Anglican Formularies and Anglican Authority: Prolegomena (II)

(continued from here)

Last May, in advance of the General Convention of ECUSA (now TEC) in Columbus, Ohio, Lord Carey, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, gave an address at Virginia Theological Seminary in which he criticized the decision to consecrate Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in words that included the following:

A departure from our understanding of Authority. When I was Archbishop I gave expression on a number of occasions to my worries about the fragility of our theology of authority. We are strong on synodical authority within our Provinces but very weak when it comes to exercising authority within the Communion. August 5th 2003 revealed the stark poverty at the heart of our tradition [emphasis mine] as ECUSA ignored the fundamental four Instruments of Unity; the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates, ACC and the Lambeth Conference.

Lord Carey is a good man, although someone with whom I have disagreed strongly and who bears, I believe, no little responsibility for the pickle we’re all in now. However, his address, taken as a whole, puts him on the side of the angels as far as the immediate presenting issue of our current crisis is concerned. Still, one could fairly ask how, if the Anglican tradition of authority is so weak and starkly poor, the decision to consecrate Gene Robinson could be a departure from it. If there’s no there there, you can’t very well leave.

Moreover, the paragraph I quote above contains an important, but subtle, confusion. A theology of authority and the exercise of it are two different, if related, things. I could have all sorts of authority, but if I sit on my hands, it doesn’t matter much.

Nevertheless, a recognition of authority—or rather, in the case of a revealed religion, an agreed upon theology of authority—is certainly essential before it can be exercised. So before anyone gets around to wielding authority, it would be a good idea to clear up just what we Anglicans have supposed it is and see if we need to make any adjustments. To do that, however, involves an exercise in philology that may try the patience of some. I am going to ask you, dear Reader, to take a walk with me through some Latin and Greek.

  • Anglicans familiar with their Prayer Book know that it contains, as an appendix, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, a statement of Anglican doctrine that went through several phases of composition before subscription of the clergy to it was finally required by a Convocation of the Church of England in 1571. What most Anglicans may not know, familiar as they are with the traditional English version of the Articles, is that the Articles were in fact composed in Latin, and that the very canons of 1571 that called for subscription were likewise composed in Latin. The Latin text thus stands as an official text of this classic statement of Anglican doctrine and is, in truth, often clearer and more revealing than the English translation.

    The Book of Common Prayer, on the other hand, was specifically intended to be in English. However, beginning in the reign of Edward VI and continuing through the Restoration of Charles II, various of the Acts of Uniformity requiring use of the Book of Common Prayer passed by Parliament and signed by the sovereign allowed for the use of Latin in services in universities and in those parts of Ireland where English was not the normal language of communication. A series of Latin translations of the Prayer Book thus began to appear, beginning in 1560 and continuing until the classic Latin translation of the 1662 book by Bright and Medd that first appeared in the 19th century. While thus not having the same standing as the English Prayer book, the various Latin translations have a quasi-authority and serve as indicators of what it was commonly believed the Prayer Book meant.

    The men who wrote these articles and produced these translations were more-than-competent classicists, familiar (particularly since the Renaissance) with the original sources of classical languages. When they wrote or debated in Latin, they generally knew what they were doing. It is thus no idle exercise to look into the meanings behind the words they read and wrote.

  • Auctoritas and Potestas, Authority and Power

    In English, “authority” has a variety of meanings. We commonly refer to legal authority, as in “to surrendur to the authorities.” We also refer to the authority of learning: “He is an authority on Italian literature in general and Dante in particular.” As well, we sometimes speak of moral authority, the authority acquired by previous example. In addition, there is natural authority, an authority rooted in nature but which is both recognized and limited by legal authority, such as a father’s authority over his children. There is also, of course, religious authority—but even here, at least today this often implies an authority to which someone submits, as if to suggest that authority in this sense is a reciprocal arrangement, something that arises from the agreement of both parties. In this line of thinking, a priest has authority over me only insofar as I recognize it and submit myself to it. If I do not, then such authority does not exist.

    We get our English word “authority” from Latin; yet none of these meanings exhaust Roman concept of auctoritas.

    In 80 BC, early in his career as a lawyer, the future Roman statesman Cicero defended one Sexus Roscius against a charge of murder. The charge was itself the product of political abuse, and in appealing to the jury, all members of the Roman Senate, Cicero spoke to their self-interest and that of their institution and class. If men such as they should look the other way when innocents suffer under the law, the Senatorial class risked losing its position in Rome.

    It is now the duty of all wise men of authority and influence (auctoritate et potestate) such as yourselves to remedy the ills which encumber the state. Pro Roscio Amerino 154

    In the mind of Cicero and his fellow Romans, the auctoritas of the Senate was the result of the accumulated actions of its members, men who had all served as magistrates of the Republic and thereby had all wielded the potestas of the state. The cumulative weight of experience in war and peace gained in the exercise of the imperium and potestas of Rome gave to the Senate a collective auctoritas greater than any of its individual members and entitled it, as a body and a class, to lead, so long as such potestas was not itself abused.

    In the decades that followed, the Republic to which Cicero had dedicated his life, and the Senatorial class to which he aspired to belong, collapsed in an extended political crisis and civil war, the so-called “Roman revolution” (a phrase invented by the historian Sir Ronald Syme). The eventual outcome of that revolution was the effective end of the Republic and creation of the velvet autocracy of the principate, the rule of one man inaugurated by the emperor Augustus, whose very name (granted him by the Senate) shares the same root as auctoritas.

  • Shortly before he died in AD 14 at the age of 76, Augustus—final victor in the long struggle for supremacy in the Roman empire, creator of the system of Roman governance known as the principate, and the man usually credited with being the first Roman “emperor”—composed an essay outlining his achievements and giving his own (highly tendentious) version of the events before and after the defeat of his rivals. It is known as the res gestae divi Augusti, or “the achievments of the deified Augustus.” After his death, the Senate decreed that this document should be inscribed in several locations throughout the empire; the most complete copy is found on the walls of the Temple of Rome and Augustus in Ankara, Turkey, the so-called Monumentum Ancyranum, dubbed by the great Theodor Mommsen as “the queen of inscriptions.”

    The text, in both Latin and Greek, reveals most, but not all, of the various parts of Augustus’ constitutional settlement. Augustus based his legal position as leader of the Roman state principally on three legs (something that should sound familiar to Anglicans!): his proconsular control of half the provinces of the empire (which just happened to be those where most of the army was stationed); his special grant by the Senate of a maius imperium or a “greater right of command” than that of other governors and magistrates; and the grant of tribunicia potestas, or the power of a tribune (since, being a patrician, Augustus could not technically hold the office). These various potestates, all based on Republican precedents, gave Augustus enormous legal power. In addition, he was hugely wealthy; belonged to various priesthoods, eventually becoming Pontifex Maximus, the chief religious official of Rome; and credited himself with a large number of military victories and diplomatic successes. As well, while he would not let himself be declared a god in his lifetime, he didn’t mind reminding others of his connection to his now deified adoptive father, Julius Caesar.

    The Latin text of the penultimate paragraph of this inscription has been badly damaged, whereas the Greek text is in much better condition. As reconstructed by epigraphists, the final line reads in translation (with the missing portions suggested by the surviving Greek and indicated by square brackets): “After that time [I excelled all in auctoritas, ‘authority,’] but I possessed no more potestas, ‘power, than my fellow magistrates.”

    If the reconstruction of the Latin is correct, then the position of Augustus in relation to the known world of his day is clear: while his individual offices, considered separately, gave him no more potestas than any other magistrate, his auctoritas was unique and overwhelming. Like the Senate of the earlier Republic, his “authority” flowed from both his accumulated power and the size and scope of his achievements, the difference now being that this cumulative effect belonged to one man rather than a collective. His whole was greater than the sum of his parts.

  • When we turn to the New Testament, however, we find something very different, even disorienting, in the relationship between “power” and “authority” . . .

    (to be continued . . . )


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