By What Authority?

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke recently at the TUC Conference making a direct political (but not party political) intervention with a call for Justice for the oppressed within UK society.

His intervention was praised by some and attacked by others. Among the more pertinent questions raised was the one of authority – what gives him and any Christian the authority to speak out?

One of the clearest statements of the criticism was put by columnist Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. He asks:

For whom, other than God, does Welby profess to speak? Britain’s Christians are already outnumbered by unbelievers. A survey last year reported half of all Britons now declare “no religious affiliation”, while just 15% profess Anglicanism. This is down from 30% in just two decades.

This is not a new question.

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them? Mark 11:27-28

It is a vital question and one all of us who wish to challenge power and speak for justice must contend. What authority do we have to speak?

Jesus’ avoided the question by posing another: did those questioning him believe John the Baptist was from heaven or was he human? The question was impossible to answer. If they said from heaven – then Jesus could point to this as his authority was from John. If they said John the Baptist was a human they would lose their popular support. The question was returned: by what authority were these leaders competent to criticise him?

It can be asked what authority Simon Jenkins has to write and influence opinion. I believe he has authority. His authority and that this comes from people reading his columns and listening to his interventions on television and radio, even if they don’t agree with him. A columnist with no audience is a tree falling in the forest with no-one to hear. Jenkins is a columnist with an audience – he has authority and it comes from them.

The power of the Archbishop of Canterbury is that people listen to him. We who listen to him are those who ascribe authority to him. that authority is further enhanced when we do something as a result of his words. The authority to speak is in the response of the listener.

But the Archbishop has an additional claim to authority. John the Baptist himself also questioned Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ answer was this:

Report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Luke 7:22

The authority claimed by the Archbishop was that of a church that had done something to offer an alternative to the evil Wonga in community credit unions and a church responding to the hunger of the poor through food banks.

This authority relies on the ability to listen and to walk alongside the poor and then to act. This is incarnational authority. God can speak of suffering because in the person of Jesus he lived among those who suffer the greatest. The God revealed in Jesus is not mirrored in the privileged, the wealthy and the powerful. The God of Jesus is encountered in the oppressed, suffering and dying.

The elite of his day only questioned Jesus’ authority when he cleared the temple of money lenders. It was only when Jesus took action that threatened the power alliances that suited the privileged that his authority was questioned. The authority of the Archbishop is most regularly questioned when he challenges existing power.

This authority is based in the ability to listen. Matthew 25:31-40 makes it clear that we encounter God when we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those without clothes, the sick, and the prisoner. When we do this we listen to those who are the least in any society and to God himself. it does not matter that many of these people do not come to church. The Archbishop is not speaking on behalf of the average churchgoer, what matters is the link he has with those who come for food and those who are in debt. That fewer people are coming to church is immaterial.

It is the action of an authentic church that gives the authority to Archbishops and Bishops and all Christian leaders to speak on behalf of God.

Simon Jenkins, in contrast, would have the church offer unstructured ‘vicarious religion’ by which he means a ‘sense of belief without commitment’ – and ‘somewhere quiet and anonymous to meditate.’ He believes this would relieve ‘mental distress, loneliness and psychotherapy’. He actually suggests that loneliness can be relieved by a lack of belonging! To follow his recommendations would be to abandon faith in Jesus.

The way of Jesus demands commitment, embraces belonging, and, while it relies on the power of quiet anonymous places of prayer, it exists to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.

The Archbishop has the authority to speak because he is listening to the poor and to God. to remain silent would be to abdicate his responsibility.

How are we to respond?

It is not just the Archbishop who should speak. When the followers of John the Baptist left Jesus he turned to his followers said something extraordinary – “the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” The lest of us are greater than John the Baptist.

The authority to speak is in the hands of the least. If the power of the Archbishop to speak rests in his connection with the oppressed and victimised, they too have authority to speak.

Advocacy for the poor is only ever a half way house. When those in power will only listen to others with power someone will need to speak on behalf of the powerless. The next step is for justice to flow like a river and the intermediaries to step aside as we listen to the voice of the oppressed.

We must embrace being the least in the kingdom of God and take up our role in speaking an listening. We are to stand aside the Archbishop and act for Justice.

One Last Stinging Criticism

There is one stinging criticism of the church that demands further attention. He points out that the Church of England sits in power and is a part of the establishment, and that its own processes are far from representative. Added to the criticism of the church for owning shares in, and profiting from, Amazon – the very corporation singled out by the Archbishop – the claim is of hypocrisy. This is very serious and will be addressed in a further post.