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Incarnating Authority: A critical account of authority in the Church, edited by Paul Avis, Angela Berlis, Nikolaus Knoepffler, and Martin O’Malley

24 January 2020

In the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, John Arnold reviews a study of authority

A GROUP of scholars from a wide range of traditions and disciplines met at Jena University in September 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s reputed posting of 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. They were asked to address similarities and differences in understanding authority and make proposals for ecumenical progress.

In a masterly historical and analytical essay, Paul Avis argues that Anglicanism is an expression of “reformed conciliar Catholicism”, non-hierarchical and non-coercive. He notes the “affinity between the polities of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Anglican Communion”. Martyn Percy submits the actual exercise of episcopal authority to searching sociological as well as theological scrutiny.

Catherine Shelley, the only parish priest in the group, provides a straightforward guide to the governance of the Church of England, which could usefully be published as a pamphlet and used for reference in parishes. And David Chapman’s essay on Methodism and authority, based on his experience as co-chair of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Theological Dialogue, should be required reading for all involved in the implementation of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant.

Martin Leiner, in beautifully clear German, expounds the distinction between auctoritas, based on respect, and potestas, based on coercion; he skilfully links them to the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and to the authority of scripture. Jan Hallebeek (Old Catholic) makes a similar distinction between “legitimate” and “legal”, while Angela Berlis speaks from personal experience of female clergy and female laity sharing authority in that Church.

Orthodoxy is represented by Professor Irina Deretic of Belgrade University, who supplements Western views with illuminating insights into the authority of monasticism, and into conciliarity as fellowship or sobornost. Hers is a different thought-world. Whatever the formal similarities between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, it will take a long time before there is sufficient common experience and culture for us to move towards unity. Ecumenism is still haunted by the rejection by the Orthodox synods of the Decree of Union, Florence, 1439.

That problem of reception is boldly tackled by Jeremy Worthen by reference to the fate of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s text on “Authority in the Church”. The key paragraph is quoted in Knoepffler and O’Malley’s concluding piece on “Francis and Papal Authority”. It is a brilliant example of ecumenical method, but its language and ethos are too far from where most Anglicans actually are for it to be implemented at all soon.

Andrew Pierce makes a spirited plea for the authority of dissent in “a Roman Catholic Church in recovery from a neo-scholastic hangover”. Good luck with that!

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

Incarnating Authority: A critical account of authority in the Church
Paul Avis, Angela Berlis, Nikolaus Knoepffler, and Martin O’Malley, editors
Utzverlag (www.utzverlag.de) £45.92

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