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General Synod: Debate on The Gift of Authority- Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks

Friday 13th February 2004

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the General Synod, London.

Thank you Madam Chair: I'd like to begin by welcoming the report and welcoming the opportunity for discussion of it. We've already been reminded this morning of the timeliness of this subject: authority and communion are issues of more than academic interest in the Anglican world at present, as I don't have to remind you. But we've also been reminded of the wider ecumenical context in which this discussion takes place and of some of the points to which we have committed ourselves in those other dialogues. And I hope that we will bear those in mind this morning.

I'd like very briefly to mention a couple of things that I profoundly welcome in the report, and a couple of things where I think more work is needed – as part of discernment of what we've received here in this document.

First of all, I welcome very much the model of authority as a gift because it takes us back firmly to biblical language about authority, which is not so much about any right to determine the things within the Church as about that liberty and freedom which is given to the children of God. At the Lambeth Conference of 1988 the point was made that, in the very first chapter of St John's Gospel, we read that to those who believe in Christ's name is given exousia – authority to become children of God. And perhaps that is when we ought to begin in all our reflection on authority – that it is the authority given to those who believe in Christ's name to become what they are called to be. Elsewhere in the Gospels, of course, authority is a matter of the freedom to cast out demons, the freedom to share in Christ's liberty over the enslaving forces in the world. In taking about authority as a gift to the whole Church, this document does us a great favour and drives us to deeper study of those matters.

The second point I would like to welcome is the importance of discernment in the document. It seems that, in thinking about authority, about the boundaries of diversity in the church, about the determination of dispute in the church, we are inevitably drawn into reflection on discernment. And discernment, of course, is a communal and spiritual issue before it is a legal or jurisdictional one. Within that framework once again we are summoned to what I think could be a very, very fruitful reflection.

And it's precisely in the light of those two things that I welcome that I want to identify two things where I think further work is needed.

I feel that the discussion still swings back towards a legal and jurisdictional frame as soon as the word 'infallibility' is used about structures of the Church. I have, as I guess many other people in this Synod have, grave misgivings about the word 'infallible' as designating an individual spiritual charism. In 1968, the late Austin Farrer, possibly the greatest Anglican mind of the 20th century, published a short and typically pungent article on infallibility in which he suggested that the infallibility claimed by some for the Church or for the See of Rome represented a bit of a confusion of categories. Infallibility should not be seen as, to use his expression, 'a licence to print facts'. But we might properly look in the church for a wholly trustworthy method of discerning and settling disputes. In other words a law-making facility that we can rely upon. The issue, he said, was not about facts but about laws.

And I think his point is worth pondering. Perhaps if the whole discussion of infallibility could be pushed towards that question of how does a trustworthy structure steer and co-ordinate discernment in the church overall, we'd get a slightly better grip on the important issues that this document raises than by, as I say, swinging towards that perennially seductive argument about jurisdiction and canonical supremacy. And the difficulties around notions of jurisdiction that have historically been associated with the See of Rome have been well identified in the document and in many comments upon the document that you will have received.

So the question is can we conceive a primacy in the church as having to do with a decisive and trustworthy source of discernment – corporate discernment expressed by one person on behalf of process of the whole body of Christ? Trustworthiness is a matter not easily settled by legal and canonical provisions.

A second general point of unease or further agenda that I want to underline has to do with the relation between the local and the universal church. I've just spoken about whether it is possible to conceive a primacy that is seen as an organ of corporate discernment. That immediately poses the question of the local and the universal. Anglicanism, like Orthodoxy, has a very strong historic commitment to the integrity and independence of the local; it has perhaps, rather underrated the significance of how localities co-operate in a unanimous and, as I say, trustworthy common discernment.

But that means that the connections between local and universal church become of some real theological significance – many of you will have noticed the debate within the Roman Catholic Church going on around precisely this subject; an exchange of articles in The Tablet not so very long ago between Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Ratzinger. Does the universal precede the local – that in some sense local churches draw their life from the universal? Is the universal that which local churches so to speak generate in their co-operation and their common discernment? And I guess most Anglicans would have an instinctive answer to that in terms more of the second than the first.

The point is there is a lot of work to do there. And in my visit to Rome last October I was able to discuss these issues directly with Cardinal Kasper, who warmed very much to the suggestion that the next round of ARCICs work might indeed focus on precisely this question of the relation between local and universal in the life of the church.

So Madam Chair there are two things which I think that we ought to be welcoming; two areas where I think we ought to be pressing for further discussion and development of the ideas here. And I'm very glad that Synod has a chance to discuss this because it is part I think of Synod's taking cognizance of deep questions around the theology of the Church, without which as I think we've seen this week we can't easily do our, even our most practical business, and that is very healthy for us. I hope that we will welcome this and in welcoming it will not give it any impression that we are simply putting a tick against the end of every sentence. But I hope we can see that there is a highly constructive agenda here if we look for it and a real challenge to enter more deeply into the most fundamental categories of the New Testament in its presentation to us of the gift that God gives.

Thank you

© Rowan Williams 2004

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