The elephant in the chancel for our traditional Anglican brothers and sisters is the question of authority.

Traditional Anglicans are agonizing over the issue of homosexuality in the Church, but many of them have not asked the more fundamental question of why their particular interpretation of Scripture should be right and their opponents wrong.

The traditional Anglican takes a view that the Bible, tradition, and the Holy Spirit are on their side. They are convinced of this and are willing to go through huge suffering and stress for the truth. I agree with them, but I do not see how they got there in the first place. The problem with their argument is that their opponents also believe that the Bible, the tradition and the Holy Spirit is on their side. They really do, and they believe it just as passionately as the traditionalists do.

The traditionalist says the Bible is clearly against homosexuality and they quote Old Testament prohibitions. The homosexualist says the Old Testament is also against eating shellfish and pork chops and calls for capital punishment for adultery. The traditionalist quotes St Paul, but the homosexualists asks why the traditionalists are in favor of women’s ordination when St Paul clearly forbids women to have authority over men in church. “Clearly!” the radical cries, “the Bible is not so plain as you traditionalists wish.”

The traditionalist says the tradition is against homosexuality. The homosexualist quotes Acts 10 where the Lord tells Peter to eat the forbidden food and says that on the contrary, the tradition of Christianity has always been radical, surprising and revolutionary. “Christianity” they cry passionately, “Has always been at the edge–always been for the dispossessed, and has always sacrificed much to win justice for the downtrodden.”

I experienced this same puzzlement first hand fifteen years ago when I was an Anglican priest. We were debating women’s ordination. I was instinctively opposed, but was determined to listen to the other side. It turned out that the other side were not demon possessed after all. We thought we were prayerful, Bible reading, Spirit filled Christians. They thought they were too. We had our Bible scholars, linguists, psychologists, sociologists, theologians and mystics. Problem was, they has a whole range of experts too. The other side also seemed to be prayerful, Bible reading, Spirit filled Christians. Who was right? How was one to decide? There was no greater authority. The only way was to pig headedly insist, ‘Well, we must be right because we’re right.’

If one tried to claim Scripture or tradition or reason (the usual Anglican ‘three legged stool’) the other side claimed support of Scripture, tradition and reason as well. Each side used Scripture, tradition and reason in good faith and yet suspected the other side of twisting Scripture, distorting the tradition and being unreasonable on purpose. Could both things be true? Hardly.

The elephant in the room is simply this: “Who says so?”

The irony of it all is that beneath all the bitter arguments the traditional Anglican and the radical Anglican actually have the same flawed authority system. Both of them rely on sola Scriptura. They do not do so as the Baptist fundamentalist, for they wish to rely also on the tradition and on human reason. But then we have to ask, what tradition and whose reason?

At the end of the day the traditionalist Anglican and the radical Anglican both depend not on Scripture, but on private interpretation of Scripture. How can they do anything else without an external infallible interpretive authority on which to rely? Frank Pate, a revert to Catholicism from Anglicanism has an excellent take on this.

The attempts of traditional Anglicans to piece together some new confederation of Bible believing Anglicans is laudable, but can they really agree? What shall they do with the Anglicans who reject homosexuality but accept women’s ordination? How shall the Anglo Catholics agree with the Evangelical Protestant Anglicans? Can they forge new alliances? They cannot unless they agree on the one basic Anglican principle above all Anglican principles: compromise and tolerance of those with whom they disagree. Without an external infallible authority they must fall either into the latitudinarian error or the sectarian error. They must either sacrifice unity of form for unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine for unity of form.

John Henry Newman observed this problem for Anglicans long ago, and the elephant looms in the chancel larger than ever before.

Only with an infallible authority can Christians have a final reference point. A wise man builds his house upon the rock, and the wise Christian builds his church on a rock, and it is no co-incidence that the parable of the houses built on rock and sand occurs in the same gospel where Our Lord calls one particular man to be that rock.

That man was Peter, and his successor lives today just a few yards from where Peter was buried. His name is Benedict.