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CHRISTIAN AUTHORITY Daniel 5; John 6:1-15

This week the C of E General Synod narrowly defeated a motion that would have cleared the way for women to become bishops. Its failure has caused a great deal of hurt, questioning and disappointment. Because of the synodical rules at present, it would appear that the issue cannot be revisited until a new membership of the synod is elected in 2015. Many felt archbishop Rowan’s response echoed some of their own feelings when he said that the C of E would lose credibility in the eyes of the public. The motion’s failure has also had internal effects: questioning the system of synod and voting that we have set up; for raising the possibility of leaving the C of E; and of course, for many women, putting back any hope of gifted women leaders being able to go all the way to the top. Many ordinary people also may find it difficult to understand who, in their right mind, would be against women becoming bishops anyway. Where are they coming from, these nay-sayers? There is plenty of comment and explanation in the media, but I would like to spend the next few minutes reflecting on the subject of Christian authority. I do this in the light of this evening’s readings and today’s observance of the Feast of Christ the King, as well as the events of this week.

Issues of Authority
The two main sources of opposition to the consecration of women as bishops in the C of E lie, as many will know, in both wings of the contemporary church: the High Church or Anglo-Catholic wing and the Low Church or evangelical grouping. As far as I understand their positions, I think they have something to do with authority in the Church. For some evangelicals their interpretation of the Bible is that women were not given the authority equivalent to bishops in the NT, so we are not at liberty to go against the Scripture. For Anglo-Catholics church tradition is decisive: that is to say, because women have not been made bishops in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Anglicans are not at liberty to break with such church tradition. This may be rather a simplistic interpretation of positions that are perhaps more nuanced and complex but I do wonder whether it all boils down to how authority is conceived and therefore determines the conclusions that are so deeply and divisively held.

Biblical Authority
If we take our two readings this evening, set by the compilers of our lectionary, we have two perspectives on authority that are worth paying attention to. In Daniel and the story of the writing on the wall we see that two kinds of authority are contrasted. Belshazzar displays all the trappings of worldly, imperial power: wealth, popularity, political might, and an impressive imperial organisation. But the writing on the wall shakes Belshazzar to the core, exposes human weakness and sends him desperately to seek out Daniel’s help. In fact, Belshazzar’s is not so much authority as power, and his power rests on uncertain foundations, foundations which are found to be wanting, as the interpretation of the wall writing exposes. Daniel pronounces judgement: You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honoured. It is not so much that Daniel is outraged at a sacrilegious profanity of temple vessels – things stolen from Jerusalem and brought out in an ostentatious and drunken show of prowess to the carousing party. Rather, it is that this action uncovers what is in Belshazzar’s heart: he has failed to recognise the one in whose power is his very breath. In other words, the author of life, the Creator-God whom Daniel honours, is also the source of salvation, and the true origin. Daniel’s God is the author of all creation, the authentic sustainer of all that breathes. Failure to recognise that, to set one’s self up on a shaky structure of worldly wealth and hubris, is to invite disaster. The word of God breaks through all of that and pronounces judgement and that very night a coup takes places which divides what looked so impressive hours before. Of course it is easy to gloat!

The Authority of Christ
In John’s gospel Jesus withdraws from the possibility of being promoted on a tide of popular acclamation. He refuses to be made king after the miraculous feeding. It always helps to take note of the context: in John 5 Jesus is misunderstood by the religious leadership in Judaea and he speaks about authority. But the authority he has is entirely dependent on the Father. His authority is entirely derivative: he has come from the Father and only does what the Father bids (authorises) him to do. The argument about authority comes about because Jesus has performed a healing (ie work) on the Sabbath. The religious leaders question Jesus’ authority to break the (religious) law. John 6 is about Jesus being misunderstood by the ordinary people. John says that Jesus comments later: you wanted to make me king not because of the signs but because I filled your bellies. The signs, which are always deeply significant in John’s gospel, are of Jesus’ role as suffering servant and Son of Man. Even the disciples want to “contain” Jesus, taking him into their storm-bound boat. But Jesus transcends all of that and they find themselves safe on the shore immediately. We think of the stilling of the storm scene in the synoptic gospels and notice that John omits any such miracle. Does John want to avoid the implications of that by avoiding even telling of the authority of Christ over nature?

So what is the authority John shows us that is revealed in Jesus?
25 ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
It has something to do with life. Jesus heals, shows signs because he brings life. More than that, it also has something to do with the reality of eternal life. Jesus’ authority which is entirely dependent on the Father is one that follows the signs but they eventually lead to Jesus’ giving up his life on the cross. But Jesus is also sure that the authority he has from the Father even transcends the authority of how humans interpret scripture John 5:39-40 ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

So what can all of that mean to us, faced with the aftermath of the way
the C of E expresses its authority? Daniel and Belshazzar remind us of the limitations and ephemeral nature of human authority and power. In a world where democracy is the ultimate political authority (and, as Churchill reminds us, it is the least worst of all forms of government) the ordinary person is scandalised by the fact that a majority vote is not enough for the Church to make a decision. We easily forget that humanity has had to grow through many forms of authority in the ordering of its life: power, and therefore the authority that derives from it, was not always in the hands of a common plebiscite. This does not mean that we are excused democracy or democratic ideals in the way we organise church life, but it does remind us that all human formulations of authority are imperfect. We construct shaky forms of authority if we forget where authority ultimately lies. The Church struggles and sometimes gets it wrong, but attempts to take account of the limitations of human authority in the way she seeks to make decisions prayerfully, paying attention to scripture and to tradition.
But given all that, and the impossibility of having Jesus as a sole, living, and present bishop, we recognise the calling of certain individuals to exercise leadership amongst Christ’s people. The problems are in-built, I feel however, when we vest those servants of the servants of God with the accretions of authority. Then it grows divisive as to what kind of humans should be accorded that kind of authority: men or women; gay or straight; and, dare I say it from an earlier age, black or white, or an even earlier age: slave or free! I trust and pray that our folly will be judged wanting by God (and not just public opinion). That we will cease searching the scriptures, whether literal or traditional, to shore up particular views, and come to God who is the author of life. My conviction is that women should be bishops in the C of E, and I regret that deep hurt and injustice a persisting “no” to them causes. But if I expect my opponents to give up their perceived addiction to authority, then I must follow my own advice, too! May God have mercy in this tiny corner of what we trust is a form of the Kingdom!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith