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Double Belonging

By Rev. Marie-Louise Ternier


Marie-Louise Ternier-GommersThe Gift of Authority?

“You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:41-45).

While my previous column explored remaining differences between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in terms of the spiritual and moral ethos of each tradition, here I’d like to highlight the important ecumenical document published in 1998: “The Gift of Authority” (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Dialogue — ARCIC).

Published nearly 20 years ago, it is still little known by ordinary Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Sad really, for it is a prime example of good ecumenism in action. The agreement takes a comprehensive look at the exercise of authority in the Christian tradition in a spirit of humility and honesty, openness and courage. Given the current challenges authority structures in both traditions experience, it would behoove us all to study and receive its content and to apply its insights sooner rather than later. The document confirms what I have been thinking and learning for quite some time, i.e. that the Roman Catholic way of exercising authority has been too centralized and hierarchical, and that the Anglican way of exercising authority can be perceived as too nebulous and overly tentative. The former risks increasing disconnection from the lives of ordinary people while the latter risks being too wishy-washy and lacking teeth. What the one tradition has too much of, the other needs more of, and vice versa.

The first section of the document is a sweeping look at the theological and spiritual underpinnings of authority in the Christian tradition throughout history. This is, in a way, the articulation of the Christian vision of how authority is supposed to work — where it originates, how it is refined and informed, and how it needs to be exercised.

The document lays out explicitly what the challenges are in each tradition in order to recover the elements which have been “rejected, forgotten or not fully understood.”

The Roman Catholic Church is challenged to examine its commitment to lay participation in decision-making and governance structures of the church. It is only now with Pope Francis that some concrete efforts are being made to actively restore the principle of synodality, illustrated by Rome’s initiative to solicit input from lay Catholics through questionnaires in preparation for important synods.

Collecting real-life data from real people, then brought to synod deliberations by bishops urged by Pope Francis to speak frankly, has already resulted in what some called chaotic and messy debates at the two synods on the family — surprise! The lid has been held on tight for too long on concrete and controversial issues and new questions. The synodal model is still covered in lots of dust, collected from centuries of neglect in Rome. As Roman Catholics are waking up to the messy character of synodality, Anglicans are smiling — Rome has much to learn from Canterbury.

However, Anglicans are not off the hook. The document states: Anglicans have shown themselves to be willing to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion (par. 56). The Anglican concern for the quality of relationships of love and respect is laudable and trumps rigid adherence to rules. The Anglican concern for historical context, dispersed authority, and synodal consultation through careful discernment is laudable. Yet these also come with subtle yet real traps revealing its fragility. No issue has revealed this weakness, and tested this model, more than the current debate on same-sex marriage. Some Anglicans might look longingly across the Tiber for more centralized authority, while some Roman Catholics look longingly to the Anglican model of relational and moral persuasion and consensus.

It has been nearly 20 years since “The Gift of Authority” was published. Have our churches taken its recommendations to heart? The people in the pews still know regrettably little about most ecumenical agreements, a tragic fact. Twenty years is nothing in a tradition that thinks and breathes in centuries. Both the Roman top-down model and the Anglican bottom-up model are going through their respective refiner’s fires at this time. Let us pray that “The Gift of Authority” can be a tiny guiding light in the current dilemmas. Maybe someday both models of authority could get remarried into a coherent whole, deserving of Jesus’ words as quoted above: “It is not so among you” (Mark 10:41-45).

Rev. Marie-Louise Ternier is now an Anglican deacon, serving the Anglican and Lutheran parishes in Watrous, SK. In her spare time she serves on the programming team at Queen’s House in Saskatoon. Marie-Louise is a published author and spiritual director, retreat leader and conference speaker. This column is co-published with the Saskatchewan Anglican. Marie-Louise blogs at