? So who is right? How is one to decide? I think the bottom line is indeed that ‘we must be right because we’re right.’Isn’t that what it means for Jesus to say “[I have] told you the truth that I heard from God” [John 8:47]? When pressed, his bottom line is, “God told me so.” Isn’t that tantamount to saying “I’m right because I’m right?”Well sure, but he’s Jesus. Ok, but Paul makes a similar claim: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” [Phil 3:15].John is even clearer: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth from the spirit of error.” [1 John 4:6]The various forms of human conversation–biblical interpretation, theology, philosophy, etc.–are all worthwhile means of communication. But the fundamental basis of authority is in none of these; it is in relationship.