FAITH OF OUR FATHERS: The Sickle of Authority

by a Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone

AUTHORITY IS ALWAYS a threat when someone else is exercising it. Authority is also often abused, yet it is necessary. In the Church the need is to discern the pattern Jesus gives to us, both in his life and in his teaching, and then to co-operate with grace and put it into practice. Human pride and arrogance, inside as well as outside the Church, stand opposed, so it is hardly surprising we still have to live with unresolved tension. The putting of it right cost Jesus his life. If we are still floundering it is not because we have not been shown the way but because we are sinners. There is always the conflict between the ideal and human frailty.

We have much to answer for at the end of a second millennium, looking at our brokenness and the shattered fragmentation of our churches. Are we reluctant to be brought back to heel, to return to a oneness of fold and shepherd? Do we prefer our individuality and wilfulness? Yet there is a nostalgia, a wistful looking back. It is now required of us that we be stouthearted. We need to return to the centre.

Petrine Ministry

St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Western Church (540-604), was given to see the true nature of leadership in the Church as revealed by Jesus in the gospel - self-spending in love, and in service of the brethren, What he perceived he sought to live out and to hand on, as far as human limitations would allow. If some of his concepts have been distorted by abuses in the medieval Papacy, or in later times and institutions, then there is all the more reason for going back behind all that to Gregory himself, as we wrestle still with questions of Primacy and Collegiality, lay-leadership, synodical government and so on.


As Bishop of Rome Gregory inherited a role of oversight, not only over his own diocese, but also, in a modified sense, over the majority of Patriarchates and Archbishoprics then existing. It was intended that the Roman See, founded it is claimed by St. Peter the Apostle, should be both a focus and a guarantor of the unity of the world-wide Church, in doctrine and moral teaching. This was to be a primacy of love and service, not of arrogant self-assertiveness. Each bishop had complete authority in his own see, while Patriarchs and Regional Bishops were to exercise a general oversight in their whole area. Concepts of universal jurisdiction and papal infallibility come only later. Decisions affecting the whole Church were taken collectively by bishops in council. There were tensions and strains of course from the first, rivalry and jealousy, heresy and schism but in the main during the early years of the Church, a balance was kept. It is basically this that we seek to regain.


It is fascinating to see the different levels and strands of authority we have been describing brought into play. We have glimpses of them in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (7th -8th Century), where he cites some of the letters sent by Pope Gregory, at the turn of the sixth century, to the Bishop of Arles in Gaul and to Augustine, newly appointed Bishop to the English at Canterbury.

Here we see Pope Gregory exercising his general oversight -advising, citing universal and traditional norms, using diplomacy. But we also notice how he protects the rights of individual bishops in their sees, refusing to exercise undue authority himself and ensuring that each bishop keeps to his own patch too. However, he does encourage mutual support between them, the giving of advice to one another and, when needs be a gentle pointing out of where things might be going wrong.

A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone

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