We are under a requirement from our consciences to ask ‘by what authority do you say these things’? Jesus spoke as though he was the Law, and that was at the heart of the offence he gave to the religious authorities. Religious authorities always struggle to balance the two parts of their name – to behave as they think their religion requires, and to behave as authorities. Like all in authority they get used to thinking they are right, and when so many of their fellows agree with them, it is easy enough for the lot of them to get upset with those who don’t. In politics and business, such fellows are marginalised and kept out; in religions they’re heretics and can be persecuted. Jessica used to quote one of my favourite lines from Byron’s Don Juan: ‘Christians have burned each other quite persuaded/that all the Apostles would have done as they did’. It’s easy (which is why Byron did it) to sneer at that, but it betokens a seriousness about salvation we seem to have lost.
We can see in the letters of John, Peter, Jude and Paul a concern for those who had been part of the church and had broken away, with John concluding that such had never really been with them. The evangelists referred things to the oral and written ‘traditions’ they had received. If what a fellow said didn’t fit, then nor did the fellow, but within a generation or so it became more difficult to enforce that orthodoxy – or right belief. If we read what John writes in his letters, it’s clear that there were those he had converted who then questioned what he taught, and it looks as though he ended with a local church is schism. It happened to the Apostles, and it happens to us, as it has in all the centuries which hae intervened.
Christians have sought various answers to this problem on the long and winding road of history. One route is what you might call the doctrinal one. The Orthodox take the first seven Councils and accept the doctrine therefrom, as indeed do the Roman Catholics, although they have had many more Councils, but the Orthodox do not recognise them as ecumenical. We tend to go with the example of the Churches which began in the Roman Empire, but we know that missionaries went east and that there are churches which never owed allegiance to Rome (and which could not for political reasons), and which received only (at best) fragmentary information about matters of doctrine and dogma.
The Bible, which ought really to be a source of unity, has not been so, even among Protestants, as we tend to interpret it differently on some important issues – as indeed do Catholics (as the current Synod shows). One lot of us think the other lot are lax, another lot think the rest are rigorists, and this church thinks that one heretical, and that one thinks this one too rigid. All think they are inspired by the same Spirit, who is, of course, the Spirit of peace and of concord, and yet peace and concord there is not, even in the Church which takes pride in being built on the rock of St Peter.
I long ago left off trying to work any of this out. God is love and yet the world is what it is. We can, all of us, only to come God with what Grace we have been given, and in the next world we shall understand these things which now perplex us.