The combox on the previous post has been buzzing with a good discussion about authority in the Church, and I thought it might illuminate matters if I moved from theory to personal experience.

It seems long ago and far away when I was an Anglican priest in England. Then and there in the 1980s the Anglican Church was debating the pros and cons of women’s ordination. I am conservative by nature and was inclined to be opposed. Nevertheless, one of my life’s guiding principles is summed up in the quote, “A person is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” I didn’t want to deny women’s ordination if that is where the Spirit was leading the Church. I could see lots of reasons why women could do the job well enough, and I was determined therefore, to listen with as open a mind as possible to both sides of the argument.

What I discovered was that those in favor of women’s ordination had lots of good arguments. They had a reading of Scripture which supported this innovation. They had scholars who presented arguments from the Greek and Hebrew. They had Church historians who tried to show how the early church had female clergy. They had psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists who argued for the rationality of women’s ordination. They had personal appeals of those women who would make great priests, and they pointed out how many men were awful priests. They had utilitarian arguments and arguments based on justice.

Furthermore, the people arguing for women’s ordination were not all angry feminazis and politically correct kooks. Neither were they bad people. Instead, most of them were ordinary, prayerful, good and sensible Christian people. They whole heartedly believed that women’s ordination was a radical step forward for the church and that it was led by the Holy Spirit. Like Peter’s vision of the cloth with unclean beasts–which led the Church in a radical new direction–they felt called to promote the cause with all the conviction of being led by the Holy Spirit. Because they were part of a campaign and had a mission and a cause they were self sacrificing, courageous and inspiring.

The problem was, the other side could boast virtually the same kind of expert opinions. They too had their Bible scholars, their linguistic scholars, anthropologists, sociologists, pyschologists, church historians etc. etc. etc. The people arguing against women’s ordination were not all closet homosexuals who hated women. They were not all purse lipped old grouches who didn’t want skirts in the club. Like the other side they were ordinary, prayerful, good Christian folk who sincerely and utterly believed that the Bible and the Holy Spirit and tradition were on their side.

So how did the Church decide? Well, the Anglican Church had evolved a democratic method of decision making. It was put to the vote. But did anyone believe that putting it to the vote was the way to determine the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Not really, because when the pro-women’s priest side lost the vote they simply got together, licked their wounds and said, “Campaigns for justice and to change the status quo are never easy. Clearly we need more information, more education of our opponents, more lobbying, more election campaigns, and we hope we will win the vote next time.”

When they eventually won, did the anti-women’s priest folks say, “”Well, the vote has been taken, the Holy Spirit has clearly led us into a new chapter of the Church’s history.”? Maybe some did, but most of those who were against remained against. They either joined the Catholic Church at that point or they re-grouped, demanded concessions, demanded their own bishops and continued to campaign against the innovation of women priests. Has the passage of fifteen years softened their attitudes? Not really. They’re still against women priests.

My reaction to it all was not to run off to the Catholic Church because I was opposed until the end of time to women priests. I had actually listened to those in favor of women priests and could see many of their arguments. I became a Catholic at that point because the whole debate forced me to ask the question, “When Christians disagree about important matters how do we decide and where do we turn for the final answer?”

In other words, I began to look again at authority in the Church, and I began to examine seriously the claims to authority that the Catholic Church makes. To do this I had to discover what the Catholic Church really teaches about her own authority, and I had to get past my prejudices, misunderstandings and anti-Catholic bias.

I came to realize that for the Church to be both dogmatic and relevant to the age in which it lives it needs an infallible final authority. As Cardinal Newman said, Without an infallible final authority Christians will either sacrifice true doctrine for the sake of outward unity, or they will sacrifice the form of outward unity for the sake of what they perceive as true doctrine. They will fall either into the error of sectarianism or the error of indifferentism.

I accept that many Christians may be indifferent to this problem. All that really matters to them is how much they love Jesus. While this sentiment is laudable and the simplicity of this faith is admirable, it does beg the question, “But where is Jesus and how do I know I am loving Him and not just the fabrication of my own religious imagination or the subjective opinions of my own tradition? How do I know that I am loving Jesus and not just pursuing (and perhaps manufacturing) my own religious experiences.”

But we’ll leave that fascinating question for another day…