The Pope, Authority and the Anglican Future


Charles Raven writes:

15th September 2010

Pope Benedict’s controversial state visit to the UK begins tomorrow, but even before his arrival two facts are clear. The first is that it is bringing into focus the extent to which Christian values have collapsed in British society and the second is that, despite the much publicised sexual abuse scandals, the Church of Rome has a coherent intellectual and strategic grasp far beyond that of the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth leadership.

As the authority and gathering power of the Archbishop of Canterbury continues to decline and senior African Anglicans begin to talk openly about the need to re-evangelise England itself these facts help to clarify that the Anglican Communion needs new governance structures which are not tied to English law and culture and are able to articulate a strategic vision rather than the pragmatic platitudes of institutional survival such as ‘bonds of affection’.

As to the first fact, the libertarians and secularists who are expressing nothing short of sheer vitriol to the Pope are not marginal figures, but those who are regarded as making the cultural weather. So the journalist Claire Rayner writes ‘His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him and the leaked British Foreign Office memorandum which suggested that the Pope should, among other things, open an abortion ward and bless a gay ‘marriage’ showed, despite a subsequent apology, just how much contempt is felt for an institution which continues to uphold marriage and the family.

One of the Pope’s sternest critics is the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell who has been a leading figure in a movement which in the space of some thirty years brought about legislation previously unthinkable. In historical context, Tatchell is the secular inversion of William Wilberforce 200 years before. Wilberforce’s biblically motivated campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, intended as a death blow to slavery itself, was sealed in legislation in 1807. Tatchell’s campaign for the normalisation of homosexuality, as part of a radically libertarian agenda, was sealed in legislation in 2005 by the Civil Partnerships Act ( to which the Church of England’s House of Bishops acquiesced).

As far as strategic grasp is concerned, it helps to remember that Wilberforce’s vision of a Christian society endured throughout the following century; likewise, Tatchells’ secular and pansexual vision may play out over many years, unless it is overtaken by resurgent Islam or self destructs, but whatever the case, Benedict recognises the magnitude of the task. He has a diagnosis and he has a plan; his historical understanding is that once the biblical fundamentals of marriage and the family are weakened, reason and the rule of law are undermined (no doubt conditioned by his experience of the Weimer Republic and the rise of Hitler). As he has put it most recently “The Church cannot approve legislative initiatives involving a reappraisal of alternative models of married life and family. They contribute to the weakening of the principles of natural law and so the relativization of all legislation and also the confusion about values in society”. This truth has been more directly applied to the UK itself by Edmund Adamus, an adviser to the Archbishop of Westminster, who says “Whether we like it or not, as British citizens and residents of this country … Britain, and in particular London, has been and is the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death.”

It follows from this diagnosis that the future lies not in adapting the Church to the culture in order to maintain institutional influence (the instinct of the Church of England), but to rebuild from the bottom up, recognising that Christian congregations have to rethink themselves as minorities, counter cultural communities committed to the long term re-evangelisation of the West. The Ordinariate in England could be a particular expression of that strategy and the Pope’s determination to tackle the problem was underlined in June this year with the formation of The Pontifical Council for New Evangelisation, a new office formed explicitly to re-evangelise the West.

None of the above is intended to suggest that the doctrinal conflicts of the Reformation are no longer significant. As orthodox Anglicans we believe with the Thirty-nine Articles that ‘the Church of Rome hath erred’ (Article XIX), but has Roman Catholicism erred any more seriously than the current manifestation of Anglican Liberal Catholicism? Whatever its defects, Rome lives by a definite authority rather than that minimal and hazy understanding of authority which lies behind those repeated failures to exercise discipline which are fragmenting the Anglican Communion.

Our great difference with Rome, from which all the other disagreements follow, is over the nature of authority, not its importance. For Rome, authority flows from the confluence of Scripture and Church tradition which in practice means that although there may be individual moral lapses, the Church as an institution cannot admit to error in what it teaches. In contrast, the Reformed position is that final authority in the Church comes from Scripture alone. In reaction to Roman claims this emphasis can make us nervous of vesting authority to act and speak in particular leaders or structures, but if so, this is a failure to distinguish between the Church as a source of authority and the church as an expression of a higher authority, the apostolic authority of Christ and his Word to which it is subject.

In practical terms this means that while confessional Anglicanism does not need an infallible Pope, it does need to be Conciliar as the GAFCON Jerusalem Statement and Declaration makes clear. Being under authority entails leadership structures through which that authority can be clearly articulated and exercised; otherwise it is difficult to see how the Anglican Communion can reform its life and play its part in the re-evangelisation of the West.

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