Forgiving Peter

We saw in my previous post how James Alison contrasts the “Temple” as a source of sacred fascination (whether we are attracted to it or react against it) with the “shepherding” of God’s people.

This then affects how we relate to religious authorities or “the institutional church”, particularly when we find ourselves at odds with them. Alison addresses this in a passage so good I’ve made it available in full here (PDF). He writes:

If we have a model of Jesus who is not indifferent to the Temple, but who is in rivalry with it, then we will also see the Pope and the Vatican, if we are Catholic, or whatever the equivalent is in our denomination, as occupying the place of Annas, Caiaphas and so on, and we will attribute to them a power and an authority and a coerciveness which we can resent, and our imaginations can work full-time in thinking about how awful they are and how heroic we are in standing up against them.

What this will mean, however, is that we “not have left the Temple at all”, and that we are still “utterly locked in to the centre of mimetic fascination, with its draw and its repulsion”.

Alison continues with “a point which is easy to make as a Catholic”, but which he hopes his readers “will find ways of translating it into your own denominational understanding” (see below for my attempt to do so):

The point of the Pope and the Vatican is not that it is the Temple, but that it is Peter. And the whole point of Peter is that he is not something splendid and heroic and imposing, but something weak and unheroic and vacillating. That is to say, just the sort of person with whom we cannot maintain real communion unless we learn to like him without paying too much attention to whatever bits of braggadocio he and his groupies have come up with.

And we learn to like him not because he’s nice or good, but because God has chosen to make God’s strength and salvation available to those who are able not to mind being in the company of the unheroic, the vacillating, the weak.

In other words, “if we read Peter as the Temple” – that is, if we see our religious authorities as something with which we are in a “sacred rivalry” – then we “will always be self-indulgent children needing a love/hate-figure”. Instead we should:

…learn to see the Pope as Peter, a fumbling figure trying to work out what to do as the Temple keeps on collapsing around him, rather as we ourselves are trying to do, and not let our over-charged imagination of him “get to us”.

This will then enable us to “develop a shepherding in the midst of the collapse of the Temple”: in short, to obey Jesus’ command to “Feed my sheep”:

Which means it will always be lived by us within the process of learning a certain sort of indifference to “Church-as-Temple” and of learning a growing sense of affection for what I would call “Shepherding with Peter”, whoever your Peter is.

How to apply this to the Lutheran church, particularly within “confessional” Lutheranism? Well, one might say that instead of “Peter” lurking over our shoulders we have “Paul” – in that we probably see the role of our leaders as being to perpetuate the teaching of Apostle Paul rather than the ministry of “Pope” Peter.

For some of us, though, the equivalent of “Peter” may be the “synodical bureaucrats” whom we see as promoting their institutional interests over the work of the gospel, or replacing Lutheran traditions with trendy by-products of modern evangelicalism. Or it might be those we perceive as self-appointed “guardians of confessional orthodoxy”, always on the alert to slap down any thinking that appears to go off the well-trodden paths of the Lutheran confessions – confessions which can themselves take on the status of “Temple” rather than guidebook for the Shepherds.

Whoever Peter is for us, today, the call is the same: not to get drawn into the fascination of attraction or repulsion to the Temple which Peter may claim to represent, but to forgive his “braggadocio” and recognise him as our fellow shepherd (a role which belongs to all of us in the priesthood of believers, but most especially to those in the holy ministry), feeding God’s sheep as the Temple of sacred fascination collapses around us.

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