THE Archbishop of Canterbury must just now be feeling the force
of a remark by Pope John XXIII, who once said: "I have to be pope
both for those with their foot on the accelerator, and those with
their foot on the brake." Homosexuality is again on the agenda,
revealing much deeper division than the controversy over women
bishops. Archbishop Welby has to find a way of keeping within the
Anglican Communion two sides whose positions are fundamentally
His predicament came to mind this week, during the latest
Westminster Faith Debate, which was tackling the question: "Can
historic global Churches maintain central authority, or must they
devolve?" Now that more Christians live in the Global South than
elsewhere, are the historic Roman Catholic and Anglican ecclesial
formulae still sustainable?
Classically, there is a balance to be struck between an
authoritarian magisterium, which safeguards the orthodoxy of the
faith, and a lively authentic expression of Christianity which acts
in the lives of individual believers.
There are dangers at both extremes. At its most disciplinarian,
a central authority can stifle personal religious integrity with
rules and dogma. Cynics might call that Roman Catholicism. At its
most chaotic, unregulated individualism can become utterly
relativist. The appeal to sola scriptura, which we might
parody as Protestantism, only dodges the thorny problem of how the
Bible is to be interpreted, by whom, and how prescriptively.
The suppression of dissent in the Roman Catholic Church under
John Paul II and Benedict XVI shows the downside of an over-rigid
magisterium. The current hokey-cokey over same-sex relationships in
the Anglican Communion shows the obverse. Archbishops Welby and
Sentamu have appealed for compassion from Anglicans in Africa, and
then issued, the day after St Valentine's Day, without evident
irony, their own document of cold exclusion to gay Christians in
the Church of England. No wonder African church leaders rebuffed
their admonition, and then applauded them for their legalism.
The polar dangers here are that, in one case, the tail wags the
dog, and, in the other, there is no dog, just the tail.
In the Vatican, Pope Francis is moving to redress a historic
imbalance. He recalls vividly his 18 years as a bishop and
archbishop in Buenos Aires, when junior Curia officials routinely
rejected his recommendations for new Argentinian bishops.
All the eight members of his new Council of Cardinal Advisers
have their own unhappy experience of being treated by Curia
underlings with an infantilising disregard. This is why new
mechanisms for restoring collegiality are top of its list of
reforms. It is also why, of 19 men made cardinals last week, only a
few were from Europe, and most were from the developing world.
Conservatives are wary. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the chief
watchdog of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is no
doubt reminding Pope Francis of history's repeated lesson that
revolutions come when authoritarian regimes liberalise. But Francis
seems determined to let a thousand flowers bloom.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has a similar solution. At the
General Synod, he urged the Church not to be afraid of "incoherence
and inconsistency", and said that "untidy" arrangements were better
than splits (News, 21 February). I suspect that Pope Francis - who
famously said he preferred a Church that goes out and risks
accidents to a closed one that stays safe and sterile - would
agree. He concluded those remarks by saying: "God is always
creative, never closed, and this is why he is never rigid. . . To
be faithful, one must be creative, one must be able to change."
Pope Francis - Untying the knots by Paul Vallely is
published by Bloomsbury.