Both Anglican and Roman Catholic denominations of Christianity have seen challenges to the authority of their leaderships. In the case of the former, some breakaway Anglicans have formed an Ordinariate within the Roman Catholic hierarchy and including bishops with their respective spouses (female). The Church of England is still making a fist of its ‘will they, won’t they allow women bishops or gay bishops’. These have caused schisms within the wider Anglican Communion. Roman Catholicism has been rocked by a revelation of child sex abuse cases which have long been covered up and are beginning to enter the legal process (civil) as opposed to having been dealt with by canon law according to prevailing norms of the Vatican.
It was ever thus, and a recent In Our Time programme by the BBC featured Thomas Malthus (http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iot and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011zzh6) . Melvyn Bragg’s guests included: Karen O’Brien, Mark Philp and Emma Griffin. Malthus’s famous paper is ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ and his statement concerning population control being brought about by war, disease and famine is probably as relevant today as it was when he published it in 1798. Malthus and his Malthusian concepts did not meet with approval from ‘the authorities’. In the same way the views of Mohammed Iqbal were condemned by the issuing of a fatwa. The reaction to such ‘turbulent’ or troublesome ‘priests’ or thinkers introduces our topic of Authority.
The interpretation of scripture, the selection of religious specialists, the reinterpretation of tradition and the focus or lack of importance of the experience of the self account for ways in which religions have adapted, innovated and retained some of the basic tenets of the historical religion. Set against religious authority are spheres of influence or indeed systems of other authorities such as politics, education, economics, health and welfare.
The degree to which authority in religion influences authority in the public space has been researched using theories such as secularisation theory and rational choice theory. While these theories have their proponents from sociologists, the religions themselves have not been inactive in coping with sociological changes. There is a recognition that much scholarly effort was based on theorising western democracies without considering how religions developed through the ‘lenses’ or ‘prisms’ of other religious practitioners. Thus, what is viewed as authority in one religion or indeed one denomination of a religion may not be an authority in the eyes of another. The interpretation of what was meant in the past through scripture, religious specialists, tradition and personal experience has to be contrasted with what these ideas mean now and are likely to mean in the future.
The proponents of secularisation theory (for example the late Bryan Wilson of University of Oxford) have suggested that the state has shed direct authority from religious institutions. While such religious authority has become optional in some locations, in regard to acceptance of a religion’s teachings, this is not the case in some theocracies. Religious authority, they argue, has historically been used within the civil society in terms of legal systems, legitimization of the state, society control or good over evil.
With secularisation, the authority of a religion, the interpretation of its scriptures, the importance of the religious priests, rabbis and imams, and the rewriting of tradition, and even invention of tradition in some forms of new spirituality, result in many options: to follow a brand of religion, selectively follow parts of a brand of a religion, or even ‘mix’ non-traditional spiritualities with established tradition. Examples of this would be syncretism, which is a pick ‘n’ mix approach to the spiritual ‘supermarket’ and is essentially denying any authority other than the self. More authoritarian implementation of innovation such as making the dates of festivals ‘fit in’ with the nearest Sunday. We have commented before on the treatment of Ascension Day and even St George’s Day in 2011.
While at first analysis it might appear that according to secularisation theory religion itself becomes meaningless in some societies such as the UK, certain aspects of Christianity could be said to have been hijacked for political means. In the same way, some Indian politicians could be said to have re-worked Hindu tradition and scripture for political gain (for example the Hindutva Movement) and some Islamic organisations have sought political control through expressions of religious authority whether through interpretation of scripture or evaluation of what is meant by tradition. The Arab Spring of 2011 has still left some political vacuum in Egypt and in Tunisia, while at the time of writing Libya and Syria outcomes are in the balance.
Major trends that have affected religious authority include globalisation, secularisation, developments in science and communication technology, and changing social trends such as feminism all feeding into a general trend towards modernisation. In some countries this has led to a decline in religion generally, while in others religious beliefs have been questioned. In both situations, however, it has also resulted in an increase in a literal or fundamentalist approach to the religion (e.g. evangelicals in the west, Islamists in Muslim countries, Hindutva movement in India). However, in some societies the authority of scripture is restricted to personal morality and whether they choose to follow the teachings is left to the individual.
As in sociological outlooks, religions have been subject to re-evaluation. While many Christian denominations have sought to ‘refill the pews’ by adopting new traditions, such as Pentecostalism or Celtic spirituality; some denominations have reinforced authority of religious specialists and tradition, such as Roman Catholicism. However, even this latter denomination has had a turbulent year with traditional Catholic communities questioning the authority of priests, bishops, archbishops and even the role of the papacy itself. The papacy has been seen to acknowledge the digital age in launching www.news.va . While this may have delayed a decline in attendance, all forms of Christianity have been subject to churn with newer movements reinterpreting scripture, abolishing hierarchies and starting traditions of their own based on experiential authority, for example Evangelicals and Pentecostals.
In post modern societies, claims of authority, whether scripture based or tradition based, have been subject to questioning. An example is the controversy at the 2008 Lambeth conference and some breaking away from the Anglican Communion. In this area of confrontation the opponents have been cast in the liberal wing against those of a traditional wing.
In conclusion, religious authority can run into trouble with political authority as happened recently in the United Kingdom when the Archbishop of Canterbury questioned the actions of the coalition government . Many have questioned whether the Archbishop had any democratic right but the obreption collective has considered the coalition to have no democratic mandate. However, our praise of the Right Honourable Baroness Boothroyd has been questioned by an anonymous comment on the blog . To some extent we have to agree with the anonymous poster and admitting some degree of moral relativism we still maintain that Baroness Boothroyd is a good egg while Nick Clegg, MP is definitely a bad egg. Finally, we would refer to questions of scientific authority which have been admittedly ‘neglected’. Dr A.V O’Gadro is preparing a special paper for us.