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Authority and invisible activities

Allow me to be controversial for a rather long moment and address, in a somewhat sketchy way, what seems to me a large elephant in the Anglican room.

For the last several years, it has been my habit to keep abreast of news in the Roman Catholic community for what may be obvious reasons: they are the largest organized Christian body in the world, and what they do and don’t do, what they say and don’t say, inevitably affects our our work and witness. One of my primary ways of keeping up on the news from our Roman siblings is by following John Allen’s blog at the National Catholic Reporter: All Things Catholic. Allen reports with a level head, even when presenting his own interpretation of events, a journalistic virtue which many of his professional and ecclesiastical fellows rather lack.

So it was with great interest that I read a portion of his recent post “The church’s deep pockets, the butler did it, and myths about atheism.” While the whole post is worth a read, it is the first section that is most riveting, as Allen “crunches the numbers” involved in contemporary Roman Catholic life. In other words, he follows the money to look at who actually has the most financial and practical clout in the Roman Catholic Church. Here’s a quote from the first part of the post:

Most people believe the real power in Catholicism resides with the hierarchy, and in terms of both theology and church law, that’s basically right. For instance, canon law says the pope wields “supreme, full, immediate and universal” authority, and it’s tough to get more sweeping than that.

One wonders, however, if an accountant would reach the same conclusion…

As Allen goes on to note, while the media often portrays church conflicts as a battle between domineering bishops and a humble, huddled mass of hospitals, universities, and vowed religious, the financial picture actually pits enormously wealthy and largely independent Catholic institutions against a comparatively impoverished hierarchy. The hierarchy’s authority is theoretically full, in juridical terms, but the way things actually play out are often rather different.

I bring this example up, of course, not simply to talk about “real power” in Roman Catholicism, but to raise a similar point about contemporary Anglicanism, its understanding and practice of church governance, and the location of actual influence and power. For I have had a sneaking suspicion for some time that our canon law and our understanding of ecclesiology and of the practical workings of the Church  are running a bit behind the actual modus operandi. Indeed, I wonder if we’ve yet to catch up to the nineteenth century. But allow me to explain.

I wonder if I might trace this particular question out with reference to the Oxford Movement.  It’s well known that the Oxford Movement articulated a rather high theology of the episcopacy. For instance, see Tract 7: The Episcopal Church Apostolical, in which the “Episcopal system” is set over every activity of the Church. Indeed, obedience and deference to episcopal authority was such an  important part of John Henry Newman’s and E.B. Pusey’s correspondence and public conversation that their own bishop was more than a little discomfited by their words. He was not ready for such words from his clergy. At the same time, we have to admit that there was a certain disregard on the Tractarians’ part for consultation with the bishops before engaging in rather overt attempts at shaping the decisions and discourse of the Church of England, and there were more than occasional disavowals in their letters to each other that their own bishop really had any sway over their personal actions and opinions (to be fair, he expressed his own disinterest in doing so on more than one occasion).

These tensions between deference to bishops and independent action also emerge rather clearly in their publications and at other moments in their public activity. See “Thoughts on the Ministerial Commission,” the first entry of The Tracts for the Times. For its part, Tract 1 expresses a clear commitment to the authority and station of bishops, but its motivating call is directed towards stirring up the presbyters to action. The tension might be illustrated best with these words from the Tract: “Exalt our Holy Fathers, the Bishops, as the Representatives of the Apostles, and the Angels of the Churches; and magnify your office, as being ordained by them to take part in their Ministry.” The whole thrust of the Tract, while explicitly acknowledging episcopal authority, is to move the presbyters to do much more, to take more responsibility for the direction of the church as the “shield-bearers” for the episcopacy.

Now, I do not necessarily mean to suggest that the Tractarians were entirely cynical or opportunistic in their exaltation of episcopal authority. One occasionally does get the impression, though, that the banner of the episcopacy and of the apostolic succession was raised as a rallying and distracting ensign, behind which silent armies of presbyters might independently march. For the Tractarians, although not the first generation to act with a great deal of personal latitude, must certainly be counted among the most successful. They did not simply sit idly in their professional and ecclesiastical positions. Rather, they leveraged every inch of their potential authority, in ways that it is hard to imagine their bishops doing.

To advance the cause of catholicism in the Church of England, they did many things. They preached “the Catholic faith” from their pulpits, yes, but they also made the rounds by guest preaching in surrounding dioceses. Pusey, for one, did so even when he was barred for some time from preaching at his usual post at Oxford, a point often overlooked in accounts of his career. Knowing also that the sermon was the most widely-read genre in their time, they went on to publish collections of their own sermons, including a great many that were not publicly preached, in order to keep their ideas in the air and read by the public (there is a rather amusing letter to this effect from Newman to Keble). To influence the educated class, on the other hand, they rather aggressively acquired a journal, The British Critic, before turning it into an organ of catholic convictions.

They also used the influence afforded them by their University positions. To the end of his time at Oxford, Pusey sat on the committee at Oxford that approved academic appointments. He described his participation in this process as “a death struggle” against the forces of liberalism in the Church of England, a rather dramatic way to think about a fairly dull activity. He also quietly used a little-known privilege of his office to direct library acquisitions at Oxford in favor of the study of catholic doctrine and biblical studies, a move which had a great deal of influence on the nature and direction of research that could be undertaken at the University for some time. These kinds of actions were of lasting influence, yet they are rarely taken into consideration when considering the Tractarians’ understanding of ecclesiology.

This seems misguided to me. Every time I consider these actions by the Tractarians (and I have only cited a handful of potential examples), I have to wonder about their actual ecclesiology. Just what did they think they were up to, and how did they understand their actions in light of their commitment to the episcopacy? Were they simply acting in their capacities as presbyters, or were they exercising some other, less visible authority?

Of course, we must go on to ask: how do we understand similar activities in our own time? To put it sharply, how do we honestly understand or compare the practical leverage or impact of, say, a single, influential academic writing with regard to church issues with the activity of a bishop? Only the bishop has a place in our ecclesiology and canon law, while the academic, whether a historian, theologian, or biblical scholar, ordained or lay, runs somewhat rampant with respect to academic and professional activities, casually and sporadically dropping explosive statements from a safe perch on high.

If I may put it even more sharply and differently, I want to ask how we understand the ecclesiastical role of the many magazines and journals, blogs, independent thinktanks, and other organizing groups which do so much to influence the tone and tenor of contemporary discussions, regardless of whether they have the approval, patronage, and oversight of bishops. What are their place in our ecclesiology or our canon law? Or do they have one?

Perhaps these questions seem inappropriate or unimportant. Perhaps we wish not to consider them. But they seem rather necessary to me to ponder, unless we also wish to exalt our bishops while actually (and perhaps mostly) magnifying our own personal offices and activities, whether visible or invisible from the perspective of ecclesiology.


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