Authority and loss

A friend invited me for tea last week. Knowing that I had been researching and writing about authority in the church, she went and found a book from her early days as a Christian in London. The book, Authority, published in 1958, was written by Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister of Westminster Chapel. I think both she and I assumed that his teaching on authority might not be my cup of tea.

It took me a couple of days to open the book. I found the first paragraph of the Introduction arresting:

“We are faced by the fact that the masses of people are outside the church. They are there, I suggest, because the church has in one way or another lost its authority. As a result, the people have ceased to listen or to pay any attention to its message. A great search for what has been lost characterises many of the church’s activities at this time. I believe that this fact is true of all sections of the church, including the evangelical section which, as I shall try to show later, in common with many others has been trying to produce a spurious, artificial substitute.”

I was astonished to read this perspective written as far back as 1958. The church has been agonising about its loss of authority and the failure of people to pay attention to its message for decades. Compared with now, the post-war years were a period of relative stability and success for churches in the UK.

I speed read the rest of the book, which as predicted, was indeed not my cup of tea. For Martyn Lloyd-Jones, authority resides in the Bible, in God, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit just because - because each of these is unquestionably authoritative. The text says the three persons of the Trinity have authority and it is so and no further justification is needed. The only puzzle is why the masses of people are outside the church. What’s wrong with them that they don’t ‘get it’?

A couple of weeks prior to being handed this book I came across a lecture about Biblical authority delivered by N. T. Wright and published in Vox Evangelica in 1991– How can the Bible be authoritative? “As we shall see”, wrote Tom Wright, “in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.” Martin Lloyd-Jones mark 2, I thought. I read on through his lengthy lecture with interest, only to discover that God’s authority is dependent on the authority given to Jesus and the Holy Spirit because that’s what the Bible says. This didn’t come as a surprise to me. I already knew that for conservative evangelicals authority was and is located in the Bible. I also knew that at the age of 15 I had decided the Bible couldn’t possibly be authoritative in that way, firstly because I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my sexual identity to the judgement of a few biblical texts and secondly because the Bible text itself was so obviously internally incoherent and in many places prejudiced and abusive.

In the three decades between Martyn Lloyd-Jones writing his book and Tom Wright publishing his lecture, attitudes towards authority in society had changed considerably abnd were changing in the church (though not in the conservative evangelical world). In the two and a half decades since Bishop Tom delivered his lecture, attitudes towards authority have changed even more. Fewer people grant to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Bible the kind of absolute authority granted them by Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

This week I’ve been particularly interested in the fifth element of the church’s authority pyramid – the authority of bishops. The House of Bishops has set itself the task of producing a teaching document about Human Sexuality. The bishops are doing this, in part, because they think it’s about time they produced an authoritative document to which the whole church will be expected to assent.

As I began to think about this, and the kind of authority I am or am not prepared to grant to the teaching document, on the back of God’s elusive authority and the conditional authority I grant the Bible, I realised that the status of the authority of bishops has changed significantly in my lifetime, in a way that I had been intuiting but hadn’t quite identified.

I haven’t found it easy to find the right words to describe this, but I believe the bishops of the church, the teachers and leaders and theologians, senior staff at Church House and Lambeth Palace, the members of the Archbishops’ Council, no longer, ontologically, embody the kind of wisdom authority to the same degree that many church leaders embodied in my youth and my years in parish ministry. It was there in people I met in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and (to a lesser extent) the 90s, but in the decades since then, the authority of wisdom as a quality has diminished. Now, this may be as a result of my ageing, but I think not. Something has gone or is going missing. A very small number of bishops still seem to have a wisdom authority that I respect and value, but the majority have less of it than those who mentored me three and more decades ago.

I can only speculate about the reasons for this. It may be to do with a general spiritual malaise in the church which elsewhere I have described as a culture of decadence. I believe we are living through decadent times politically, culturally, and spiritually, and the church is inevitably affected by this decadence. In the 60s there were Christians such as Mary Whitehouse ready to pounce and bemoan the moral decadence of the decade. It’s easy to rant against examples of moral decadence in every generation. What I haven’t found easy to identify is that a deep-seated spiritual malaise has overtaken the Church of England in the last two decades.

Authority works or doesn’t work because either there is or there isn’t a quality within the person or object to which people respond, granting respect and recognising, as people who met Jesus recognised, that this person has authority. It isn’t the authority that is given because of their role or status. It resides within them, a truth, wisdom, dignity, a spiritual presence, which is absolutely authoritative in the experience of the hearer or witness.

I suggest that there has been a weakening of Christian authority from two directions. We the people no longer grant authority to or respect the authority of those we might have unquestioningly accepted in the past. Each person can now take to him or herself the right to decide to what or whom they will grant or withhold authority. From the other direction, from above, and for complex reasons, some of which are obvious but others which I don’t understand, authority has ebbed from those who once held it. Education, mass communication, globalisation, a weakening of democracy, deconstruction of social networks, declining faith communities, a weakening economic system, all these and more are contributing to a weakening of authority structures in our society.

But the ebbing of authority from figures in the church where once I met and experienced a natural authority - this I don’t understand. Being a contemplative person, I suspect that a loss of spiritual depth in the church is one of the diminishing ingredients, but there are others: wisdom; truth; fearlessness; expansiveness; embrace of life, of love, of theological adventure and exploration, the subtle holding of the mystery of life, the elusive encounter with the sacred, the holy, the other.

I observe the changes that are taking place in the systems and culture of the Church of England and they in part explain why I experience increasing alienation. The Church is shrinking in vision and courage, becoming less adventurous, more dogmatic, losing the respect of wider society, perceived by many as being ‘less Christian’. But a deeper change is taking place. The authority that arises from within a person who is deeply rooted in the wisdom and unconditional love of the sacred in life has diminished. This is having an effect on the church from top to bottom, from the waning respect for the spiritual authority of bishops to the despair of many clergy to the bewilderment of many lay people who experience loss and abandonment without quite knowing why the church feels like this.

My heart also aches for what is missing, for what has ebbed away, unnoticed. A spiritual essence has gone AWOL in the church. I open my soul to the infinite, unconditional, loving divine presence every morning. Kindred spirits haunt me: those friends who have been ejected by the supposedly pastoral institution, rejected by their bishops; and those clinging to the wreckage, insufficiently nourished spiritually and emotionally and bodily, craving salvation for their souls.

I have ideas as to how remedies can be found – but most of them are taboo, falling outside the increasingly rigid, authoritarian boundaries of the Canons and rubrics policed by the gatekeepers and archdeacons.