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Saturday, October 31, 2009  

For Reformation Day: The State of Play

For those readers of this blog who might appreciate some context for the commentary on ecumenical Christian issues, I thought I'd do a quick run-down of some of the high-profile stumbling blocks to Christian unity. While they tend to get shunted into a left-right divide, that's not necessarily an illuminating way to look at them.

1) The ordination of women. I'm not well-versed in the history surrounding this question, but from what I've read, two general statements strike me as reasonably clear: first, that by the time the ministry of presbyters (priests/pastors) and bishops was formalized ritually and theologically, that men were overwhelmingly and perhaps exclusively the ones admitted to these orders; but secondly, female leadership in most, perhaps all, aspects of first-century church life was widespread. Moreover, even if "ordination" as we practice and understand it today was universally confined to men for about 15 centuries of church history, it does not mean that the role of women in the Church was somehow a settled question. Conservative Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike tend to treat the movement to ordain women as priests and bishops as a passing fad, an artifact of feminism that the Church can wait out, but the evidence I've seen suggests the contrary. Female leadership has been constantly battled and suppressed within the Church, and it is rather fond to imagine that a consensus that never existed in the past will somehow be restored in the future.

2) The role of the Pope. Here I've done much deeper reading. The New Testament clearly acknowledges a kind of pre-eminence for St. Peter. Even Paul's account of his conflict with Peter in Galatians pays backhanded tribute to this status. The apocryphal final chapter of John's Gospel (chapter 21) is understood by some to depict a reconciliation between the Johanine faction and the Petrine faction after the deaths of both apostles--a reconciliation that confirms the distinctive role of Peter. And the association of Peter with the city of Rome is well established in ancient sources. Accordingly, the old Patriarchs of Rome had a special status among the leaders of the Christian Church.

However, the claims made today on behalf of the power of the papacy seem to me to bear little resemblance to the customs of the early Church. The old bishops of the See of Rome never claimed the unique power to appoint and consecrate other bishops or to pronounce infallible doctrine for the whole Church. The accumulation of these pretensions began after the Western Empire fell, Greek learning was lost in Rome, and the churches of Western Europe began to take a substantially different liturgical and theological direction than the churches of the East. Papal power on anything like the scale we see today dates mostly from the age of the Gregorian Reform in the 11th century, after the Papacy emerged from a period of local domination known colorfully as "the pornocracy." Even then, the power of Rome was heavily dependent on the character of the man in Peter's chair. Innocent III was brilliant, confident, and ruthless; Boniface VIII was a failure, despite his ridiculously extravagant claims of universal authority in both church and state. The doctrine of papal infallibility, while widely believed since the Middle Ages, was not officially established until the First Vatican Council.

3) The role of Mary. This was not a particularly pressing issue at the dawn of the Reformation, and it has taken on excessive importance as Marian piety became ever more extravagant in Roman Catholicism and as Protestants reacted by unduly diminishing the status of the Mother of God. The Council of Nicaea established a distinction between worship (latreia), reserved for the Godhead alone, and veneration (douleia), due to the holy martyrs and saints, with Mary occupying a special niche of hyper-veneration (huperdouleia). Most early Reformers did not object to Mary's special status as Theotokos ("God-bearer") and as free of actual (though not original) sin. They objected primarily to the imposition of acts of Marian piety (such as the rosary) as being necessary or useful for salvation. By and large, a good rule of thumb for the first wave of Reformers is that they tended to object to any practice or belief that detracted Christ's unique and central role in salvation: the excesses of the cult of the saints, the veneration of relics, the imposition of various un-Scriptural obligations and good works, and the sale of indulgences. The loss of a genuine and faithful Marian piety was an unfortunate consequence, and some Protestants have been working for decades to restore Mary to a properly limited but exalted role in the life of the Church.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 3:54 PM
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