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An Analysis of Anglican Concepts of the Papal Magisterium from the First through the Tenth Lambeth Conference (1867-1968)
by Burns K. Seeley
The Vatican I teaching relating to the primacy of the papal magisterium was, for the most part, unfavorably received in the Anglican Communion during the hundred years following its promulgation. This attitude was found, for example, in the episcopal Lambeth Conferences and in Anglican scholarship, both of which served to strengthen further resistance to the councils teaching.
Scholarship of this sort was especially undertaken by members of the Anglo-Catholic school of thought who viewed the conciliar doctrine as a threat to their belief in the magisterial primacy of the universal historic episcopate. Their endeavors also often influenced pronouncements made by the Lambeth Conferences with respect to both papal and episcopal authority. One of the chief problems, therefore, regarding an eventual Anglican-Roman Catholic reunion in the Truth is the accuracy of the Anglo-Catholic concepts of the papal magisterium.
The thesis, consequently, has been principally a critical analysis of the explicit and implicit concepts of the papal magisterium held by Anglo-Catholic scholars and the first ten Lambeth Conferences. In practice, this has included a critical examination of the evidence used in support of the concepts which, in the case of scholars, was limited largely to passages from Scripture and other writings of the early undivided Church.
Among the earlier scholars and conferences, there was a tendency to reject completely the Roman Catholic interpretation of the testimony supplied by the early Church. Neither Scripture, nor the Fathers, nor the early councils were thought to support a belief in a divinely authorized magisterial primacy for either Peter or his alleged successors in the See of Rome. The most that could be conceded to Peter was a divinely appointed primacy of honor as the first among equals. The Bishop of Rome was also thought to hold a primacy of honor in the early Church, but this was said to be ecclesiastically conferred only.
Over the years, however, Anglo-Catholic scholarship began to change in its attitude towards Petrine authority. Instead of a primacy of honor, there was at first a tendency to speak of a primacy of authority among equals. Then some scholars began to discern a divinely bestowed primacy of authority over the apostolic college and the whole Church which, in some instances, was described as a magisterial, legislative and pastoral primacy.
With the exception of two authors who fully endorsed the Roman Catholic doctrine of the papacy, scholarly attitudes towards papal authority remained fairly constant during the period covered by the thesis until about the middle of the present century. At this time, the beginnings of what appeared to be a trend were perceived in which the Roman pontiffs were believed to be the genuine heirs of Peters primatial authority. However upon close analysis, it was seen that the magisterial primacy of the papacy was actually thought to be subject to the magisterial authority of the universal historic episcopate.
As Anglo-Catholics developed concepts of the papal magisterium which more closely resembled the teaching of the Church of Rome, there was also a noticeable change in the attitudes of the Lambeth Conferences towards the problem of papal authority suggesting a cause and effect relationship. The earlier conferences held in effect that the Church of Rome would have to change its doctrine before it could be considered in a more ecumenical light. But during the 1897 and 1908 Conferences, the beginnings of a less stringent posture were seen. This trend culminated in the 1968 Conference which advocated the resolution of the question of papal authority by mutual study under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In the process of analyzing the concepts of the papal magisterium, it was noticed that a significant amount of misunderstanding existed with respect to the Roman Catholic teaching on the matter. For example many scholars, even those writing towards the end of the period under consideration, believed that the Church of Rome taught that the papacy had exclusive authority in matters of doctrine. Consequently, evidence was presented which revealed a legitimate magisterial role for the members of the historic episcopate, which was also taken as revealing a magisterial primacy for the episcopal college. Often overlooked or dismissed, however, was other evidence which in fact supported the genuine Roman Catholic position.
Another common misconception was the belief that the Church of Rome taught that the papacy had immediate and direct access to doctrinal truth. In response to this, Anglican scholars pointed out that the episcopal college of the early Church settled matters of doctrine by searching out the teaching of Scripture and ancient tradition in ecumenical councils.
In the closing pages of the thesis, it was recommended that more Anglican cognizance be taken of ancient evidence which supported the belief in the primacy of the papal magisterium. It was also recommended that the results of such an endeavor be compared with the actual teaching of the Church of Rome in the matter, which should reveal a striking fidelity of the Roman Catholic doctrine with that of the early undivided Church.
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