There was an interesting discussion involving the Young Fogey and bls somewhere recently that focused on the issue of whether a church–the Church–is infallible or not and the consequences that result from it.
As I recall (and I know you’ll correct me if I get it wrong), YF was arguing that if the Church—whether in the person of the Pope or in its councils as with the Eastern churches—is infallible, then all efforts to change its doctrine and/or discipline outside these channels are not only misguided but morally and theologically wrong.
bls was arguing that if the Church—in whatever local instantiation—is not infallible, then its doctrine and discipline can and should be reviewed and changed if necessary.
Needless to say, the 39 Articles and its thoughts on the fallibility of churches and councils were put into play suggesting that a core part of Anglican identity depends on the notion that neither churches nor the Church are infallible.
To my mind, this question and its implications are definitely worth discussing and pursuing. As YF noted, the way we answer this issue has a great deal to do with current theological dispute and how—or if—they can be settled. If the Church is infallible, current attempts to reinterpret, say, traditional teachings on human sexuality are wrong, full stop. If it is not infallible, then not only are such attempts not wrong but are even helpful. If people holding opposing positions talk they will be able to come to an understanding but not an agreement.
My own understanding is, following Vincent’s Commonitory, that doctrine is more or less fixed. Development in doctrine should not be change but rather an unfolding of the implications of what has been thought and taught and practiced from the beginning. Discipline, however, is a different story and is culturally shaped and conditioned. (And where the line is drawn is a debated issue as well—I see women’s ordination as a matter of discipline, not doctrine, though I know that some disagree.)
What follows from that stance is that I believe the Church and its various local instantiations is not infallible. Rather, reading Matthew’s parable of the wheat and the tares—as the Fathers did—pertaining to the current state of Christ’s church, it is not pure but has wheat and tares intermingled. Further, I think it’s clear that some of the tares have made it to the top in various times and places (like, say, the Borgia popes…).
Too, how we answer the question has implications for both our pneumatology and our christology. If it is not fallible, then how do we understand the presence of the Holyu Spirit in the Church and the Church as the Body of Christ? If the Church can err does that mean Jesus can err as well? And that, of course, heads down a road I’d rather not travel…
I’ll add one further thought on the matter which is to say that I think the question of fallibility/infallibility is properly framed at the level of the Church/churches, not at the level of the Scriptures. To proclaim the Scriptures infallible seems to me a an easy out because what is being proclaimed infallible is not really the Scriptures but a certain interpretation thereof.
(Too, if we deemed the Scriptures infallible I would see it requiring us to say that they are infallible in their purpose as well as their content—and thus everyone who reads them will necessarily, infallibly, become Christian. And that’s patently not the case…)