On this rock... (St Peter's Day)

Based on a sermon given at St Peter's Church, Melbourne (Eastern Hill), June 29 2008

During the mid-twentieth century, excavations underneath the High Altar at St Peter’s Basilica in
Rome uncovered a series of ancient tombs, some pre-Christian and others connected with earlier Churches built on that site.

In the early Christian centuries, places of worship were very often built over the tombs of martyrs. In contrast to some other ancient religious traditions including Judaism, which kept mortal remains at a respectful distance, the bodies of the faithful departed and especially the martyrs were focal points that attracted Christian worship and devotion, their relics witnesses to the faith built on their example.

The Church in Rome has from a very early date commemorated the martyrdom there of Peter, and of Paul, and celebrated their life and witness as heroes of local Christian history. The archaeologists working under St Peter’s Basilica found evidence that might confirm this particular connection; across one red-plastered wall containing a burial niche is a piece of graffiti that seems to say, in Greek, “Peter is within”. The ancient and then more recent Basilicas on that site were, then, literal expressions of the idea of building the Church on Peter.

Knowledge of the fact of Peter’s martyrdom, if not the place, was fundamental to his authority in the ancient Church. Although his imprisonment and death are not recorded in the New Testament, they inform the poignant farewell scene at the end of John’s Gospel, where Jesus predicts Peter’s being bound and led where he does not want to go, and the accounts of the story that Jesus said he would build his Church on the ‘rock’ that was Peter. For ancient as for more recent hearers, these would have evoked his faithful witness and the community born from it.

Later however the Church was to read Peter’s status in a somewhat different and more institutional way – not just in the literal building of Churches on his bones, but particularly by thinking of his leadership not as that of an itinerant apostolic martyr who was in Rome when he died, but as a sort of primordial ecclesiastical bureaucrat who had set up shop there. Yes, we made Peter a bishop.

The question of whether Peter was ever bishop in Rome is less a difficult one, than just the wrong one. In the first few decades of the Church’s life there was a mixture of local and apostolic leaders, whose action and interaction was initially more dynamic than institutional. Some of the local leaders were called “bishops”; but it was the fact that Peter died in Rome, not any local leadership role there, that underlay the association between this first among apostles and the city and Church that have been preeminent in western Christian life.

Yet just as the literal fact of St Peter’s Basilica represents and reminds us of his witness, so too episcopacy, not just in Rome but in the universal Church, has always been related to the same apostolic foundation. This is not just the fact of it or its institutional continuity, but the connection with courageous witness is also supposed to tell us something about what leadership in the Church is to be like.

You have probably noticed that the Anglican world is currently full of meetings, especially of bishops. In just over two weeks the Lambeth Conference will take place, with a large majority but not all of the Anglican bishops in attendance. In Jerusalem last week a coalition of conservative Anglicans, led by prominent prelates, made their own claims about the future of the Church.

A great fourth-century bishop and theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, is said to have written affectingly about such meetings: “I avoid”, he said, “all gatherings of bishops. One finds there love of money and love of power that beggar description”.

This somewhat jaded ancient perspective and our perhaps confused or discouraged modern ones alike tell us that struggles over preeminence in the Church are not new, and that despite sure foundations of apostolic witness, the edifices of the Church structure may sometimes seem less than edifying. Yet it is not primarily institutional structures by which the Church will be judged, even though they are important, but the authenticity of our witness.

We exist in a fragmented Church – by which I mean not merely the well-publicized rifts within Anglicanism, but the divisions of Christianity as a whole. These are the great scandal and difficulty, not internal Anglican ructions. We Anglicans have had a rather unique calling amid the competing and clashing claims of rival groups, namely a claim to inclusion or comprehensiveness; may it continue to be so. It is understandable then if we are discouraged by the current events, whatever our opinions are about the matters at issue.

Yet it is the authentic and costly lived witness of the Church, not its institutional unity, that is the foundation of its claim to real authority. The rock on which Christ built his Church was a real person whose tradition was bequeathed to real places – but it was his martyrdom, not his management, which underlies the great tradition of the Church that was to emerge after him.

The connection of his example with later bishops, in Rome and elsewhere, is not about so much episcopacy per se as about faithful and courageous witness in such leadership. We do have such genuinely Petrine bishops working among us and for us, close by and far away. They include Geoffrey Robinson, a Roman Catholic bishop risking disapproval for his courageous witness concerning abuse in the Church, and now two new women, Barbara and Kay, who are bishops in our own national Church, and who share in this calling. These and many others are inheritors and stewards of that truly Petrine ministry.


  1. Anonymous1:47 pm

    Thank you, Andrew.
    Your cogent thoughtfulness is especially welcome these strange, estranging days. -- Laura


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