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  • Adam Embry

A Theology of Moral Authority

This is a blog series entitled, "A Theology of ..." written by various Anglican priests and deacons in our Jurisdiction.

We conclude this series with a theology of moral authority by the Reverend Warwick Fuller.

“An authority is someone I depend upon to show me the reasons for acting. The authority of the expert, the person with a special knowledge, teaches me what I cannot work out for myself, e.g. how to operate a computer.” (Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgement, 131)

What does it mean for a Christian to have a conversation with a non-Christian? We often take for granted that when we talk to each other, to anyone in meetings, we speak the same language and have the same lens through which to view a problem. For Chaplains, this becomes hard mud to walk through as we wade into swamps and conversations about much of anything. We want to ensure we are heard and seen as “team players.” But what is the cost when Christians and non-Christians sit around the table and discuss much of anything, let alone morals, beliefs, and the price of milk?

Oliver O’Donovan, a British Anglican priest and Academic, has written and thought a lot about morals and politics. What makes O’Donovan special, through his many works, is that he will bring the Christian back to remind him that he is a Christian and that there is a lot of history to show that the Christian will be different from those outside the Church. Sometimes, he takes it for granted that Christians will have a hard time in this world because we are a peculiar people. Throughout his books, he brings the Christian back to the central premise that despite all of the excess baggage of differing views and roots we try to claim, our view will always return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way to correctly see and explain the world (Resurrection and Moral Order, 11). In each of his books, this is his overarching premise.

This is the reason that a Christian and a non-Christian cannot have the “same” conversation, especially when humanity is its subject. And we do a disservice to the person we are conversing with when we assume they understand. We also do a disservice to the Gospel when we are unclear about what makes us view the world this way. O’Donovan argues that a Christian’s morality will be able to see the world as it is properly ordered by the way of the Cross, the problem being that this is foolish to the “wise.”

When an Anglican Chaplain engages in these conversations, how can they not be filled with the Gospel? We hunt for opportunities, taking for granted that every chance we get to brief, to explain why we do what we do, is that opportunity. And when we are shy to share our Gospel response, can it be rooted in what we feel about our own authority?

In O’Donovan’s book on the 39 Articles, On the 39 Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity, chapter 8 discusses Articles 32-39 as they reflect the church and its authority as an institution. He says, “Authority is exercised over those who act for themselves (98).” Being part of a “free” society, where church membership is elective, means that if the world is ever going to learn how to live in light of its proper ordering properly, it will come from that institution that has modeled itself after that divine revelation: the Church. The authority of the church and its pattern of institution is best, and only, understood in light of what the Gospel says to be true.

Our authority, as ministers of God’s message, makes us the freest people. “To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent (The Ways of Judgement, 132.).” The problem arrives in our worlds when we try to marry our message with any other message. We then are no longer under authority, but we have created a peace treaty between two disparate ideals. How often do we try to divorce what we do on Sunday with what we do the rest of the week, when we are with our Hospital, Hospice, Wing, Battalion, or Ship? We try to keep our authority in check by making it only real where we think others will welcome it.

But, as O’Donovan points back to us in regards to Article 1, Our authority is based on the revelation of God through Jesus of Nazareth (OTTNA, 12). Authority does not have a wide base of premises but needs to be supported on the narrowest claim. O’Donovan believes that ordering the first set of Articles as they do is the strongest point of the Anglican Reformers epistemological efforts. They are making a statement for themselves, and for us who have inherited this point of view, that any authority a Church can have will be based on the authority and identity of Jesus.

Authority will bring judgment, but judgment brings the one thing needed in our world today: personal responsibility (The Ways of Judgement, 118). As priests, we have a great opportunity to bring back the beautiful message that people matter and how they live their lives matters. The decisions we serve make have real effects, and accountability is necessary. Priests serving as Chaplains cannot give up this responsibility and can only approach this subject if they acknowledge their authority.

I have greatly appreciated reading O’Donovan and gleaning from his insights. The most encouraging thread throughout all of his books is the challenge to maintain the “peculiar” message and not to be easily dismissed as anyone other than a man under authority. Christians, and especially chaplains, are a peculiar people with a strange message of freedom and delight that brings to light and joy the proper ordering of the world and how to live well in light of this message. We cannot be dismissed, and we cannot take for granted that everyone at a table is having the same conversation.

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Dec 07, 2023


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