Speaking with Authority

January 29, 2012

(Deut. 18, 15-20; 1 Cor. 8, 1-13; Mark 1, 21-28)

When I was licensed as a Church of England Reader 25 years ago, the Bishop handed me a New Testament and said “Receive authority to exercise the ministry of a Reader in this diocese”. Very similar words are used when a Local Preacher is admitted and commissioned in the Methodist Church. What we are given is the delegated authority of our particular church to preach and lead worship in their name.

Max Weber, the sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, identified three sorts of authority. The first was traditional authority – the sort that is exercised by monarchs or tribal chieftains, which goes with a particular rank and tends to be hereditary. The second is rational-legal authority, in which the rules define who should be obeyed. This is the type of authority exercised by the government and police and judiciary in a modern society, and also in voluntary organisations, such as a church, where the participants agree to obey people who have been elected or appointed to certain positions.  The last is charismatic authority, found in a leader who inspires others by their personality and their vision. Very often, new religious movements begin with a charismatic leader, but when that person dies, their successors – either immediately, or in the long term, tend to be appointed through a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, or a mixture of both.

These different sorts of authority may overlap – and there is also the sort of authority based on knowledge or skill, to add into the equation.

The Bible readings we have heard this morning face us with the question of who or what authority we should obey.

In Deuteronomy, we read of the Israelites in the desert, who have been led by Moses in their journey from slavery in Egypt. As the people approach the Promised Land, Moses authorises various leadership roles, which will guard the distinctive faith of Israel once they are living among pagan neighbours. There will be judges, priests, kings as well as prophets; and we can see each of these groups taking over the main leadership role, and failing in it, during the history of the Jewish nation.

The authorisation of the prophets contains two warnings. First a warning to the people to obey the prophets, who, though human, will be speaking the true word of God, and communicating the divine will to the nation. No matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient the prophets’ words, they must be heeded above the voice of the military leaders, the monarchs or the priests. The later history of Israel demonstrates how often the people ignored this authoritative voice, and the Old Testament spells out the consequences.

The passage, also contains a warning to anyone who is called to be a prophet. They must remain faithful to the voice of God which was heard at Sinai. They are not to moderate the covenant when life gets difficult, or be tempted by the easier or more seductive rules of the pagans among whom they settle. They are not to give up when things get difficult, when they are persecuted, or when people refuse to listen to them. Authority must remain true to the one who gave it, and is not to be abused.

Behind the reading from 1 Corinthians is a question about which authority should take precedence. Paul’s converts, and especially the Jewish ones, are struggling with the question of whether they are still under the authority of the Jewish Law code, especially in relation to what sort of food they may eat, or whether salvation in Christ has released them from that obligation. Paul usually stoutly defends the authority of freedom in Christ, but in this instance, he reminds the church that there is a higher authority: that of love and concern for their individual fellow Christians. Though some may know that the gods to whom the meat was sacrificed before being sold in the marketplace are non-existent, others may be troubled by any association with pagan practice. Concern for them must always take precedence over individual freedom or principles. Later in the same letter, Paul spells out in details just how love is shown in Christian behaviour (1 Cor. 13)

This is a guide to what has ‘authority’ when Christians disagree. It ensures that the Christian community can stay together even when members disagree over interpretation. It argues that the diversity of the church is to be maintained even when its members have deep differences. It is not saying that injustice should be tolerated, or conflict avoided, or difficult discussions shelved, nor that no-one should ever expect to be offended by what another Christian believes or does. It does say that the opinions of each individual Christian are to be taken seriously, and that even if you consider another Christian weak in faith, or misguided in interpretation, they are to be treated with respect as a person for whom Christ died as much as he died for you.

And perhaps there is also a message for us as we modern Christians struggle with the question of whether the Bible, or reason, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaking to us now has the highest authority.

At first sight, the Gospel reading appears simply to describe a healing miracle. The healing is from demon possession, and that makes some modern day Christians feel uncomfortable. We are not very sure that demons exist, and tend to think that healing of the symptoms described as ‘demon possession’ are actually the province of doctors and psychiatrists, not religious professionals. That is perhaps a question for another time, although it is also about who has ‘authority’ in different areas of healing.

The Gospel writer, however, shows very little interest in the healing. What Mark is concerned with is authority. The story contrasts the authority of the scribes, the religious teachers of the time, and guardians of authority based on knowledge and tradition, with the authority of Jesus. Those who hear Jesus teaching acknowledge his charismatic authority, and the contrast between his teaching and those who have ‘book knowledge’. The crowd’s appreciation of his authority is reinforced after he heals the demon possessed man. His authority has been shown to be greater than that of a servant of Satan.

The story demonstrates that the unclean spirit knows the source of Jesus’s authority, but not all the people who hear him teach, or who witness his miracles, do so. They don’t make the connection between the teaching, the actions and the God from whom they come.

The Galilean crowd had to decide whose authority to obey. The people of Israel and the early Church had to do the same; and so do we, as we try to live as Christians and as citizens and as individuals in contemporary society. The communities to which we belong can give us guidance.  Some may even try to force us to make certain choices. It’s not easy and ultimately, it’s up to us.

We have to make these choices about things which are external to us, political choices and choices about who we associate with and how we behave.

We also have to make choices about things which are within, moral and spiritual choices, where our own desires, and even sometimes our own demons, drive us one way, and God, through the teaching of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit, drives us the other.

We will differ in the weight we assign to traditional, knowledge-based, and legal-rational authority, and no-one else can make our decisions for us. I offer two thoughts that you may find helpful as you decide what and whose authority  speaks best to you of God’s will.

The first is a traditional native American story.   A chief was telling a gathering of young braves about the struggle within.   “It is like two dogs fighting inside of us,” the chief told them.   “There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog always wants to do the wrong.  Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and is winning the fight. But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight.”

“Who is going to win in the end?” a young brave asks.

“The one you feed,” the chief answered.

The second is based on language and the origins of words. The words authority, authentic, authorise and author all derive from a Latin word, ‘auctor’ which means origin or creator. True authority comes from the Creator; that’s how we recognise it.


By What Authority?

September 25, 2011

Licensing Day 1986

(Philippians 2, 1-13; Matthew 21, 23-32)

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt. 21,23)

Twenty -five years ago, at St Mary’s Church in Goldington, near Bedford, I was admitted as a Reader and licensed to this diocese.

At the service, I was handed a New Testament, and a Reader’s licence, and vested with a blue scarf, and the Bishop of Hertford said to me, “Receive authority to exercise the office of a Reader in this diocese”.

During the admission service, Reader ministry was described:  as authorised lay ministers, to work together with clergy and other ministers to serve the Church of God, to lead public worship, to preach and teach the Word of God, to assist at the Eucharist and to share in pastoral and evangelistic work, and to encourage the ministries of all God’s people.

Different people feel the call to Reader ministry in different ways. I came to it because I was already teaching and leading worship as an ordinary lay person, and because I was preaching, either in person at family services or as a ‘ghost writer’, preparing sermon outlines for my vicar at that time. Then one day because the vicar was ill, I actually had to preach what I prepared – so I thought I ought to make myself legal!

The authority to preach and teach and participate in the Eucharist is given by the bishop – but ultimately it is not his authority. A bishop is given authority by the Church – and the Church’s authority comes from God through Christ.

Those of us who preach and teach need that authority because preaching and teaching the Word of God is a heavy responsibility. No-one is given that authority without a careful selection process and training. Selection begins with a person feeling a vocation, but that vocation is tested by a fairly long selection procedure, involving (in the case of Readers) discussions with their parish clergy and perhaps with a Diocesan Vocations Adviser and a Deanery Reader Adviser, and a selection day in which their vocation, spirituality, suitability for training, personality and relationships are explored by trained selectors. It just so happens my selection interviews took place here at St A’s. As I remember both Rev’d. Norman Moore and M J were on the panel.

Those who are selected then undergo training. It is quite rigorous – up to 3 years of study in theology, church history, doctrine, ethics, liturgy and spirituality – to a level about that of a first year university student. And again, St Andrew’s was involved in that: Norman Moore was my personal tutor, and I came here regularly to talk through my progress with him. When I did the training, it was almost entirely academic – you wrote lots of essays, but you didn’t get much of a chance to do anything practical, not even preaching, until the end. These days people are trained in the theory and the practice at the same time, and trainee Readers are required to preach and lead groups and write articles – and to get feed back from those who take part – as part of the assignments they do during training.

Training doesn’t finish when you are licensed. There are several years of compulsory post-licensing training, and all Readers (like clergy) are supposed to undertake regular in-service training. This can be at events organised by the Reader Association, like the two Reader Days each year, or at events organised by the Diocese, or things done on your own initiative, like the Masters Degree in Applied Theology I completed  about 13 years ago.With MTh hood

But selection, and training and licensing are not the only source of a minister’s authority, though they are useful. These days it would not be wise to preach and teach unless you are well read and well-trained, since so many of the people you are addressing are as knowledgeable, perhaps even more knowledgeable about some of the matters you are addressing than many ministers are.

The question was raised recently whether Jesus (or any of the disciples) would have got through selection and training: the conclusion was probably not! They were all much too independent, didn’t conform, and operated outside the normal religious structures.

Yet, as the Gospels  show, the chief priests and elders recognised that Jesus spoke and acted with authority.

‘Authority’ has many meanings. It can derive from knowledge and training. It can be synonymous with power, especially when associated with official structures, the government, the police force and the legal system. Readers’ authority is not like that. We don’t actually have  a place within the official structures of the church; no automatic place on the PCC, or Deanery or Diocesan Synods, and Readers Committees are not part of the legal set up of the Church of England. We are licensed to parishes, but our licence lapses when an incumbent or priest-in-charge leaves and has to be renegotiated with the new person appointed; and some Readers have found themselves without a place in which to exercise their ministry because of this.

A third sort of authority is what is called ‘charismatic authority’ which comes from something inherent in the person who exercises it. It links up with other words which come from the same root as ‘authority, especially ‘author’ and authentic’.  It means that, regardless of whether a person is authorised by the leaders of the institution, and regardless of what paper qualifications they may have, people trust in what they do and are convinced by what they say. This is the authority which the elders and chief priests recognised in Jesus.

A much older Reader colleague once said to me that Jesus was the first Reader: he was not a priest, but he preached, and taught and evangelised and exercised pastoral care of those he met, both within and outside the official religious structures. Readers too, have a foot in two worlds. We have duties within the church, especially in worship and teaching, but we also have a calling within the non-church world, especially since only a handful of Readers are paid by the Church, and most earn their living in secular employment (as Jesus and the disciples did). That is why Reader ministry is often described as a ‘bridge ministry’, charged with making connections between the world of church and the world of work and leisure.

At our Reader Day last weekend, Bishop Paul of Hertford, who is the Warden of Readers for this Diocese, spoke about this aspect of Reader Ministry. He said it was the task of Readers to ‘read’ the Church, to ‘read’ the Scriptures, and to ‘read’ the world, and to speak from our reading to the church in such a way that it brings life. He also said, since we were not part of the church like the clergy, our reading was likely to be clearer than that of bishops and clergy, who tend to see the church through a ‘purple haze’. (A quote from the Bishop of Buckingham.)

He also reminded us that Reader ministry is not about status – because all Christians have the same status, that of baptised sinners. He also said it is not about ‘our ministry’ because the only ministry in the church is God’s ministry, and all Christians simply share  that in one way or another. The reason why one of the tasks of Readers is to encourage the ministry of all lay people is that we all have a ministry, whether it be singing, or reading, or hospitality and catering, or administration or pastoral care (as our Shepherds were reminded this last week); and each is equally important in the Body of Christ.

The Reader’s role is to preach and teach and evangelise and exercise pastoral care in the church in which we don’t have any power, in such a way that it reflects Christ’s ministry and Christ himself (and in that we are no different from anyone else who ministers in the Church). What we are called to reflect is set out in the wonderful passage from Philippians 2 that we heard earlier.

So, our authority as Readers comes ultimately not from our training, or from the licence we were given, but from how authentic our words and actions are, how close they are to the words and actions of Christ, who is the Word of God we are charged to preach and teach. It is always a struggle. We read and we think and we preach and we teach; but our words are always directed to ourselves first, and only then to others. Like everyone else who is given authority by the Church in God’s name we need to be constantly reflecting on our ministry; we need to be open to comment and discussion; but most of all, we need to be supported through prayer by those we minister to, and who minister to us.

Like the son in the parable, we strive, in the particular role we have been authorised to fill, to do the will of our Father; not in our own strength, but praying, as Paul did, that God is at work in us, enabling us to both will and work for his good pleasure.

At the naming of 'Reader 125'