A fallible church – the gift of a loving saviour?

Ecclesiastical (and implicitly, papal) infallibility is a contentious issue. Modern people don’t like it – they don’t like being told that certain things are true with a capital T, and it doesn’t depend at all on how they might feel about it. This much, I would argue, is a given. Apart from this all too pervasive attitude though, and setting aside all issues of scriptural interpretation, historical evidences, etc, (as they have been treated pretty conclusively already in many and various ways, by many and various people), I would like to consider the issue from the standpoint of Christ’s character and intentions.

I am not speaking here to those who consider the Church simply to be the combined, invisible mass of those who have faith (however one defines faith of course) and the Bible to be the sole source of authority for matters of doctrine and morality. I am speaking to those who recognise that Christ first founded a Church, a living body of people invested with some sort of authority and power to maintain and perpetuate his teachings, and deliver his grace through the sacraments; and who consider themselves to be inheritors of that apostolic authority and power, but who do not consider it to have the guarantee of infallibility. Given my own cultural heritage and experience (UK), I am speaking particularly of Anglicans.

In my own experience, modern day Anglicanism (within these isles – the term may represent something completely different if I were in Nigeria, or something else again in San Francisco) tends to emphasise the loving aspect of Christ’s character, over and against anything he said that may come across as severe, or dare I say it…judgemental. It avoids the many hard sayings of the New Testament and church teachings that are seen to be out of step with our modern sensibilities, and delivers a gospel of niceness and tolerance. The struggle to maintain its more traditional teachings with this endemic attitude gives rise to the embarrassing series of debates within and across the Anglican Communion, to the point where any real sense of communion between the different churches (and sometimes between local churches in the same district) is purely maintained for the appearance of unity.

Now, it would seem fairly clear that the problem lies in Anglicanism’s refutation of ecclesiastical infallibility (which stems from a lack of any coherent ecclesiology), and its lacking any real source of authority to define changes in doctrine. When doctrinal changes do occur, they are put to vote by General Synod, and basically, majority rules – hardly what Jesus had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. The ‘three-legged stool’ of scripture, tradition, and reason is often proudly declared to be the foundation of these decision making processes, but, as should be clear to most, the first two are subject to any manner of interpretations, and the third begs the question as to whose reasoning may be followed at any given time, and how closely allied it may be to currents in contemporary thought (which are more and more becoming antithetical to Christian tradition).

However, it is the idea (which I certainly do agree with) that Jesus Christ is a loving Saviour, and wants what is best for us, that I cannot quite tally up with this insistence on rejecting the guarantee of infallibility. Put simply, why would the Word of God become incarnate, cause all that disruption in the lives of his followers, and finally live out his mission on earth to the point of suffering and death on the cross, then after proving his divine origin and sanction by resurrection, return to his heavenly Father, and leave those followers without any guide or guarantee for the perpetuation of his mission? It seems rather unfair, and not loving in the least, to enter into the lives of the apostles, turn them upside down, tell them that they are to continue his work and build a community that will last until the end of days, but also leave them to a future filled with confusion as to what they should teach, how they should develop what they already know to new circumstances, etc. It is a bit like giving someone the materials for building a car and giving him the responsibility of building it to a particular design, without giving him the blueprints, or a comprehensive introduction to mechanics.

In conclusion, I cannot see how the Anglican dream of reducing Christian doctrine to unquestioning niceness and acceptance can be credible when Jesus Christ Himself apparently wasn’t nice enough to leave behind a means of determining what being loving might actually mean with reference to particular human needs and situations, and what the truth about human beings and their deepest needs really is. Anglicans sometimes appeal to a defence in the form of early Church councils and creeds, or the guidance of conscience. As to the latter (this was actually recommended to me by an Anglican cleric as the best way of deciding how to discern the truths of the Faith) a quick survey of opinions in any church in the West (not just Anglican) provides a pretty resounding proof that vagueness and contradiction this way lies. As for councils and creeds, the same cleric told me that he believed in the Nicene Creed that was recited every Sunday in his church, but that he ‘would have some interesting things to say about it’ – further conversation revealed some of those ideas to as far removed from the plain meaning of the statements as one could possibly imagine. The point is that however many sources of Anglican authority and identity are postulated (and there are many) each one is subject to revision and reinterpretation. My postulate is that Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, who is Love, came to earth to reveal to us the truth about Himself, and because of his love for us, did not wish that truth to be distorted or misrepresented. So, he founded a Church, a living Body, and he sealed it with the infallible guarantee of the Holy Spirit, who will indeed lead us into all truth.

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One thought on “A fallible church – the gift of a loving saviour?

  1. Just for the sake of comprehensiveness, I thought I should mention another argument I have encountered, also espoused by the aforementioned cleric – namely that it is all about the journey, not about the goal, and that truth is never something we can arrive at with any degree of certainty. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, summarises this attitude perfectly, in the words of the ‘Episcopal Ghost’:

    ‘Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’

    Basically agnosticism enshrined as a theological virtue – something that (in the type I have encountered at least; there are indeed so many forms) has become, along with politeness, the defining feature of Anglicanism.

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