Authority and Tradition

For many years, I have heard it said again and again that the crisis of western Christianity is one of authority. This constitutes the entire question of religious freedom and the liberty of the conscience – also why some authoritarian religions appeal to authoritarian political structures to support their agendas. For Roman Catholics, the authority is (at least nominally) the Pope, and for conservative Protestants, it is the Bible. The ideal for any religious authority is to have control over the secular authorities in order to enforce their own authority.

I found this quotation in an article dealing with questions of authority and the rise of democracy.

Authority is only meaningful as long as it can be enforced. Sentiment for tradition is only effective as long as it continues to persuade.

I have never come across a more succinct way of saying it. If religion depends on authority, and that authority cannot be enforced, then that religion becomes meaningless – and from thence comes secularism.

We have two elements, authority that constrains, binds and punishes for non-compliance, and we have Tradition that needs to persuade through a notion of intrinsic truth. If it is true, it is because it is the way it is and not because someone we’re afraid of says so. Unfortunately, much of what purports to be traditional is based on another form of authoritarianism.

What kind of “traditionalism” is possible without constraint and punishment, and rather the fatherly role of bishops rather than their clericalism and careerism.

See this wonderful article by Sandro Magister on a question that has preoccupied me since my seminary days – Vatican Diary / The scourge of divorce between bishop and diocese. Pope Francis seems to understand the Episcopate better than anyone else – for years or decades.

Perhaps a real turnaround is happening, something that traditional liturgical trappings alone cannot do.

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36 Responses to Authority and Tradition

  1. Michael Frost says:

    I wonder if the real crisis isn’t really one involving the local church, as a strong, vibrant, growing community of worship? Here I think both its relationship with its overseers (e.g., bishops). And with its member. How strong are our local churches? How much do they expect of us? And we of them?

    Seems like too many churches are either so big that they encourage anonymity, people minimally participate (they sneak in, sit in a pew, and leave), or they are too small such that they become a small safe haven for people who just want to do one thing (e.g., celebrate the liturgy a particular way). Research has shown that those religious groups the require “more” from their members tend to be more successful over time. Active membership. And real local church discipline.

    As for fatherly bishops…Are they even possible when most parishioners might be lucky to meet their bishop once a year, if then? And when even the local priest might only meet their bishop a few times a year? For larger, more established Churches like RCs and EO, seems like we need to both de-emphasize and re-emphasize the role of bishop by having both more of them and requiring them to have far more pastoral interaction both with their priests and parishes. We should know and interact with our bishop.

    Where there are strong, vibrant growing healthy local churches that engage the people I don’t think either authority or tradition are a problem. How does one achieve this? I don’t know. Guess the place to start is in Acts.

    • I rather like our little Diocese of the United Kingdom in the Anglican Catholic Church.

      One Bishop, three fully established parishes, five missions, one European Chaplaincy, two house groups and a “diaspora” (Anglican Catholic fellowship). I’m not sure of our number of lay faithful in our Diocese, but it seems like approximately a couple of hundred. Some might say we shouldn’t exist with so few, but on the other hand, we keep in touch, know each other and are like an extended parish when we get together for Synod, ordinations, etc.

      As I see it, Continuing Anglicanism, when it is true to itself, represents a wonderful opportunity to experience diocesan life in a different way.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Here in USA I think distance works against “fatherly” bishops. The local Anglican church in my area sees its bishop just once a year. He’s only about 175 miles away but I believe his “diocese” is physically larger than the entire UK. I forget how many States he covers but a huge geographic area. Thankfully this local church also has the former primate, now retired Archbishop. So we see a bishop almost every Sunday and get to experience and appreciate his preaching and teaching.

      • edmond says:

        Continuing Anglicanism is a wonderful way to experience Catholic Christianity. My real regret is that we only get a priest every so often at our church. The diocese has forgotten us. If we had a regular priest so that we could have a regularly scheduled eucharistic liturgy, I would not mind never seeing a bishop around or being forgotten by them. Too much attention can be a bad thing. If anyone knows of any jurisdiction that could provide us with a priest, we are looking for one. The last one died of cancer.

  2. Rob says:

    I think the fist act at least in the RC (all I really know) is to break up diocese into smaller units–not just vicariates, but actual autonomous sub-units. My local Archdiocese has 2,300,000 Catholics which are served by 1 Archbishop and 6 auxiliary bishops. Even if we count the Auxiliaries as if they were equal to the actual archbishop, that would produce a ratio of ~328,000 Catholic to one bishop. To see his diocese the bishop would have to interact with nearly 1,000 members a day. The numbers are very clear. Bishops can not be effective pastors of diocese when they have such large numbers of lay faithful; at best they can hope to be effective CEOs.

  3. Little Black Sambo says:

    Authority is only meaningful as long as it can be enforced. Sentiment for tradition is only effective as long as it continues to persuade.
    That is thought-provoking. Non-existent authority can also be effective. We have an archdeacon and a rural dean who claim powers to which they have no right, but because most people believe them, they can exercise those powers; bullying is enforced by bluff.

    • edmond says:

      The failure to persuade is why we get the Spanish Inquisition, the Christian police state of 16th century Geneva, the Taliban in modern times and other examples of authority using force to keep people in line as they could not persuade any more, or felt they could not. Authority maintained through the power of tradition to persuade is preferred in the church to that maintained by Jack booted thugs.

      • Tero T says:

        Is it all really this pessimistic? Church is not merely a human society where only rules of secular society would prevail. Church is formed by effective grace of the Holy Spirit through sacraments and this gives us new life and mindset of Christ. Holy Spirit will give the new obedience and freedom in Christ’s truth.

      • I notice you live in Finland. Are you Lutheran or Roman Catholic? What are things like in the Churches in your country?

      • Michael Frost says:

        Fr. Anthony, Don’t forget that the Finnish Orthodox Church is on equal constitutional footing with the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. May not be very big, but they punch above their weight, so to speak. They are unique in that they celebrate Pascha using the Western Calendar.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Fr Anthony, I forgot to mention as regards the very small RCC in Finland, the leader of The Finn Party (formerly The True Finns)–an interesting populist party, one of the 2 largest opposition parties, that came pretty much out of nowhere a few years ago to become one of the top 5 parties in their Parliament–converted from Lutheranism to RCC.

        As for authority, thinking FOC has an Archbishop and 3 or 4 bishops. I don’t know about the RCC in Finland.

      • Tero T says:

        I am a Lutheran, within Church of England diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. Mostly it is the same old story about how things are in old Protestant State Churches: ecclesial authority is often used to support political ideas originating from secular society. But I have to admit that Finland is still much more christian country than for example UK or France. Therefore I probably don’t quite get the idea how things are elsewhere. Finnish Orthodox Church has been since 1980s quite popular in the media, whereas in the past there was quite a lot of hatred to anything even vaguely resembling Russian, that apparently also Orthodox christians had to suffer about. (Mediaeval Finland was entirely Roman Catholic, the Orthodox regions have been conquered from Russian East Carelia only during 1600s). Roman Catholic Church is indeed very small (but not as small as the Anglican Church). When one is reading discussion fora in the web, there seem to be group of Roman Catholic converts that are more Protestant than Protestants themselves and loudly demand outrageously inconceivable things in the only Diocese in Finland, quite ignoring the concept of papacy or indeed any authority outside Finland. Very Finnish mentality, I suppose. Roman Catholic priests used to come from Netherlands to this country, now they come mostly from Poland. It may interest you, that in as far as in the mediaeval diocese of Turku (lat. Aboa), which was the only diocese in the whole Finland, there was significant liturgical influence from Sarum Rite (although otherwise the diocese used Dominican Rite).

      • Michael Frost says:

        Tero, You blew this Yanks mind when you wrote, “I am a Lutheran, within Church of England diocese of Gibraltar in Europe.” How can an Anglican Church be home to Lutherans? Do yo live in Finland or Gibraltar? Or are you just saying you’re a Finnish Lutheran who worships in the Anglican CofE ? If you live in Finland, are there any vibrant traditionalist, conservative independent Lutheran Churches not tied to the liberal State Lutheran Church?

      • Tero T says:

        Sorry about confusion. I am a Finnish Lutheran who worships in the Anglican CofE. I live in Finland and because of Porvoo Communion between Anglicans and Lutherans, in a specific way I have never had to define this more clearly to myself. I think myself as a catholic christian, whether in Anglican or Lutheran church and practically try to stay where this is possible and where I have no doubt of the validity of the sacraments (e.g. by the ordination of women). Unfortunately Independent Lutheran Lutheran Churches have been unusually schismatic with one another in this country. Finland is also very Protestant country, compared to e.g. Sweden. Therefore the Nordic Catholic Church probably would not have any chances to spread here, although there are some who are interested and stay in touch with it. Traditionalist and conservative Lutheran clergy have suffered in recent years quite a lot very unwise persecution and there has been founded a independent Missionary Diocese which is still very young and understandably also critical to some only vaguely theological ecumenical commitments of the State Church. I try to work also within the confessional Lutheran organisations in my own particular way and to cope with all the confusion with the present situation in this country.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Tero, Thanks! I try to keep up with Finnish news on YLE’s English site. But there doesn’t seem to be much English news on religion out of Finland. I pray Finland ends up disestablishing both the ELCF and FOC, as Sweden did some years back and as Norway is now in the slow process of doing.

        Have either of the Orthodox Churches in Finland, larger Finnish or smaller Russian, made any overtures to conservative Lutherans? Esp. as regards creating some sort of Western Rite Orthodox entity? I’m guessing not, as the State FOC would be leery of ticking off the ELCF or government, and the Russians are so small they probably just pay attention mainly to themselves and their co-linguists?

      • Michael Frost says:

        Tero, Just found this sad recent story about your ELM on YLE. Appears to be causing some consternation in the group.

      • Tero T says:

        Michael, I am touched that you pray for this distant corner of the Earth. It is sad news indeed, a story full of lies and deceiving. The other part of the couple was ordained as priest and the ordination was specifically and highly exceptionally taken from the cathedral to the annual assembly of ELM. Then both parties of the couple were blessed as missionaries, although the receiving church did not accept them, and thus the priest was given a job as a tourist chaplain. And all this was done with the money from State for development aid! None of this is either honest or serving the purpose in any aspect. Yet lawyer of the ELM stated in the assembly, that to to have second thoughts about sending the couple and to make decision against it would be illegal due to discrimination about sexuality. The problem here is not so much the established status of the Lutheran church (the disestablishment happened to a large part already when Russian emperor became the Grand duke of Finland, and as an Orthodox was unable to be “the head” of the Lutheran Church otherwise), but the problem is the Erastian yearning of the church to hand all the existing freedom of the Church to the State and give up own legal freedom of faith.

        The late Orthodox metropolitan Johannes of Nicea was sympathetic to traditionalist Lutherans and stated in public about withdrawing ecumenical initiatives and dialogue if Lutheran church would begin to ordain women. When much later this first woman bishop was consecrated, Roman Catholic bishop expressed sadness for Lutherans moving further from deepening ecumenical understanding. Sadly present Orthodox metropolitan Ambrosius of Helsinki has led others to understand that he is in favour of women bishops in the Lutheran Church in a one occasion in the university where I was present. Western rite would be welcome, and I think there would be at least some in the Orthodox Church who might be interested, but i doubt that would happen. Presently Nordic Catholic Church is developing a good relationship to Finnish Orthodox Church:
        The Russian Orthodox Church seem not to be a real choice, partly as you reckoned and partly because it is generally thought that Russian nationalism extends its interests as far as does the patriarchate of Moscow. This would be choice only for some very eccentric people like Juha Molari:

        Regarding to authority, Finnish theologian Jouko Martikainen, who was professor of the eastern church history in Göttingen University, thinks that Oriental Churches have had the healthiest and theologically the most orthodox relationship to the State and to the earthly power, avoiding western imperialism, protestant Erastianism and Byzantine caesaropapism. The idea is interesting, but I am sadly not able to elucidate it any further.

      • Tero T says:

        Michael, for the news you could always try to put these through Google translator, if there is nothing better, and if you would like to find out more about something in particular. I hope it would make any sense. The last one (Kotimaa24) is a Lutheran one, where you will find all the controversial stuff that is going on (not sure you really want to). These Orthodox news services are not as familiar to myself:

        Lutheran Church also has an official news service in English:

        Thank you again for your prayers.

        In Christ,


  4. Caedmon says:

    Will tinkering with organisation structures really change anything if Christianity is merely offering something which most people in first world countries no longer see any need for?

    • Bull’s eye! It’s probably too late in most places in the west. Perhaps reorganising episcopates might do something for a few.

      • Dale says:

        The old adage of rearranging deck-chairs on the titanic comes to mind. Modern Christianity, both east and west, needs more than simply “tinkering” as Caedmon has so rightly stated.

    • Michael Frost says:

      Caedmon, Your comment–“if Christianity is merely offering something which most people in first world countries no longer see any need for?”–is most interesting. But has me wondering if the issue isn’t more described as most churches aren’t really offering anything important at all, which is the Gospel? If you really are offering nothing, then why would anyone pay you any attention?

      Here in the 1st world I’m thinking especially of the rejection of the ideas of evil and sin. Neuroscientists and others want to medicalize everything and say we’re just chemicals and electrical activity. Psychologists and priests/pastors want everything to be non-judgmental and theraputic. We aren’t really bad and we aren’t really responsible for our bad actions. Just see what we’ve done regarding addiction. It is a disease and we’re pretty much helpless, though we all know of addicts who broke their addictions by the chooses they made (e.g., tobacco).

      When it comes to Christianity, what need is there for any authority (God, Scripture, Church, Bishop, Priest/Pastor, etc.) if evil and sin don’t exist? Historically, the “authority” pointed out the Gospel truths. Evil and sin exist. Heaven and Hell exist. We are born inherently evil and sin. We are responsible for our sin. We can’t save ourself. We need a savior. Without a savior only Hell awaits, We have to put our trust in the mercy of God to save us from ourselves. The “authority” existed to help establish what is good versus evil (e.g., the 3 uses of the Law) and to bring God to us and vice versa.

      But once churches stopped preaching and teaching these eternal truths, the masses saw little need to sit in pews for a social gospel or just for fellowship or merely out of a sense of duty or obligation. What did it matter when everyone is inherently good and all things will end up for the bettter for everyone everywhere in the log run?

  5. fatheredbakker says:

    I agree with Rob in relation to Continuing Anglicanism. It is indeed a wonderful way
    to experience Catholic Christianity. I run a more isolated mission here in Australia and it is sometimes hard to get the numbers for Mass. You are on the other side of the sprectrum,
    I could be free to come and be a Priest in your Parish. In fact if I lived in the USA, my whole Ministry would be different.
    All the best,
    Father Ed Bakker ACC/OP

  6. fatheredbakker says:

    Friends in Christ,
    Authority and tradition don’t have much of a place in the Anglican Church of Australia. At Parish level they tend to worship how they like, e.g. middle of the road, Pentecostal , very contemporary and then a tiny bit left of Anglican Catholism. Always found it very difficult , in spite of serving at the altar for nine years to build up a circle of solid Christian friends. I agree with the comments expressed by Father Anthony , with smaller groups there is much more contact and care. My Bishop phones me regularly to ask how things are going. You don’t want to be a cent in the Sunday collection.

    The lack of authority is not surprising. The Church is governed by the Queen and the Prime Minister nominates Bishops. There is no authority connected with the office of the Abp of Canterbury.

    Father Ed Bakker ACC/OP

  7. ed pacht says:

    Apologies if this sounds like a sermon. On rereading it, I think it feels like one. However, I do believe these to be basic considerations that have to lie behind whatever practical application we may give them.

    I believe in authority and I confess that I am not that authority. It is not necessary that things be as I think they should be. My bright ideas may well be wrong. I believe this applies just as firmly to those who find themselves to be in places of authority, even if they be bishops or popes, even if they be gathered together in councils

    In spiritual matters (I won’t get into secular politics here) true authority is not found in that which is proclaimed from a pulpit or throne, but in that which is modeled by those who kneel, washing feet. Compulsion in matters of the spirit does not produce holiness, but rather the leaven of the Pharisees; does not grant freedom, but imposes bondage.

    “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,” said Samuel. It is the elevation of ego to be the supreme authority, ultimately to be the god above all other gods.

    Authority cannot be imposed, but, to be real, just, and godly, must be accepted in humility by a mutual respect and yielding. “Submit yourselves one to another,” as the apostle said. The master yields to the servant and the servant to the master. Only thus do we grow into the image of the fullness of Christ.

    How does all that work out practically? Not well, but we need to do our best. We need, each one of us, and each structure of church polity, to lay ego aside, to treat one another with love and respect, to approach each other, and to approach Tradition itself, with deep humility, and with a sincere desire that our own errors (which are assuredly present) be revealed and corrected, and with prayer that others will do likewise.

    • Tero T says:

      How do you feel about the concept of dispersed authority on the practical level, i.e. has it proved useful in Anglican Communion? For me it sounds good in theory: Bible will be understood by Tradition, and Tradition by the means of reason. Bible has got its own authority and the authority of the Tradition is work of the Holy Spirit as a continuing and deepening witness to God’s word in the Bible. Reason is a tool to handle it. Of course there has to be the ordained ministry following apostles to use it. There was a time when I thought this would have saved Anglican Communion from the secular influence more effectively than in Protestantism, but this obviously has not happened. I would be personally interested to hear your thoughts about it.

      • I’m not sure what you mean by “dispersed” authority. Dispersed between the three “legs” of Hooker’s “three-legged stool”?

        Cutting through the layers, the real problem is that most people are disillusioned with authorities. I certainly am. It is much worse here than in the USA. But, there is an upside: the few who go to church go because they want to and no longer because they have to.

        Also, the concept of authority tends to get associated with the unsavoury level of our political figures, historical and present. All too many bishops have a comparable degree of the “sleaze factor”.

      • Tero T says:

        I have not read actual Hooker myself, perhaps i have just misunderstood some of it? I would be more interested on your reflection on it, might you feel it relevant. “Sleaze factor” is certainly reality, temptations may come to bishops also much heavier than to relatively insignificant people like myself. But in Continuum, I hope, many of these problems can probably be faced with much more ease at least in some respect. Faith, hope and love can grow and to testify about the power of the gospel, and some aspects of authority can thus also find their more genuine expression.

    • The problem nowadays is finding Christian authorities. Of course most of us have our diocesan Bishop, and he has authority over his priests and faithful because we have freely accepted his authority. The concept of monastic obedience is totally different from the kind of authority that punishes for non-compliance. We could go on. We should inform ourselves of the thought of Tolstoy (I don’t agree with everything) and other Christian anarchists. The subject is vast.

  8. I would like to say a warm ” tervetuola ” to Tero… having lived in Finland a number of years quite some time ago, I can understand where he is coming from. I guess you worship at the Agricola Church? That used to be the home of the Anglicans as well. I recall Matins was said on some days at the “Tuomiokirkko”, the Lutheran Cathedral. I used to to go to the Tuomasmessu held in the afternoon once a month with even the celebrant of the HC wearing a chasuble, lots of candles, lots of modern music, but what a crowd. I still follow the Tuomasmessu via the net and I record the video clips. In the so called Thomas Mess there some Catholic Elements, like people lighting candles for others and I confess I like it. I also attended Orthodox services, but not allowed to take Communion in Uuspenski Cathedral and further north in Holy Trinity Cathedral, Oulu still have a number of friends from these places I correspond with.

    There was some tendency , e.g. the Priest at Ilomantsi, who prayed for the Orthodox alone.


    Father Ed Bakker ACC/OP

  9. William Tighe says:

    Tero T (if I may),

    Some few years ago, reports were circulating about what purported to be a very influential “pro-gay group” within the Finnish Orthodox Church, a group including several clergy-theologians and seemingly one bishop, that were reported to be claiming that the Orthodox Church could (and should) bless same-sex “partnerships” (without calling them “marriage”), and making it pretty clear that such “partnerships” could not be required to be chaste brotherly or sisterly friendships. Some of the citations produced in these reports (which were substantial and detailed, most of them translated from Finnish) seemed to advocate “opening the question” of the “ordination” of women to the priesthood and even episcopate in the Orthodox Church.

    Are you able to comment in general terms upon such reports as these, whether they are false, or grossly exaggerated, or perhaps fairly true?

    • Tero T says:

      Prof. Tighe, to be honest, I don’t quite know. These are just the sort of thing one gets eventually very weary about. I would only like to confirm anything if I would know for sure. But I can certainly say that these things have been discussed also in Finnish Orthodox Church though not in public in the same way as in Lutheran Church, and that the mentioned present metropolitan of Helsinki would like to promote “ordination” of women if only possible. This I can say because I have heard about it from someone I regard solidly reliable. And that it is not any secret either.

      • William Tighe says:

        Thank you. And if I may ask another question, what is the former Bishop of Oulu, Olavi Rimpilainen, doing in retirement? I mean, he was the last opponent of the pretended ordination of women among the Finnish Lutheran bishops, and I wonder if, in retirement, he is giving support to orthodox conservative Lutherans in the Church of Finland. I also wonder if he has expressed any opinion on the “Mission Province” in Sweden and Finland.

      • Tero T says:

        As far as I know, he has not been in publicity about the “Mission Province”. He has led a quiet life during retirement, but has supported privately also the Luther Foundation which has been behind the new Mission Diocese of Finland. He and late bishop Bertil Gärtner either did not take part to the consecrations of bishops for the Mission Province or the new Mission Diocese. This is about all I know. Bishop Rimpiläinen is also friend of former bishop of Chichester, John Hind.

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