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The Petrine ministry

St Peter's Day: 29th June, 2004
Rev'd Dr Andrew McGowan, Director, Trinity College Theological School
Trinity College, University of Melbourne

There is an old joke that the reason Ss. Peter and Paul share this feast day is because it was the only way to reconcile these two argumentative apostles; unable to abide each other in life, martyrdom and the Church's veneration achieve a heavenly harmony that theological argument could not. Peter and Paul do seem to embody various contrasts or tensions we find in the Gospel then and since; between stability and dynamism, authority and freedom, between pastoral compromise and radical commitment. But here this evening as we give Peter a particular honour as patron of this Church, I suggest an important and problematic tension just within this one apostolic hero. For the Church, I suspect, has two views of him that run parallel to one another, are not very well-integrated, and are coming home to haunt us in a time of uncertainty and change for the Church.

Sometimes we speak of Simon Peter as the most accessible and universal model of real Christian existence. This is Simon son of John, the disciple of Jesus: he is well-meaning but fallible, sometimes a bit thick but good-hearted, sometimes unreliable or even cowardly but capable of renewal and redemption. Simple Galilean fisherman, he denies but loves, he misunderstands but has faith. Good old Simon – one of us.

At other times however Simon Peter is the most unique and inimitable of Christians. This is Peter, the apostle of Christ: he is human but works miracles, a martyr but can call down death on the unworthy, is bound in chains but holds the keys of the kingdom. First Roman bishop, on this rock the Church is built and heaven help anyone who builds otherwise. Good, holy Peter – pray for us.

We use these different sides of Peter, depending on what issue we are dealing with. Good old Simon the sincere but fallible fisherman is fair game for thinking about faith, failure, repentance and redemption – we can all have a piece of him, and he can often stand for any or all of us. He is an accessible and even a levelling figure. But holy Peter, prince of the apostles, is an altogether different matter; he is the embodied rationale for certain forms of order and power in the Church, accessible to only a few, and certain particular individuals claim to stand uniquely in his shoes.

There is no question that Simon Peter was a figure of unique significance in the apostolic Church. The saying of Jesus in today's Gospel that makes Simon into Peter "the rock" was remembered and re-told not as a general lesson about the importance of confessing faith in Jesus as the Christ, but specifically because he had done so, and thus began to become the greatest of the early Christian heroes. But what is the continuing general meaning of his unique heroic story?

Since Peter's apostolic ministry in the Church is presented as a universal one, the Church sometimes speaks of a "Petrine ministry", referring most famously to the eventual role of the papacy in the Western Church, but also and more originally to the office of bishop in general, since the bishops were understood to share, as successors of the apostles, in the apostolic ministry of which Peter was head and exemplar.

Now in the last few weeks the Australian Church has yet again been reminded of the limitations of those who exercise this Petrine ministry. We are indeed slowly – too slowly – coming to terms with the failures of individuals and institutions to protect the weakest in our midst, and the tendency to make superficial responses to matters such as clergy sexual abuse.

But however far we have still to go with those issues, I suspect that we are yet to address properly a fundamental problem that our present culture of leadership allows and even fosters, and to which I think the picture of ˘dual Peters÷ I have drawn is relevant. For once we have identified men – just men so far at least – who are sufficiently capable and presentable, then we apparently expect them to exercise a form of apostolic heroism that we do not expect of ourselves. A week ago the Daily Telegraph published a leading article about current discussions about reforming the number and function of bishops of the Church of England, saying "A bishop of the Church of England should have a touch of magnificence about him". It is as though this editorialist expects the House of Bishops to do for the English what the House of Windsor could not, and continue to present leadership as a heroic fantasy.

We have tended to make bishops into heroes and scapegoats, alienating from ourselves both the power and responsibility. The truth is, magnificence has not always served us or them all that well. But have we made them too much like Peter or not enough? For if we treat Peter as one person, and not two, as I think we must and should, then we have to cope with the fact that the prince of the apostles is a bit obtuse. His two saving graces are faith and a failure to take himself too seriously – and would that we could always say the same of bishops.

I say this however not to criticise those successors to the apostles, but to ask us all whether we have stopped too early in the story when it comes to claiming Peter as a role model and representative for all, as well as starting too late in the story when it comes to constructing him as a model of Episcopal "Petrine ministry". For if we insist on clothing leaders in the Church with the status of the apostle Peter but deny them the humanity of the disciple Simon, we are not only creating further disasters for them and for those who are the specific victims of their particular failings – we are thereby denying to ourselves the exercise of authority and responsibility that comes with every Christian calling, of which Peter is also a representative.

Let us indeed have a Petrine ministry in the Church – in which leaders are fallible servants, loved and supported by us all rather than lionized and then vilified when they fail, and in which the people as a whole share in the exercise of authority and responsibility. As numerous dioceses around the Australian Church seek to fill the office of bishop, let us join our prayers with Peter's for leaders who will like him serve with power, know when they fail and have denied their faith, and seek forgiveness and renewal. And may we here in this place continue to follow the steps of that disciple whose failures did not prevent him from following his Lord to the end.


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