Faith and Reason: As free to hold as not to hold beliefs: Our series on what sense it makes to discuss Catholicism without Rome is continued this week by the Right Rev Hugh Montefiore, retired Anglican Bishop of Birmingham.

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The Independent Online
I BECAME a Christian at the age of 16 while at boarding school, as a result of a visionary experience which had nothing to do with the chapel or with the Bible. As a Jew I was regarded as too hot to handle, being handed over to the parish priest of the town. Baptised as a member of the Universal Church, I still had to join a particular church. This was a difficult choice for one who was necessarily immature. However, a year later I was confirmed into the Church of England.

Fifty-seven years after, I can say I have never regretted that decision. Of course I have hated the Church of England as well as loved it, but when in my frustration I have considered leaving it I have found no other church to which I could belong.

I joined the Church of England because I wanted simply to be a Christian in England. I wanted a mainstream church with roots going right back to the beginning. I did not want a sect which seemed to me to cut itself off from society. I knew that the Church of England was intended to be the church of all English people, but that it had failed to achieve this. But I liked the idea of a comprehensive church embracing more than one point of view.

I knew that I would never agree with all my schoolmates over all matters of belief, but I wanted to share communion with them. It seemed to me - it still does - that to share communion it was more important to be in love and charity with my neighbours than to hold orthodox beliefs laid down by authority. I was quite clear that I did not want to join a church whose beliefs were decided by celibate priests in a foreign land.

In later years this same pattern of belief has taken firmer shape: Anglicans are not free to believe just anything. They acknowledge the Catholic Bible, the Catholic creeds, the Catholic sacraments, and the Catholic ministry, but they are not committed to any one interpretation of these. They are required to turn to Christ.

They retain Catholic traditions and practices. I could never bring myself to cut links with these, especially with the historic ministry of the Church, as I would if I joined one of the Free Churches.

My difficulties with the Roman Catholic Church are many. Basic is its concept of authority. I appreciate that human beings, like all mammals, naturally develop a hierarchy; but I do not trust such a hierarchy unless there are checks and balances, and for that reason I prefer the Anglican concept of disseminated authority, acknowledging the weight of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. This view of authority may make decisions difficult and painful, but it seems to me better than the kind of authority which has no need for consultation and so easily develops into tyranny.

Among Roman Catholics, the bishop is supreme in his diocese, and the Pope has universal jurisdiction over the whole Church and can appoint (and does appoint) bishops in direct opposition to the diocesan chapter; but I find no authority for this in Scripture. In Anglican theology, authority is vested in the bishop-in-synod, and there are many cheeks and balances which prevent his unilateral action. Frustrating as I found this as a bishop, I have to admit that it serves the Church well. In the Roman Catholic Church the role of the laity is to receive the teaching of the magisterium: apart from reception it has no say in its formulation. In the Anglican Church lay people have real authority which they share with priests and clergy. I find this more in keeping with the New Testament.

I am perturbed by authoritative teaching which I would be expected to accept as a Roman Catholic (or not to dissent from) and which I regard as false or erroneous. I would be forced to accept the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, declared infallibly and irreformably by a pope without biblical or conciliar authority with the threat that those who do not accept it have made shipwreck of their faith. Yet this belief is without warrant in the New Testament, and is now obsolete with our present understanding of original sin as due to our animal inheritance - the selfish gene - and the self-centredness of infancy necessary for our survival.

Original sin is inherent in humanity. Similarly the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven seems to me an uncatholic belief, derived from heretical sources in the fourth century, unevidenced in scripture and inherently improbable. Anglicans are free to hold both beliefs, if they so wish, but they are also free not to hold them. It seems to me a more Catholic attitude towards non-biblical dogmas.

These two doctrines raise the question of development. Since they are not explicit in the original deposit of faith, it is claimed that they properly develop from it, as a plant grows naturally from a bulb. By contrast Anglicanism is said to lack a proper doctrine of development. Yet it does countenance development: for example, 'of one substance with the Father', found in the so-called Nicene creed.

Without developments the Church would be unable to express itself in contemporary thought or give guidance in areas which have themselves developed since biblical times. But, in contrast to Rome, Anglican development allows for change, as has happened in its views about contraceptions.

To be a convinced Anglican is not to condemn members of other churches for being uncatholic, nor to distance oneself from their friendship. There are always aspects of other churches to admire. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has a fine record of saints down the ages, a sure sign of its catholicity. No doubt many among its members need an authoritarian type of religion for good psychological reasons.

For some it is necessary to feel that their faith is grounded on rock- hard foundations, indeed on Peter the rock. But there are others between Peter and the Pope, other than the bishopric of Rome which they hold in common, and they see no grounds for thinking that the promises made to Peter were entailed on his successors. For such people there are no cast-iron certainties, but only the adventure of faith which can bring its agonies as well as its joys.

Again there are some who need their Christian beliefs to be fully authorised. Others, however, acknowledge that there will always be difference of views within a church body. They believe that the conflict this engenders can actually be creative. Such people believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, that is to say the one universal church into which all are baptised.

The divided ecclesial bodies are divisions within that one church rather than schisms from it. Within those divisions Anglicans know that they constitute only a small body of Christians compared with Roman Catholics; but truth cannot be judged numerically, and Anglicans believe that their catholicity is as genuine as that of Roman Catholics and even, in some aspects, superior.