Correspondence with Clifton Cathedral

29th March 2003

Text of a question submitted by the editor to the Ask a Question page on Clifton Cathedral website:

Two questions:

1. How can a council be truly ecumenical when the Church of the future is not represented? Should the decisions of councils be subject to the tradition which is yet to develop? If not, why not?

2. Why is the Petrine ministry seen to guarantee the Church’s infallibility when St Peter is the only apostle known to have fallen into serious error and used his position to promote it? (Gal 2.11ff)

2nd April 2003

Text of an E-mail sent by the webmaster of Clifton Cathedral to the editor:

From: Webmaster of Clifton Cathedral

To: K.J. Petrie

Subject: Answers


Ken,

Thanks for your questions to the Cathedral website. Here are the responses from one of the people I ask to answer questions:

1. How can a Council be truly Ecumenical when the Church of the future is not present? Should the decisions of Councils be subject to the tradition which is yet to develop? If not, why not?

Some questions open up fresh views on familiar subjects! In what way is the 'Church of the future' not present, with say an Ecumenical Council meeting in the 4th century?

We first need to clarify what an 'Ecumenical Council' is. In the Final Statement by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission speaking of authority in the Church, the statement reads: 'The Church is a community which consciously seeks to submit to Jesus Christ. By sharing in the life of the Spirit all find within the koinonia (community of faith - my explanation) the means to be faithful to the revelation of the their Lord. The Holy Spirit gives to some individuals and communities special gifts for the benefit of the Church which entitle them to speak and be heeded (eg Ephesians 4:11-12 and I Corinthians 12:4-11) Among these gifts for the edification of the Church is the episcope (overseer - my explanation) of the ordained ministry. There are some whom the Holy Spirit commissions through ordination for the service of the whole community. the koinonia is realised not only in the local Christian communities, but also in the communion of these communities with one another.' [Ibid 4,5-8)

While the local Church (koinonia) identified with the assembly in faith and in communion with the bishop, priests, deacons and baptised faithful, the local church is also rooted in the witness of the apostles and entrusted with the apostolic mission, faithful to the Gospel, celebrating the one Eucharist and dedicated to the service of the same Lord, it is the Church of Christ. But when the bishops assemble, and thus witness to their apostolic mission and communion with each other in Christ, they witness to the Gospel, and teach the Church in accord with their ordained ministry as pastors and teachers of the faith community. They are entitled to speak and to be heeded.

The assembly of the bishops, from the various local church communities when they meet, it is called a Council and when the bishops assembled represent the world-wide Christian Church, such a Council is called Ecumenical. (Latin oecumenicus Greek oikoumenikos meaning world-wide). There have been a number of Ecumenical Councils in the centuries since Jesus lived, died and rose again. The most recent Ecumenical Council was held in Rome at the Vatican in the years 1962 - 1965 and named the Second Council of the Vatican.

For my part, I am content that Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, that he is with them. With the living risen Lord present with the bishops assembled in Ecumenical Council then the Lord of yesterday, today and tomorrow is present in the Council to guide the assembly in truth. So in a sense the future Church is present at each of the historical Ecumenical Councils, and as has been shown, as we ponder and treasure the words of the various councils of the past, and reflect upon them over the centuries, and consider the comments made by patristic theologians and the experts of our own day, we can see that the Church is hardly limited by our concept of time and future.

However, there is a second part to the question: 'Should the decisions of Councils be subject to the tradition which is yet to develop? If not, why not?'

That raises another issue. The Christian Church has firmly taught that Jesus revealed all that was necessary for faith and entrusted this faith teaching to the apostles enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Much of this was then set down in the writings of the New Testament - the gospels and the other letters and writings. Along with this the early faith communities held a living oral tradition which they handed on (traditio) as part of their apostolic witness to succeeding generations. But as Saint Peter observed in one of his own letters, not everything that his colleague Saint Paul wrote was easy to understand. Indeed, we, even today, need the experts in language, linguistic style and many other disciplines, to help us better understand the content of the gospels and the other New Testament writings. For this reason our understanding of the original 'deposit of faith' is enriched, deepened. It would be a mistake, I believe, to think of this growing understanding as necessarily being something essentially new. In any case, I believe the Church continues to be guided by the Holy Spirit. For example, we now know a great deal about the DNA structures, but the information was always there, it was merely our understanding or appreciation that was lacking. ( a warning here, my personal example, like any other example is imperfect so I hope readers will not attempt to pick holes it is not meant to be an 'argument').

So in short, I see the decisions of past Ecumenical Councils - imbedded as they were in the styles, cultures and events of their time - as being part of the edifice of our faith community today. The early 'fathers of the Church' were much closer to the time of Jesus, and closer to the written and oral witness about his life and teaching. In one way they and their witness is very important for us if we today are to grow in truth and faith, and in submission to Jesus Christ.

Peregrinator Ignotus
Bristol UK - historic maritime City
E-mail : Supplied

Why is the Petrine ministry seen to guarantee the Church's infallibility when St Peter was the only Apostle known to have fallen into serious error and used his position to promote it? (Gal 2.11ff)

The rather 'glib' answer might be that the Lord chose the apostles and entrusted them with the mission, and who are we to question the choice?

But in truth, I admire that apostle Peter, taken from his fishing to be a' fisher of men' (and women). He is so very human in his denials, and in the strength of his assertions thrice repeated 'You know that I love you, Lord!' Maybe that is the point, his weakness of faith is something we can understand and we can appreciate the readiness of Jesus to appoint him as the 'rock' upon which to build the faith community. In the same way, Peter's error, if we call it that, which is referred to in the Letter to the Galatians, is another example of how the individual's Christian's faith may grow, deepen and develop. While, we actually do not know the 'pressures' placed upon Peter at the time, nor his reasons for electing to vacillate between strict Jewish ritual observance, and a more liberal no ritualistic custom adopted by many in the early Christian communities of the Diaspora in the Greek speaking world, we do need to acknowledge that he got it right in the end and had the strength to change his practice when challenged by the apostle Paul that day in Jerusalem! These folks may be Saints. But thank God they were also very human, and therein, lies our own hope for salvation.

Peregrinator Ignotus
Bristol UK - historic maritime City
E-mail : Supplied

Best wishes, Stephen

21st April 2003

Text of an E-mail sent by the editor to “Peregrinator Ignotus”:

From: K.J. Petrie - (Instabook)

To: "Peregrinator Ignotus"

Subject: Your Answers


Dear "Peregrinator Ignotus",

Thank you for trying to answer my questions. I hope you don't mind me replying directly to you rather than via the Cathedral website. There are some very important issues here, and I think it is important to pursue them to the fullest possible understanding.

What is special about an Ecumenical Council? It isn't the presence of Christ among his people, for that is true when any two Christians meet in his name, and two Christians meeting do not constitute a church, let alone a Council. Is it the authority by which it is called? Certainly, that is important, but a Council to which no one turned up other than the pope who called it would lack credibility, whatever its legal status. What is, or appears to be special is its ecumenical nature, ie the worldwide representation of the (ideally) whole Church. In practice that is unlikely to be fully achieved through vacancies, illness, travel difficulties and other human limitations, but the broader the representation, the better. So far as I know, no one has tried to suggest any direct correlation between the number of bishops attending and the Council's authority or set a quorum above which it can be called Ecumenical, but I would think the desirability of a high attendance to be evident by definition. The purpose of an E.C. is, after all, to establish the mind of the Church, and the more the Church is present, the more that process is facilitated. It is also necessarily true that our Lord, in accordance with his promise, must and will be present by the power of his Holy Spirit but, as I have already observed, that is not a unique property of Ecumenical Councils and does not prevent Christians on lesser occasions from making mistakes.

Given that the Church on earth is not yet complete (perfect), but exists in time within the limitations of time, can it be tenable for the Church as it exists at one instant to claim to speak for the whole? Does the power to bind and loose apply in one age only or to all ages and eternity collectively? Can it be used in a manner which would pre-empt its use later without denying the truth of its availability, which was not promised to one age only?

You may well reply that this would be unlikely to be a practical problem because the Church, being safeguarded from error, never goes beyond what it understands in any age, and therefore would never wish to subtract from its understanding, but only to add. Therefore no past decision could limit the power of the future to rule on anything on which it would desire to rule. Such an approach requires an incomplete and imperfect Church to be completely protected from overstepping its incomplete understanding at every stage during its imperfection. That is not a natural expectation. It is in the nature of an incomplete understanding to fail to appreciate its limitations. In order to claim such a unique provision the Church would need to demonstrate that it had been specifically promised such protection; not just a generalised promise of future perfection and progress, but a specific stipulation that the progress would never go awry and the imperfect would never, in its incompleteness, mistake its ignorance for knowledge. Where is the evidence for that?

If I look to the Scriptures, I see plenty of evidence for the former position: that the Church is promised eschatological perfection and progress toward it in a general sense. There is John 16.13 promising guidance, and Matthew 16.18 promising victory. St Paul, acknowledging his partial knowledge, recognised the perfection to come (I Cor 13.10) and promised the Roman Christians that if their minds were spiritually renewed they would know God's will (Rom 12.2). The Ephesians (5.27) are presented with the image of the perfected Church in a discussion of love within marriage. Where, however, is the evidence that things cannot go wrong in the meantime? Mostly, that seems to be derived from comparatively modern interpretations of the Power of the Keys given to St Peter. According to these interpretations, a Church led by the successor of St Peter cannot possibly go wrong.

This was the relevance of my second question. You draw comfort that St Peter "got it right in the end", but isn't that the whole problem? If he had been promised infallibility and the Church infallibility in his ministry, why didn't he get it right all along? (It wasn't a small personal foible; St Paul anathematised the proponents of this teaching [Gal 1.8f], calling it "an alternative gospel which is not another" [Gal 1.6f] and St Peter was compelling [Gal 2.14] others to conform.) Likewise, I am sure the Church will get it right at the end, "when completion comes" (I Cor 13.10), but how can it sensibly claim immunity from error in the meantime in the light of this temporary lapse?

Maybe I'm asking the wrong question here. Your use of the expression 'deposit of faith' reminded me of something I read in UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO (The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism): "Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated-to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself-these can and should be set right at the opportune moment." Have I got the whole concept of infallibility wrong?

Am I confused, or is it the Church?

Yours in Christ,

Ken Petrie.

P.S. I am building a website (www.evenas.org) to examine the issues around and obstructing Ecumenism, and shall be including my side of this correspondence. With your permission I would like to publish your replies there also. Please let me know whether that is acceptable. Likewise, I am happy to see my questions appear on any site under your control if you wish to use them.

---- Original Message ----...

(Message of 2nd April 2003 Followed.)

21st April 2003

Text of an E-mail sent by “Peregrinator Ignotus” to the editor:

From: "Peregrinator Ignotus"

To: K.J. Petrie

Subject: Re: Your Answers


Ken

I have limits on my time for answering such questions and I am not scholar or theologian. So my comments will be brief! When you write:

1. Given that the Church on earth is not yet complete (perfect), but exists in time within the limitations of time, can it be tenable for the Church as it exists at one instant to claim to speak for the whole? Does the power to bind and loose apply in one age only or to all ages and eternity collectively? Can it be used in a manner which would pre-empt its use later without denying the truth of its availability, which was not promised to one age only?

I don’t see the ‘Church’ as something distinct or separate from the whole body of the baptised faithful, past, current and yet to come in Christ. So I wonder whether that is a fault line in your question that you may wish to consider.

2. This was the relevance of my second question. You draw comfort that St Peter "got it right in the end", but isn't that the whole problem? If he had been promised infallibility and the Church infallibility in his ministry, why didn't he get it right all along? (It wasn't a small personal foible; St Paul anathematised the proponents of this teaching [Gal 1.8f], calling it "an alternative gospel which is not another" [Gal 1.6f] and St Peter was compelling [Gal 2.14] others to conform.) Likewise, I am sure the Church will get it right at the end, "when completion comes" (I Cor 13.10), but how can it sensibly claim immunity from error in the meantime in the light of this temporary lapse?

Again I feel that whether Peter adhered to a requirement that the early disciples of Jesus should still follow the Jewish rituals and practices, was in fact a minor issue and not one essentially necessary for salvation. I am glad that Paul persuaded Peter not to be influenced by the probably strong leaders in the local community, but we really have very little knowledge of what was going on and why the different participants took the line they did. For me what is clear, is that we have at a very early stage evidence of the development of faith and a developing understanding and practice of faith. What that dreaded word ‘infallibility’ is all about, is that Christ gave the guarantee that the Church will be guided by the Holy Spirit in truth. I really am not afraid to use the word infallible, though like Pilate I am happy to ask ‘what is truth?’ !!!

I am content that you make use of my humble replies/comments as preferred, although you might discover a more authoritative source or sounder author!

Peregrinator Ignotus
Bristol UK - historic maritime City
E-mail : Supplied

-----Original Message-----...

(Message of 21st April 2003 Followed.)

22nd April 2003

Text of an E-mail sent by the editor to “Peregrinator Ignotus”:

From: K.J. Petrie - (Instabook)

To: "Peregrinator Ignotus"

Subject: Re: Your Answers


I appreciate your comments. Thank you . You suggest I might find someone more authoritative to deal with my concerns. Have you anyone in mind?

Ken.

---- Original Message ----...

(Message of 21st April 2003 Followed.)

23rd April 2003

Text of an E-mail sent by “Peregrinator Ignotus” to the editor:

From: "Peregrinator Ignotus"

To: K.J. Petrie

Subject: Re: Your Answers


Ken

I don’t actually have anyone in mind, although you might like to consider approaching a theology department of a University or other college, or possibly Prinknash or Downside Abbey (on the Catholic issues).

I am happy to consider specific questions but as you may have guessed I am unable to engage in lengthy email debates, as time and other responsibilities do not permit.

Best wishes
sincerely
Peter

24th April 2003

Text of an E-mail sent by the editor to the webmaster of Clifton Cathedral:

From: K.J. Petrie - (Instabook)

To: Webmaster of Clifton Cathedral

Subject: Suitable Contacts for dialogue


Dear Stephen,

As you know, I recently submitted a question to the Cathedral website and "Peregrinator Ignotus" ((suggested name)?) made a valiant stab at answering it. He didn't do too badly, but didn't quite hit the spot, so I tried to draw him out with a more detailed analysis. As I half expected, he wasn't really able to help. When pressed, he did suggest I could try Prinknash or Downside Abbey, which I suppose is one possible route. However, I can't help feeling the Cathedral Church of a diocese, especially one which offers to answer questions, should have the resources either to provide answers or to refer the questions or questioner to someone who can. So before I start contacting various communities, starting from scratch each time and possibly getting no further in the end, I wonder whether I have really exhausted the local cathedral/diocese as a point of entry.

What I am trying to do is enter into dialogue with the Church on the doctrinal issues which keep me (and many others) out. Ultimately, I would want to see these matters resolved to mutual satisfaction, so they cease to be a problem. I think these questions are important; they are certainly important to me, and I would like to engage on them with someone who has both sufficient authority and academic soundness to be able to do so meaningfully. I appreciate I may need to go through some sort of sifting process to find the right level, and that probably means starting by asking people who will be unable to answer directly.

Ideally, because these are not just personal questions, but ones others would share and to which they might wish to contribute their own insights, I would like to make the debate visible on my EvenAs.org website, but that's desirable rather than essential. What is important is to establish an "official" contact with the Church to start the ball rolling.

This is really my second attempt. About 18 months ago I E-mailed the Vatican Information Service in the naive belief they would respond with information, but they have never answered, in spite of two follow ups. It doesn't make the Church look good, does it?

As webmaster, you presumably have a good knowledge of the Cathedral workings and personnel, and if there's no one at the Cathedral itself there is probably someone who would know where I should go. If you can't help I suspect no one can.

Can you help?

See you soon.

Ken.

A reply was received on 26th April 2003 declining to assist further.


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