SMC 7th April 2019
One of the things I often get asked at wedding rehearsals by brides and their fathers is when I will say, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” Many dads are looking forward to passing the hand of their daughter to me so I can hand it to the groom. Now, I don’t say that during weddings for two very sound reasons: (1) I’m not very comfortable with the concept of women being seen as something to be passed from one man to the next and (2) it’s not in the book, meaning it’s not included in the wedding service and I don’t have authority just to insert things willy-nilly.
Authority is a crucial issue for human beings and for Christians. It sounds dull, perhaps, as a topic, but it is asking us to consider how we make decisions of what we should or should not do. In that wonderful Gospel we’ve just heard, the scribes and pharisees are putting God to the test in bringing the woman caught in adultery and saying the Law requires them to stone her, but “what do you have to say?” they ask. Jesus has no desire to condemn. Elsewhere those who hear Jesus wonder where He gets His authority from (Matthew 21:23), indeed they even tell Him He doesn’t have the authority to say or do the things He does (Luke 5:17-26). The question here is really about authority, not whether adultery should be punished with stoning or not, but who gets to decide. This is true also of many of the debates which beset the Church and society more generally concerning sexuality and who can be ordained and who can get married and those sorts of controversial issues. People get distracted by arguing over the specific points whereas in reality what needs to be decided is: who can make the decision. A child and a parent can argue as much as they like whether it is reasonable for him or her to stay up late but ultimately it is for the parent to decide.
The Church is the Body of Christ and while sometimes our stomachs might control what we do, generally it is agreed that it is the head that makes the decisions! Christ is the Head of His Body and so authority comes from Him. This is an authority imparted primarily to St Peter after His profession of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” Jesus then declares, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” (Matthew 16:13-20) This is an authority shared among the apostles after Jesus’ Resurrection for He breathes on them all and commissions them not only to baptise and to preach (Matthew 28) but also to forgive sins and gives them authority for that (John 20:22-23). That is an authority we see recognised in the Acts of the Apostles: it is the apostles who ordain the first deacons (Acts 6:1-6) and who have to confirm the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-24). The life of the church grows through the ministering of those who knew the Risen Jesus.
Traditionalist Catholics within the Church of England have always lived something of a difficult juggling act when it comes to authority. On the one hand it has always been emphasised, even by those within the wider Church of England, that there would need to be “a universal primacy exercised by the Bishop of Rome as a sign and safeguard of unity within a re-united church” (ARCIC III). And on the other hand that is not an authority structurally recognised yet, but one for which Catholics long. One day the Church of England must be part once again of the one fold so that that tender prayer of our Lord “that they may be one” might be fulfilled (John 17:21).
This desire is articulated in the Church of England’s use of the creed: “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Note we don’t say something bland like “I recognise that the church exists” but that we believe in it, it is part of our faith, on the same level and inextricably part of the faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this requires submission, as we do to the will of God. On questions of life and morals we might not always see particular reasons for certain church teachings - and I struggle with some too - but I and we all have to submit to that authority of the life of Jesus powerfully at work within the church. If we only do that when we agree with the outcome, I’m not sure it’s really obedience.
This is a profound challenge to a fallen world which continues to be very much about ‘me,’ about the ‘ego.’ This is nothing new: one non-Biblical account of the fall of the devil is that he wanted some of the attention folk gave to Adam and Eve (Life of Adam and Eve but see also Psalm 8 and Isaiah 14:12). In our own day with selfies, social media and a general emphasis on self-reliance and self-sufficiency, we have come very sure that the world revolves no longer around the sun, but around us. Submitting to authority is not cool but it is what we see in our Saviour, who, as we will hear in that powerful reading on Good Friday from Isaiah 53:7-8: “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth … by a perversion of justice he was taken away.”
Submitting to authority can feel old fashioned and like we are submitting to ‘how things used to be’ for the sake of it and that is not what the Church is to be, simply for nostalgia, fancy hats and drinking tea quaintly. But there does have to be a recognition that the supreme moment of revelation of who God is was two thousand years when Jesus walked this earth. Jesus is alive in the Church today, living in our tabernacle and about to be present on this altar, but He went about doing good and instructing His chosen followers by the sea of Galilee “when the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4). This we saw in our readings from Isaiah 43 and Philippians 3 where the past is associated with the past sinfulness of a community or an individual: it is not to be recalled anymore; Paul forgets it. In both these texts there is a straining to know God, to run the race, to finish the course. This is our goal too, to know Christ and find in Him our sure refuge, and by submitting to His authority we know we are running the race well.
All this can still leave us floundering, not sure where to go. This same disorientation afflicted the disciples. When Jesus told the crowds they needed to eat His flesh and drink His blood some left and the disciples commented how difficult the teaching was (John 6:60) so Jesus asked them if they also wanted to go away and they replied, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). We this floundering perhaps too when Jesus is raised from the dead and He has to confront Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me; because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). This clearly assumes that when our Saviour is in Heaven, then will be a time when we can cling to Him, for He leaves us not comfortless: He sends us the Holy Spirit. We believe in the Church because she is the vehicle for God’s Holy Spirit and the means by which we know the will of God authoritatively. The Sacred Scriptures are the written record of what Jesus did and how those who knew Him lived their lives faithfully and sacrificially. The Church takes that deposit of the faith and applies it to how we live now. That is the role primarily of bishops, just as the Apostles continue the life of Jesus so that the world may believe and may see.
Be glad, my friends, that you don’t have to make the rules of being a Christian up yourself! It is a great relief that the Church does a lot of the thinking for us, on matters of morals and worship. We just need to brush up our membership of her, that we might be clearer about what that entails. I hope the sermons at Mass on a Sunday and on a weekday, as well as the Study Group on a Tuesday evening, and the answers you get to questions you email me, conversations and a whole host of other things are helps to you and if you need something else to help you in your discipleship, do let me know. We learn together what it is to be under the authority of Jesus as children of His Church. Amen.