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Sunday, 3 October 2010

Apostolic Authority

In a recent exchange of views with another commentator on another blog, the point was raised as to only a priest consecrated as a bishop by the Roman Church is a true bishop in the "Apostolic Succession." In short, only someone approved by Rome as the successor of St Peter, and therefore claiming the "authority vested in Peter by Christ" can be said to have the "spiritual authority" for his Office.

I think the point is a moot one, since it hinges on the claim that the Bishop of Rome has always exercised that authority and historically he has not. In fact there is considerable doubt as to whether the likes of John the Divine, James the Great or any of the other Apostles recognised it. There is no suggestion in the New Testament or in any of the writings of that period which suggest he did. It is even doubtful whether Peter actually consecrated anyone as a successor or even claimed the title of Rome's Apostle for himself. The eastern Churches rejected these claims comprehensively in the 8th Century and the majority of English Bishops saw the break as an opportunity to reform and eradicate the abuses that arose from that authority.

Rome won no adherents from the excesses of Bloody Mary and her Spanish husband in England during her thankfully brief reign and the restored church flourished under Elizabeth despite many Papally backed assassination attempts. Of 40 bishops prior to the break, 30 remained in post after Henry's 'reform' which, in essence, was as simple as refusing the Pope the right to interfere with the administration of church or state and justice in England. No wonder so many bishops welcomed it. In Edward VI's reign the protestant faction, influenced heavily by Calvin and Zwingly had the reins, but that came to an abrupt end when Edward died. During Mary I's reign, some twenty of the bishops fled abroad, returning after her death to restore the church to something resembling Henry's original idea. During Cromwell's ghastly reign, twelve bishops remained in England, though they were under threat of death if captured, and the rest were restored when the King returned. The remainder 'retired' or went into exile though some died for their faith.

Did Peter have to approve the appointment of Timothy? I doubt it. I doubt too whether he was even consulted by any of his brother apostles when they appointed Episcopoi to oversee their churches across the Middle East and North Africa.

Prior to around 600 AD synods were regularly called and held by various bishops and Rome was not always present or represented. In fact, the Bishop of Rome was an adherent of the Arian heresy during the time of Martin of Tours campaign to counter it, though I note this is omitted from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Had Martin not succeeded in driving the Arians from office we would all be following a faith that looks something like Shia Islam.

Rome did not become the central power of the western church until after the collapse of the last Western Roman Emperor in the early 500's AD. The then Bishop seized the opportunity and adopted the Imperial Purple setting up his own version of the Senate - the Curia. That claim was more than enough to send the Orthodox churches off in their own direction and split the "catholic faith" fatally as far as the looming rise of Islam was concerned. While modern reinterpretations of the history of the crusades focus on the "Christians" attrocities against Muslims, they ignore the fact that much of this war was actually fought to bring the Orthodox Churches to heel under Rome. There was no theology behind this, just the Papal desire to assert political authority - and the desire of landless nobles to seize lands for themselves while ostensibly 'serving God.'

As I said, the Papal claim is a very moot point and one which the Old Catholic Church ( A sort of European version of Anglicanism) also dispute vigorously. The Old Diocese of Utrecht held the right, agreed by various Councils of the Church in the 6th Century and confirmed afterward at further Councils, to elect and appoint their Bishops. At the Reformation, the Protestants seized the churches and drove out the bishop, though he remained and continued to exercise a ministry. Rome saw his chance and declared the autonomous See of Utrecht as a "Mission Field" which allowed Rome to renege on the historic 'right' of that See to appoint its own bishops.

The argument is not, and probably never was, about spiritual authority. It is about political power and who wields it even in today's world. And while we argue about these details, Islam is making hand over fist advances in the west as the churches lose Christ's flock to the revived Arian heresy that is Islam because they cannot see any relevance in a faith that argues over even the fundamentals of what we believe.

Christ must be weeping.

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