Despite the fact that it was written almost two millennia ago, a letter of St Clement to the Corinthians contains much that is relevant to the problems of the Church today. Paul Griffin explains
Each year on 23 November we celebrate St Clements day. He is referred to in the calendar as ‘Bishop of Rome, Martyr c.100’. He held his post only a couple of bishops after St Peter himself, and industrious excavators have turned up various bits of writing that have been ascribed to him. Of them, the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians seems genuine beyond reasonable doubt, and has points for us.
We know from St Paul that the Corinthians could be a terrible nuisance. On this occasion, they have deposed some priests, no doubt substituting men they preferred. Whether this was the result of a vote in the equivalent of a synod, we do not know. Anyway, why worry? Can people not have the priests they want? No doubt a number of people today would say they can.
Clement will emphatically not have this. He sees that if the Church is going to be more than a bunch of human beings doing what they like and to Gehenna with everybody else, there has to be some outside authority, and that authority must include the ordaining and appointing of priests. He says that the Apostles, the last of whom had probably died not
long before, ‘appointed bishops and deacons’ and directed how the ministry was to be continued. So he says the priests at Corinth must be reinstated.
The point is that one Church must not be suffered to become many churches, each teaching a variant Gospel. It is not that congregations do not deserve to be consulted about their particular needs, just that they cannot expect to be given the final decision.
This is such straight common sense that one wonders how anyone can have argued with it. It certainly seemed so to the Church for many centuries, as they fought off threatening heresies and divisions. The majority would accept it still; but of course no sound policy is proof against human fallibility, the abuse of power, or against political influences. Authority can become authoritarianism; a local church can be subject to intense pressure, as it was under Communism, when some of the wisest and best of people believed compromise to be a condition of survival. The shift of power from Rome to Constantinople, the nature and behaviour of medieval Popes and other Church leaders, the Crusades, Fascism, Communism, famine, war and
even prosperity have all contributed to the pressure upon apostolic authority in which St Clement so firmly believed.
The endless trouble of the ages has often persuaded people at their wits’ end to look for a less vulnerable authority, an unalterable basis of faith which can solve all problems. Islam and biblical fundamentalism offer just such a basis. More subtle forms of this temptation offer themselves to apparently more enlightened congregations. Our bishops are there to guard us against falling for this. No comment.
St Clement is helpful to us in another way. He refers to the special function of priests as ‘offering gifts’, by which he seems to mean celebrating the Eucharist. In other words, it was not right for Tom, Dick or Harry to officiate at the Mass: the bishop’s authority by ordination was needed. Here perhaps is a warning about any local tendency in the Anglican Church to introduce lay presidency.
St Clement refers to bishops as ‘rulers’ of the Church. Perhaps inadvertently he seems to be making a parallel with worldly methods of rule, as if bishops were to be little Caesars or Procurators. I find this notion acutely uncomfortable, our own methods of rule being what they are. I think one has to hold on to the truth that Christian government is sui generis, of its own sort, and based on the life of our Lord, whose authority over his disciples was complete, because it was based on love and humility.
I hope and believe that that was dear St Clement’s intention. \ND