21st of the Year, 27 Aug 23
I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I want to speak to the manager please.” It sounds rather final, doesn’t it? It’s expressing a dissatisfaction with the person you’re speaking to: they can’t address the problem that is being presented or maybe they are actually the problem and the complaint is to be made about them. I have had people say to me that they’re going to speak to my boss about me, it might not surprise you to know. To which my response is usually, “Fine, go ahead.” When people next door to the Vicarage a few years ago wanted to talk about some land ownership issues I suggested we have a meeting and they clearly thought I was not senior enough so they said they’d speak to the Diocese. The Diocesan property person replied that, of course, next door needed to speak to me. Last week I was speaking to my mobile phone network provider and I was talking to them about one thing and then I had a question about something else. “Oh, that’s a different department. I can’t do anything about that, I’m afraid,” they said. Who has authority to do what comes up a lot in life.
In our Gospel today, Peter correctly identifies who Jesus is: the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed, the long-awaited, one whose life we as Christians are called to share. And because of this profession of faith Peter is blessed indeed, a happy man. The Church is to be built on him; and he is given authority so that the church will always flourish: “the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in Heaven; whatever you loose shall be considered loosed in Heaven,” Jesus says to St Peter. The authority he is given means certain decisions can rest on him and the other Apostles from that moment on. And after the Lord’s Resurrection and the gifts He gives at Pentecost through the Holy Spirit the disciples are able to continue that ministry with this authority, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s not an authority restricted to the twelve as Paul shares too in this apostleship and this in turn is a ministry he hands on to such as Timothy in the next generation. When we say in the Creed every Sunday, that we believe the Church is apostolic part of the definition of that is that Bishops have received a ministry which in turn has been handed on to them through the generations right back to these words Our Lord utters to Peter in Ceasarea Philippi.
We’ve rather lost confidence in authority in our society and it’s easy to see why. We know all too well the failings of those in authority over us within the Church and in the State and in other organisations of which we are part or which have authority over us. From priests to politicians, from police officers to nurses we are barraged with bad examples. Part of the answer within society can be to remove the authority from individuals: we can argue that it is not right that any one person should have any ability to say how I live my life. “They’re all hypocrites,” we can cry with the crowds. As I walked through the streets of Brighton in my cassock on the parish trip last month someone asked me for money and when I politely said no, he shouted out, “Paedophile.” Those with authority are easy targets for our frustration and dissatisfaction.
I hope our Lord’s words today are a reminder that concepts such as authority and indeed we might include power, these which have been discredited in our society we in contrast believe them to be inherently good. God has authority and power, they’re part of His gifts to us so that we can be faithful members of His Church on earth. Our Lord in His great generosity and His divine pity knew that giving the Church authority would help us to be faithful and continue to know centuries later all the graces God longs to give us. It means we don’t have to take a screen shot of first century Palestinian life and see that as the only true expression of faithful discipleship of Jesus Christ, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, with the same cultural expectations. It is perfectly possible to be as faithful a Christian in twenty first century London as it was long ago when our Lord first called the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” Jesus says (St John 20:29).
Part of this ongoing authority comes to the foreground when we consider our treatment of sinners and those who have been led astray in heresy. Read St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians or St John’s First Letter in the New Testament and we see that this was always the case. Society can be a very unforgiving place. It’s all too easy to take a swipe at someone, be it in the bus queue or on social media or on a WhatsApp message, bringing up something from the past or dissecting something that was a throw-away comment. The authority given to St Peter in today’s Gospel is reminder of that tension: binding and loosing, some things are permitted, other things are not allowed. But note the authority our Lord gives to Peter is about things: this is allowed, this is not allowed. It’s not about condemning particular people, there is always hope if the individual sinner wishes to avail him or herself of the forgiveness which flows from the fount of mercy, which is the Cross.
Some things over time have changed within the Church: the language in which we worship God, no longer Greek or Hebrew but our own languages alongside the continuing use of Latin; the possibility of priests being being able to marry is another example. But there are also some things which the Church declares to be beyond her authority. There is complete agreement, for example, on the number of books in the New Testament, being 27, and there’s never really been any pressure to change that. There are other issues where there has been pressure in recent years, be it whether those whose partners are still alive can marry again, whether women can be ordained, or whether men can marry each other or women likewise. These disagreements are much loved by a media wanting to criticise and devalue the Church and we have to be careful how they are played out in the public sphere.
Another argument bubbling away at the moment is the confidentiality of the Confessional which has’t really reached the national media so you might not have heard about it. The rules are that what is said in the context of making a Confession to God in the presence of a priest cannot be uttered to another. Full stop. It’s called the “seal of the confessional.” However, here in this country and elsewhere some are arguing that it should be compulsory for priests to report child abuse to the police even when it is confessed in the context of a Confession. While the safeguarding of young people and vulnerable adults is a key responsibility for us all, there is at least one practical reason why this is not a good idea, namely, it would surely discourage those who have committed these sins from confessing them if they knew they had to be reported by the priest. A further consideration is that there seems to be no instances of someone confessing child abuse while continuing to do these terrible things: the very fact of the confession indicates a resolve to change and to remove themselves from being a further threat. Now, what I’m saying isn’t really to start that debate about whether the seal of the confessional should be absolute or not, but rather it’s a very good example of where the Church should feel unable to change something about her life for it is, we might say flippantly, above her pay grade. She has not the authority to do so.
One experience of a different sort of authority that many of us will have come up against in some form or another is that of parental authority. I mention this particularly today as 27th August - were it not a Sunday - would be celebrated as St Monica’s day. Monica was the mother of St Augustine of Hippo whom the Church celebrates tomorrow. She saw her son go through his wayward years of teenage rebellion, signing up to the latest fad false religion of their day, Manichaeism. It broke her heart and the tears she shed for her son’s waywardness were well-recorded, as the Collect for her feast day prays to God “who mercifully accepted the motherly tears of Saint Monica for the conversion of her son.” We might consider then how our own children have hurt us, or indeed how we hurt our parents through our waywardness. We might be parents ourselves who know the difficulties of exerting authority over our children, we will almost certainly recall times we said to those bringing us up, “You can’t tell me what to do.” There’s an interesting dilemma about when the authority of parents ceases to be exercised. The honour the child must have for their parent is not time limited, as specified in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) why should the authority exercised by the parent be limited? (Don’t tell my mother I said that though, of course!).
So, my friends, Jesus gives Peter authority and we say thank you to God for this authority: it’s one of His gifts so we can only be thankful for it! How authority is exercised is always complicated and I’ve tried to give a few examples of that. Two questions we will be asked when our life on earth has ended is how have we used the authority we have been given and how we have responded to those who had proper authority over us and these are worth pondering as we consider the Lord’s call on our life today. Let us then as we prepare to receive Holy Communion as Children of the Church, faithfully submit ourselves afresh to the Lord our God who comes to us under Bread and Wine. Amen.