By What Authority?

Authority comes from the Latin - augere means to increase, to enlarge, to augment - the same root as to author - so authority has something to do with innovation and development.

In practical use the word is taken to refer to the possession of means to secure compliance, the execution of power to ensure the implementation of a desired course of action - rather than any creative powers thereby expressed.

Traditionally a distinction is made between INTRINSIC authority and EXTRINSIC authority.

The former is on-the-spot, and may be unpredictable since it is so personal and so forceful.

The latter operates with external guarantees, there is delegated power exercised by an individual maybe uniformed or otherwise bearing a token or symbol.

The delegated power may come from another individual who has intrinsic authority, in which case the person exercising extrinsic authority is a lacky who acts vicariously, or it may come from the framework of society as a whole, in which case the person exercising extrinsic authority is a spokesperson or representative.

The authority of Christ is INTRINSIC in that it is selective, personal and represents a challenge to public norms and accepted facts about the way things are. Who is this man? Where does he come from? The ultimate exercise of intrinsic authority is triumph over death.

The preaching of the apostles at first depended upon intrinsic qualities but very soon moved towards the setting up of some kind of framework.

From apostles & prophets we move to bishops/priests/deacons and a collegiate pattern yields to monarchical bishops.

No longer is it sufficient to say "Jesus is Lord" - from now on, Jesus must be explained. Hence the rise of titles: messiah, son of God, son of Man.

SCRIPTURE and TRADITION both count as extrinsic authority - yet we may distingish between a vicarious and a representative approach.

VICARIOUS approach to SCRIPTURE tends towards a literalist/fundamentalist position - scripture is ultimate, contains no redundancy, omits nothing material, is DOGMATIC - definitive rulings, as per the Road Traffic Act.

REPRESENTATIVE approach to SCRIPTURE tends towards a liberal/open position - scripture is historically and culturally conditioned - fuzzy edge to the canon - scripture is NORMATIVE - practical guidance, as per the Highway Code.

VICARIOUS approach to TRADITION sees every priest as a "type" of Christ, has an objective view of the sacraments, ex opere operato - the imparting of grace is not dependent upon the faith of the recipient, although it may be frustrated.

REPRESENTATIVE approach to TRADITION sees the priest as a representative of the people - all are (latent) priests, all might celebrate the eucharist, forgive sins, etc. but on the grounds of decency these functions are reserved for those publicly nominated to perform the function - the Church is not divinely ordained, but more like a fallible human being - subject to sin/error.

There are obvious risks inherent within each of these approaches!

The VICARIOUS approach impairs growth and limits accommodation to historical circumstance. Answers to matters of faith are simply lifted from scripture or tradition. In such a fundamentalist world, where are the gifts of the Spirit?

The REPRESENTATIVE approach allows possibly unrestricted forward movement, and the lack of yardsticks other than consensus of the current membership encourages a ridiculously low view of sacraments as socio-culturally conditioned hierophanies.

The balanced exercise of authority involves both a SOURCE and a SINK that are bound in a dynamic ongoing symbiotic relationship.

With common consent and full participation, neither party is corrupted or demeaned. Christ is a SOURCE (revealing the authority of God, whose healing work leads to resurrection) and a SINK (absorbing the authority of Humanity, whose sinful work leads to crucifixion).

In the exercise of service, through being a sink for human authority, the Christian can become a source for God's authority. This authority is not absolute and static, but is a dynamic and trinitarian - a community process, a corporate activity, creative and full of risk.

I am grateful to those whose thoughts have influenced the above jottings, among them Archbishop Rowan Williams (lectures at Westcott House) and Hans Küng (especially "The Church").

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