Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

"By the Working of the Holy Spirit": The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

"By the Working of the Holy Spirit": The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches

Article excerpt

Disagreement on what constitutes the supreme authority within the Christian church is an obvious obstacle to unity. Analysis of the claims made about authority by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Windsor Report reveals some of the logical and pastoral problems that have contributed to the present crisis of authority in both churches. Thomas Aquinas has a firmer grasp of the need to ground all talk about the church upon an account of the working of the Spirit of Christ. This enables him to appeal to multiple authorities without asserting a single supreme authority other than Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, his theological method clearly displays his reliance upon the Spirit's working. Aquinas's faith in the present governance of the church by its Lord suggests some possibilities for reconceiving authority and addressing the present crisis.

The phrase, "by the working of the Holy Spirit," comes from the second eucharistic prayer of the Roman Catholic mass. The context of the phrase is the following:

All life, all holiness

comes from you through your Son,

Jesus Christ our Lord,

by the working of the Holy Spirit.

From age to age you gather

a people to yourself,

so that from east to west

a perfect offering may be made to

the glory of your name.

The Roman Catholic liturgy, then, understands the working of the Holy Spirit to include the gathering together and perfecting of the church so that it may be truly and visibly the body of Christ journeying on the way to the Father. The Spirit s working is the church's conditio sine qua non. The divine concursus runs alongside and raises up our own efforts beyond their natural capabilities so that we may indeed make that perfect offering.

Something like that is said, as we know, by every Christian church. All the churches acknowledge that they need the active presence of the Spirit if they are to become truly members of the body of Christ.

But I am not entirely convinced that this consensus is adequately reflected in our efforts to make a perfect offering to the Lord. And the inadequacy is perhaps greater still when we talk about those efforts, when, that is, we reflect theologically upon the church's being and action. Back in 1946, Karl Barth sounded out a warning about such reflection: "Woe to those who think they can speak about the church without grounding it entirely upon the working of the Holy Spirit."1 Barth also complained that theologians in those days spoke too much rather than too little about the church, and I think he would find things considerably worse today.

Having said that, I must confess that I shall completely ignore Earth's complaint and will indeed discuss the church throughout this paper. I will begin with the question that immediately follows from the church's belief that the Spirit is working among us. Where is the Spirit working? Certainly-and please remember that I have said this-the Spirit works in and through the customary institutions, offices, and structures of the churches. But the Spirit's workings are not always obvious; and what may seem to be obviously the working of the Spirit may not be, on closer inspection. After all, the Spirit is God; and God is free. Although all our workings always need the Spirit for them to be efficacious, the Spirit is not bound to what we do and can also work elsewhere and in other ways. So one of the most important tasks of the church, in its search for truth and perfection, is to discern the working of the Spirit. For there are false spirits everywhere at work, too, the powers and principalities who still lord it over this world.

This brings me finally to my subtitle, "The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches," for the discernment of spirits is one of the primary functions of church authority. And here I must take a bit of time to clarify how I shall be using some words. By "authority," I mean two different things. …

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