Return to Home Page


Who has authority in the Church? The usual disagreement of the Catholic/Protestant world is between those who maintain that authority lies with the Pope of Rome and those who assert that authority lies with interpretation of the Bible.

Today's enthronement of Dr Rowan Williams has brought these disputes to the fore once more. Today, during their own Archbishop's enthronement, a small but vociferous group of Evangelical Anglicans stood wearing black armbands outside Canterbury Cathedral protesting (as Protestants do) against Dr Williams' adoption of the secular liberal-intellectual agenda on such issues as homosexuality. Their claim? That he does not have the right to have such views, since the Bible says differently. The problem with their view is that since Dr Williams is also a Protestant, and has studied the Bible, and does not believe in some sort of Papal infallibility, why is there any disagreement between them? Surely all Protestants should agree, since they all read the same Bible?

The answer to this problem is quite simply that there are, and always will be, as many interpretations of the Bible as there are Protestant groupings (at the last count about 600). In other words, one Protestant's interpretation is another Protestant's misinterpretation, one Protestant's personal papal infallibility is another Protestant's personal papal fallibility. In fact, there can never be any agreement or unity on the question of authority in the Church, if authority is in the subjective interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, since atheists can and do read the Bible and interpret it their own way, are we then to become atheists?

To say that all authority stems from individual interpretations of the Bible seems to be a form of Bibliolatry or Bible-worship. In fact at root, worse still, it is like Papism itself, a form of self-worship, individualism, personal interpretation, which inevitably leads to a lack of humility and intolerance. No wonder that Protestantism needed to invent Ecumenism to try and unite its warring sects with one another.

In reality, the whole problem with Protestantism is that it is the heir to Catholicism. The only difference is that in Roman Catholicism there is only one Pope, in Protestantism, everybody is a Pope. No surprise then that Roman Catholicism has in history been linked with monarchies, dictatorships and collectivism, Protestantism with democracies, republics and individualism.

However, if, like the Protestants and the new Archbishop of Canterbury, we cannot accept the Roman Catholic position that the authority of the Church lies with the Pope of Rome, and if, like the Roman Catholics, we cannot accept that the authority of the Church lies with individual interpretations of the Bible, where then is the authority of the Church?

The position of Orthodox theology is clear. It is neither Protestant, nor Roman Catholic, for the position of the Church predates both these recent inventions of late Western European culture. We believe that:

Authority lies with Christ, who never visited either Rome of Geneva.

Christ is the Head of the Church.

The Church is the Body of Christ, become incarnate, transfigured, crucified, resurrected and irradiated by the Holy Spirit since the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The Church is therefore the Bearer of the Holy Spirit. No individual can be the Bearer of the Holy Spirit, either by inheriting a function of administrative office in the Church (like the Pope of Rome), or by his subjective interpretation of the Holy Scriptures (like the Protestant). The authority of the Church can therefore only be expressed through the Holy Spirit.

All baptised and practising Orthodox Christians are members of the Church, limbs of the Body of Christ, of Whose Body and Blood they partake.

Christ is present among all members of the Church through the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Whom Christ sent from His Father, from Whom the Holy Spirit proceeds (John 15, 26).

The Holy Spirit and hence authority is expressed through the Church, either through the whole body of its members, or else through representatives of its members. Representatives may sometimes be spiritually inspired individuals. Representatives may sometimes be bishops gathered together at Councils. But individuals only become saints, and Councils only become Church Councils, and bishops only become Holy Fathers, when their decisions are accepted and received by the whole body of the Church's members.

The totality of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in human history, whether to individuals or group representatives, is known as the Tradition. The Tradition is constantly being added to by new spiritual inspiration. This inspiration is always new, but never contradicts the previous inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

As regards the Scriptures, they are an extremely important part of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They cannot be interpreted correctly, however, by those who are outside the Church, who are outside the continual stream of inspiration of the Holy Spirit in human history, which is known as the Tradition.

The words of the Holy Scriptures are part of the inspiration of the Word of God, of Christ the Divine Wisdom, written down by the hands of men through the Holy Spirit, Who irradiates the Church, of Whose Body the writers of the Scriptures are members.

Here is the Orthodox Christian position on the authority of the Church. We agree neither with the multitude of Protestant opinions of individualistic interpretations of the Holy Scriptures, represented today by protesting Evangelicals and the new, liberal-minded Archbishop of Canterbury, nor do we agree with the Roman Catholic position of Papal authority. It is rather our belief that the authority of the Church lies with a power far higher than all these individuals: it lies with Her Head, Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ Whose will is expressed through the Holy Spirit.

27 February 2003

Priest Andrew Phillips
Seekings House

to top of page