I am not entirely sure how my recent piece in CM will be received with respect to church authority. The basic point of the column was draw attention to both the conflicting or contending lines of authority that we have drawn and also, most importantly, to acknowledge that we have drawn them. This was not a piece about rejecting authority much less rejecting God or the Bible. It was rather about taking responsibility for the authority we name and claim.
This past weekend was Mennonite Church Manitoba’s annual gathering. Friday morning Willard Metzger offered an outline of what the medieval world-view was like that gave birth to the Reformation and the Anabaptist movements. What struck me was the reminder of the popular view of the world as a direct reflection of what is happening within another spiritual realm; so everyday aspects of life took on a spiritual dimension in the larger battle between good and evil; these worlds are parallel. I think what is significant then is the tendency towards identifying objects that can faithfully mediate between those two realms. How can we know what goodness or righteousness look like here? How can it become present? The establishment of papal authority served that role for a long period in the church’s history. The priest via the pope served to usher in the holy and authoritative presence of God. But the abuses of these authorities became increasingly evident but by what authority could someone speak against the church? It seemed that there were two viable options both of which were employed. One could appeal directly to spiritual revelation (contemporary prophecy) and one could appeal to directly to the Bible as God’s Word. Metzger pointed out that the early Anabaptist movement witnessed both expressions as they attempted to establish and maintain authority. It is fairly self-evident that direct spiritual revelation is rarely sustainable or even ‘accurate’ as it is commonly understood (we seem to have had plenty of ‘date setters’ in our history). And interestingly enough those relying on the Bible came to similar frustrations both in terms of establishing consistent interpretations as well as establishing a consistent text (which manuscripts constituted the ‘original’ Bible).
I think the Mennonite church has also tended to objectify some notion of the early church as a pure model to try and re-construct but like the true Bible the early church does not exist as some static object we can appeal to. What I really want to draw attention to here is our ongoing need to anchor God’s authoritative presence through some object. The trouble though with our objects is that they remain either inaccessible (the original Bible or the ‘pure’ early church) or they are the property of one individual (direct spiritual revelation). All of these expressions lend themselves towards unsustainability at best and more likely to abuses from those who claim to have access to these things.
So the Mennonite answer is a ‘community hermeneutic’ correct? I think there is much merit in this response. I am certain there are others who have done much more research and thinking around what this can look like. So I will not pretend to have any great insight in this area but rather to offer something to the community for feedback. My sense is that a community hermeneutic that accepts responsibility for the construction of its particular forms of authority can only be as healthy and growing as its ability to nurture strong individual voices. There are perhaps times when a simple gathering of voices can help develop a new voice or vision (I am sure Quakers would offer an Amen to that). However, my experience is that more often than not this ends up in a pooling of ignorance or a rehashing of covered territory. A community hermeneutic in my mind is much more effective when it can give audience to a distinctly different voice, a voice from outside the community. It is up to the community then to develop an articulated response either in acceptance, modification, and rejection. Otherwise the community can become yet another site of abusive authority where a culture of in-house authority is accepted but not taken responsibility for. The community confesses that its authority comes from God or the Bible but in practice this authority is maintained only in so far as it is able to keep other voices out.
I submit this to the community for consideration.