Given that Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 23:9 to call no-one on earth their father, how is it that we still refer to the Pope as "the Holy Father" and to priests as "Father"? Am I being too literal in interpreting the scriptures this way?
This reader's question could be regarded as an instance of biblical literalism, but the fact is that it crops up quite frequently among correspondents and even among commentators writing for The Tablet.
Of course, reaching for the Bible to solve questions of name and office in the 21st century is fraught with difficulty. The appeal of the Bible as the book of answers to every possible question is something we have inherited from the aftermath of the Reformation.
From this time on we find the rise of biblicism, the idea that the Bible is the revelation itself rather than a vehicle for revelation clothed in human language. The problem with biblicism is that not only does it reduce revelation to one religious source, but it excludes Tradition and the living teaching office of the Church as equitable religious authorities.
There is furthermore the question of how to interpret sayings as Matthew 23:9 to discover whether a) we have understood it correctly; b) whether it is appropriate to apply it 2,000 years down the line; and c) whether it actually speaks directly to the office holders of the New Testament community.
Closer examination of the text reveals that Jesus is addressing the disciples on the matter of religious authority.
At a time when the Pharisees hold the chair of Moses and teach from this chair, Jesus is asking the apostles to look no further than God for their ultimate ground of authority. He is effectively sweeping away the tradition of the elders and substituting his own relationship to the Father,
and therefore his authority for the voice of religious truth. "Call no-one on earth your Father" is not a comment about the future offices of the New Testament Church but a corrective to the Old Testament tradition of the sources of authority within the Jewish community.
Clearly, then, Jesus is not setting up a lay movement that is bereft of authority figures itself or indeed calling for the abolition of all human representation in worship of the one true God, but making it clear to the disciples that as his apostles their ground of authority will come to them directly from the Father.
We should not allow a faulty biblicism to obscure the appropriateness of the title "Father" that is applies
to figures who exercise the care of the New Testament community. While the adoption of the title "Father" by Catholic and Anglican priests is quite recent in modern English history there is a Church out there in Europe which has employed it for centuries.
How was the Alpha course started and by whom? Does the Church approve of the adoption of this programme by Catholics?
NICKY GUMBLE was
the founding father of the Alpha course. Now a vicar, he began life as an atheist.
At university he tended to avoid Christians until his best friend became one of them. He decided he would look into Christianity in order to understand why his mate had taken such a patently ridiculous step.
After reading a series of books on Christianity he picked up an old Bible and read through the New testament. By the time he had finished John's Gospel he realised that he had found the gift of faith and now believed in God.
He began meeting regularly with three other people in London on a Friday evening when people were making their way home from work. This group met over a meal and shared their faith for 17 years before others became attracted to it and its programme. Others
joined and today it has become a standard programme originally intended for atheists but now catering for all kinds of
people who wish to rekindle their faith.
The programme lasts for 15 sessions and begins with a meal, a video recording of Nick Gumble though one can also invite in other speakers a discussion of about 10 minutes, concluding with a prayer or hymn.
It tends to ask basic questions such as "What is Christianity?" or "Who is Jesus?" and seeks to provide the simplest possible answers to these questions.
The Catholic Church has now set up Alpha programmes with a distinctly Catholic angle on the original schema. There will be a special course on Catholic Alpha at All Saints Pastoral Centre, London Colney, St Albans, Hertfordshire, this weekend. Last minute enquiries can be made by telephoning 01727 827078.
Write with your doubt or query to: Fr Richard Barrett, Doubts & Queries, The Catholic Herald, Herald House, Lambs Passage, Bunhill Row, London EC1Y 8TQ