St Peter's Day 2008

29 June 2008 at :00 am

It might seem impertinent for the Dean of a Collegiate Church that is a Royal Peculiar and who is therefore subject to no episcopal jurisdiction to preach a sermon on leadership in the Church. However, thoughts about the role of the bishop are almost unavoidable on St Peter’s day, the feast of the Prince of Apostles. Moreover, with the forthcoming Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, the current Global Anglican Futures Conference and with the General Synod about to have a further debate about the ordination of women bishops, episcopal ministry is at the forefront of our minds.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus say to Simon, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” To Simon Peter Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This awesome spiritual power is accorded to a man whom we know often to be weak and vacillating: one minute recognising Jesus as the Christ and the next trying to impose his own understanding of the ministry of the Son of Man; one minute swearing never to let Jesus down and the next denying he ever knew him. However, from the beginning Peter is seen as the leader of the apostolic Church and he becomes the first bishop of Rome. The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost makes up what is lacking in his frail human nature and enables Peter to lead the proclamation of the faith and to unite and develop the early Church. As we know from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s agreement with the apostle Paul, that non-Jews can become Christians without first becoming Jews and therefore that the Church is not simply a Jewish sect, is decisive for the widespread acceptance of that understanding and of course for the development of the Christian mission.

The missionary endeavour of the early Christians leads to the establishment of Christian communities in all the great cities of the Roman Empire both in the east and west. The greatest cities have the most significant Christian communities and their leaders become the most influential. But from an early date, the bishop of Rome, Peter and his successors, become more authoritative than the others. They begin to have a role in determining what is the Christian faith and the true Christian way of life.

One of the earliest Christian texts from the period immediately following that of the apostles is a letter written by Clement, bishop of Rome on behalf of the Church in Rome to the Church in Corinth. Clement is likely to have been a disciple of St Paul and to have succeeded Peter, Linus and Cletus as the fourth holder of the see of Rome. He probably wrote towards the end of his life and in the last years of the first century, perhaps thirty years after the persecution in Rome under the emperor Nero in which Peter and Paul gave their lives. What seems significant, for the development of the status of the see of Rome, is that some of the Corinthians, once more divided amongst themselves, had applied to Clement for his advice and for judgement.

Clement appeals strongly to those who have divided the Corinthian Church, instructing them as to their duty “You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue.” This demonstrates on the one hand the power of the Roman see and on the other the responsibility it exercised for the unity and peace of the Church.

We see a later and similar example during potentially one of the most damaging rows affecting the life of the early Church, in the 5th century, when Leo the Great was bishop of Rome. The Roman pontiff writes to the patriarch of Constantinople at a time of major disruption in the Church, especially in the East, with heresies and divisions over the nature of Christ himself, therefore of far deeper importance than the issues that threaten to divide Christians in our own day. He writes with authority and two years later his intervention is decisively accepted by a council of the whole Church at Chalcedon. Leo’s claims for the authority of the bishop of Rome over the universal Church are not by everyone accepted, and half a millennium later the eastern and western Churches become divided, through the great schism between Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Nevertheless the role of the Pope as a vital instrument of unity for the Church has become well established.

That role of the Pope is symbolised in Rome this very day, when the successor of St Peter distributes the pallium to new archbishops of metropolitan sees round the world, as a sign of their authority in union with the Roman see. But there is something more remarkable happening in Rome today. Pope Benedict XVI is joined in the Vatican by the leader of the world-wide Orthodox churches, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. This visit on the occasion of such an important celebration holds out the hope of reconciliation between the eastern and western churches a thousand years after the great schism.

Such reconciliation will not be easy. Although the vision of the Pope as leader of the Church with a primacy of honour is consistent with the role of St Clement and St Leo, neither the Ecumenical Patriarch nor the Anglican Communion is likely to feel comfortable with the current understanding of papal authority that allows the Roman Pontiff ordinary and immediate universal jurisdiction, in other words the power to intervene directly in any decision-making process at any level within the Roman Catholic Church. That is more of a stumbling block to reconciliation than the 19th century doctrine of papal infallibility.

Here in Westminster Abbey we remember the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch in January last year when he gave the blessing in company with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is one of the instruments of unity of the world-wide Anglican Communion. The burdens on the Archbishop are considerable. The internal conflicts in the Anglican Communion over authority and sexuality and in the Church of England over the ordination of women threaten to but will not tear the Communion apart. The media salivate at the thought of a juicy bone; they will be deprived, as there is too much that binds us together. Perhaps I am over-confident, but in any case it leaves me clear that I cannot personally support any action that threatens to break the fabric of our communion.

Today in Jerusalem the Global Anglican Futures Conference, which involves 300 or so bishops from Africa, the United States, South America and Sydney Australia, seems likely to announce the welcome but still troubling news that they intend not to form a break-away Anglican church but to seek to influence the Anglican Communion from within as a radically conservative force.

Next month in York the General Synod will debate a proposal from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, in relation to the ordination of women to the historic episcopate, that would sweep away the existing legal framework through which those with a conscientious objection to the ordination of women have been able to remain members of the Church of England, replacing it with a code of practice. The objectors are unlikely to share the view of the promoters that this proposal will protect unity.

As much as we long for reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury, the urgent need is for the Anglican Church to preserve its own unity. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not need ordinary universal jurisdiction. He does need a greater juridical authority in order to protect the unity of the Church and thus to promote God’s mission of reconciliation and peace in the world, the mission for which St Peter our patron, along with so many others, gave his life.

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