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Church, Bishops, and St Peter

St Peter's Day: Sunday 29th June, 2008
Canon Dr Andrew McGowan, Warden of Trinity College,
University of Melbourne

During the mid-twentieth century, excavations underneath the High Altar at St Peter's Basilica in Rome uncovered a series of ancient tombs, some pre-Christian and others connected with earlier Churches built on that site.

In the early Christian centuries, places of worship were very often built over the tombs of martyrs. In contrast to some other ancient religious traditions including Judaism, which kept mortal remains at a respectful distance, the bodies of the faithful departed and especially the martyrs were focal points that attracted Christian worship and devotion, their relics witnesses to the faith built on their example.

The Church in Rome has from a very early date commemorated the martyrdom there of Peter, and of Paul, and celebrated their life and witness as heroes of local Christian history. The archaeologists working under St Peter's Basilica found evidence that might confirm this particular connection; across one red-plastered wall containing a burial niche is a piece of graffiti that seems to say, in Greek, "Peter is within". The ancient and then more recent Basilicas on that site were, then, literal expressions of the idea of building the Church on Peter.

Knowledge of the fact of Peter's martyrdom, if not the place, was fundamental to his authority in the ancient Church. Although his imprisonment and death are not recorded in the New Testament, they inform the inclusion of that story of imprisonment and release told in today's Acts reading (12.1-11), a kind of foretaste of glory, as well as the poignant farewell scene at the end of John's Gospel (ch. 21), where Jesus predicts Peter's being bound and led where he does not want to go. It would also have been known by the first hearers and readers of Matthew's Gospel (ch. 16), who heard as we have that Jesus would build his Church on the 'rock' that was Peter. For them this would have evoked his faithful witness and the community born from it.

Later however the Church was to read Peter's status in a somewhat different and more institutional way — not just the literal building of Churches on his bones, but particularly by thinking of his leadership not as that of an apostolic martyr who was in Rome when he died, but as a sort of primordial ecclesiastical bureaucrat who had set up shop there. Yes, we made Peter a bishop.

The question of whether Peter was ever bishop in Rome is less a difficult one, than just the wrong one. In the first few decades of the Church's life there was a mixture of local and itinerant apostolic leaders, whose action and interaction was initially more dynamic than institutional. Some of the local leaders were called "bishops"; but it was the fact that Peter died in Rome, not any local leadership role there, that underlay the association between this first among apostles and the city and Church that have been preeminent in western Christian life.

Yet just as the literal fact of St Peter's Basilica represents and reminds us of his witness, so too episcopacy, not just in Rome but in the universal Church, has always been related to the same apostolic foundation. This is also supposed to tell us something about what leadership in the Church is to be like.

You have probably noticed that the Anglican world is currently full of meetings, especially of bishops. In just over two weeks the Lambeth Conference will take place, with a large majority but not all of the Anglican bishops in attendance. In Jerusalem last week a coalition of conservative Anglicans, led by prominent prelates, made their own claims about the future of the Church.

A great fourth-century bishop and theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, is said to have written affectingly about such meetings: "I avoid", he said, "all gatherings of bishops. One finds there love of money and love of power that beggar description".

This somewhat jaded ancient perspective and our perhaps confused or discouraged modern ones alike tell us that struggles over preeminence in the Church are not new, and that despite sure foundations of apostolic witness, the edificies of the Church structure may sometimes seem less than edifiying. Yet it is not primarily institutional structures by which the Church will be judged, even though they are important; it is the authenticity of our witness that constitutes on what we are built.

We exist in a fragmented Church — by which I mean not merely the well-publicized rifts within Anglicanism, but the divisions of Christianity as a whole. These are the great scandal and difficulty, not internal Anglican ructions. We Anglicans have had a rather unique calling amid the competing and clashing claims of rival groups, namely a claim to inclusion or comprehensiveness; may it continue to be so. It is understandable then if we are discouraged by the current events, whatever our opinions are about the matters at issue.

Yet it is the authentic and costly lived witness of the Church, not its institutional unity, that is the foundation of its claim to real authority. The rock on which Christ built his Church was a real person whose tradition was bequeathed to real places — but it was his martyrdom, not his management, which underlies the great tradition of the Church that was to emerge after him.

The connection of his example with later bishops, in Rome and elsewhere, is not about so much episcopacy itself as about faithful and courageous witness. Institutional unity and continuity do not amount to authenticity. Yet we have such genuinely Petrine bishops working among us and for us, close by and far away; Rowan, not least, and Philip here; also such as Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Roman Catholic bishop risking disapproval for his courageous (and surely therefore genuinely Petrine) witness concerning abuse in the Church; and now two new women who are bishops in our own national Church, whose gifts we eagerly await.

All these, with communities of faith like this one, continue to build on the rock of Peter's faithful witness. So let us commit ourselves to praying for the bishops and Lambeth and for all the bishops and leaders of the Church; and let us commit ourselves here in our local community of faith to building on the foundations provided for us, living in the faith and hope that led Peter to follow Jesus and to give his life for the Gospel.


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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