Over the past several months, I have been consumed with questions about the purpose and role of structure, that is, of order, harmony, and even hierarchy. These reflections were not chosen deliberately by me but have been made necessary for two reasons.
First, this time of crisis in the Anglican Communion has led to a series of interlocking problems regarding the governance of congregations, dioceses, national and regional provinces, and a worldwide Communion; these problems remain unresolved and few have the appetite to discuss ecclesiology or structure these days, despite the importance of the topic. Second, the Church of England has for many years been engaging in a debate about whether the traditional structures of the Church are a hindrance to mission, at least since the publication of Mission-shaped Church (2004) and the many responses and initiatives that have flowed from it regarding “fresh expressions,” a “mixed-economy church,” and the future of parishes. In both cases, crisis and debate has usually been precipitated and played out in terms of contradictory movements and actions by local players. Theology has almost always taken a backseat, the present order of things is widely disparaged (when it is not casually ignored), and commitment to traditional structures and even to the distinctiveness of ordained ministry is dismissed as backward, idealistic, or nostalgic. (I might add a third reason for reflection as well: my own involvement in a church plant, but that is a story for another time.)
What has become clear is that Anglicans have come to lack any agreed upon account of life-giving structures in human society and the Church: how order provides an environment and pattern for the playing out of human life. We often have an idea of power that is essentially negative rather than productive; we are blind to the idea that authority may be exercised by individuals and corporate bodies, not oppressively, but in ways that are liberating and necessary. Finally, we are unwilling to accept the necessity of hierarchy: that any human community will have inequalities of responsibility that guide the diversities of function and gift, power and weakness. We forget that it is not a question of whether we will have structures, whether power will be exercised, or whether hierarchy will be expressed; it is rather a question of how and for what purpose. It is also a question of how openly or transparently structure, power, and hierarchy operate.
In my reflections, I have been driven back again and again to a number of seminal biblical passages and themes:
- the establishment of distinction, harmony, and rule in creation (Gen. 1:1-2:3);
- the founding of Israel as a people at Mount Sinai and its endowment with laws, land, and liturgy (Ex. 19-40; but cf. the whole Pentateuch);
- the constitution of the Church’s leadership and preaching in the commissioning of the 12 apostles and the 70/72 preachers or elders, both hearkening back to the establishment of Israel (Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-20, and parallels; cf. Gen. 46:1-27 and 49; Num. 11:16-30);
- the description of the Church as a body of mutual respect, beauty, concord, and, yes, hierarchy (1 Cor. 12:12-31);
- and the ascended Christ’s gift of varied ministries for the strengthening of his body, that its various ligaments may connect the whole to the Head, from whom life flows (Eph. 4:11-16).
I have also been driven back again and again to the idea of beauty. We might be surprised to learn that the idea of beauty in creation and the Church has, in the past, been tied directly to their order. The varied magnificence of the world created by God (earth, heavens, seas, birds, fish, angels, human beings, communities, civilizations) and the splendor of the Church (her many peoples, her message and ministry, her worship and virtues, her unity with her Lord) cannot be separated from order. Indeed, in nearly all classical accounts of beauty, whether by philosophers, theologians, or aestheticians, pattern, variation, wholeness, and harmony play important roles.
And yet our age is undoubtedly allergic to even the word order. Consider the immediate, visceral reaction so many (including me) had to the leadership of “the First Order” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At one point, we are treated to a vacuous, spitting Hitler-style rant by an unmistakably Aryan “General Hux” in front of a stark red and black banner, delivered to row upon row of nearly identically armed and armored Stormtroopers, distinguished only by small signs of military rank and by their organization into squadrons and battalions. Then comes the destruction of a whole planet by Starkiller Base as part of “the end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder.” Can it get any worse? If this is what order looks like, then down with this sort of thing, we want to say.
For this reason, my reflections have hewn closely to the concept of beauty as I have read reflections on creation and the Church in Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, as well as Gregory of Nazianzus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor. If we are to understand and provide an account of life-giving structures, power, and hierarchy in our time, I suspect we will have to get to them by this apparently, though not actually, indirect route.
Beauty will guide us. We can imagine a beautiful ethical life, a beautiful congregational life, a beautiful Anglican Communion, perhaps more easily than we can imagine founding ourselves on a vision of “right order.” Some of Anglicanism’s cherished Hookerian turns of phrase may need to be displaced by more aesthetic imagery. (For other inquiries on this blog regarding the centrality of beauty in Anglican and Christian life, see here, here, here, and here.)
My reading has for this reason meandered toward various accounts of architecture and its purpose. This is hardly surprising given our faith’s consistent recourse to building metaphors when speaking about the human person, the Church, Jesus Christ, and even the whole created order: all of these are referred to as a “temple” or “tent” in Scripture or addressed as a “city” (our liturgies reinforce this pattern). Their joint existence as built environments, layered and mirrored one upon the other — what Augustine might call the totus Christus or “whole Christ” — have generated some of the most interesting pieces of theological work over the centuries: the Venerable Bede’s “Temple Trilogy” of biblical commentaries, On the Tabernacle, On the Temple, and On Ezra and Nehemiah; Maximus the Confessor’s Church’s Mystagogy; work by Nicholas of Cusa or Richard Hooker; and, in our own time, a series of different pieces by R.R. Reno and Ephraim Radner, among others.
But these theological and literary sojourns have also led to the work of Christopher Alexander, emeritus professor of architecture at UC–Berkeley (see his piece in the February 2016 issue of First Things, “Making Gardens”). His life’s work has been to provide an alternative to modern practices of architecture, planning, and construction. I have yet to delve into his four-volume series on The Nature of Order, published between 2001-05, but even the titles of those works are illuminating and show why a turn to accounts of pattern and structure in the aesthetic fields (art, architecture, music, home design) might help us return to intractable problems of ecclesiology with fresh eyes:
- Book One: The Phenomenon of Life
- Book Two: The Process of Creating Life
- Book Three: A Vision of a Living World
- Book Four: The Luminous Ground
Consider also a passage from the preface of The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems (2012), coauthored with Hans Joachim Neis and Maggie Moore Alexander:
Our book describes a revolutionary vision of the human environment: one which will, in coming eras, be conceived, designed, built, made, and widely understood as a necessity of emotional and social life. This will inevitably change the way we conduct ourselves in all the arts of building.
From the very beginning of the building project described in this book, we intended to show that architecture can bring life to a community — indeed, that it is necessary in order to help the community come to life. Thus, we mean to show how the physical fabric of the buildings plays a necessary and unavoidable role in the success of a community.
But in 1985, there was almost no tradition left that could support such a symbiosis of building form, social behavior, and human feeling. Building production systems did not support this kind of endeavor, and people did not even know (then or now) how to make themselves comfortable in their own environment — not in the obvious sense, and not in any subtle senses either.
I have a feeling that in 2016 there is “almost no tradition left” to support any sense of “symbiosis” between church structures, the ordained ministry, and the ethical lives of Christian individuals. This is not because the Christian tradition (or the Anglican tradition especially) has failed to produce accounts of them, but we have become suspicious of all such accounts and of structure, power, and hierarchy more generally (see Ephraim Radner’s recent post related to this point). What perhaps remains to us is to renew our common vision of how structure serves life; how the architecture of the Christian body connects all its members to its head in a marvelous order of mutuality, honor, and love; how the beautiful life must of necessity be a harmonious one. We must return to our essential craft and vocation: the architecture of faith.
Because Christopher Alexander’s account of built environments mirrors Christian reflections on harmony in the creation and the Church, I will close this piece with several quotations placed side-by-side. From Alexander:
The purpose of all architecture, the purpose of its spatial-geometric organization, is to provide opportunities for life-giving situations. The central issue of architecture, and its central purpose, is to create those configurations and social situations, which provide encouragement and support for life-giving comfort and profound satisfaction — sometimes excitement — so that one experiences life as worth living. When this purpose is forgotten or abandoned, then indeed, there is no architecture to speak of. (Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, pp. 1-2)
And from Pseudo-Dionysius:
The goal of a hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him. … If one talks of a hierarchy, what is meant is a certain perfect arrangement, an image of the beauty of God which sacredly works out the mysteries of its own enlightenment in the orders and levels of understanding of the hierarchy, and which is likened toward its own source as much as is permitted. … Therefore when hierarchic order lays it on some to be purified and on others to do the purifying, on some to receive illumination and on others to cause illumination, on some to be perfected and on others to bring about perfection, each will actually imitate God in the way suitable to whatever role it has. (The Celestial Hierarchy 3.2)
Because of this inspired, hierarchical harmony, each one is able to have as great as possible a share in him who is truly beautiful, wise, and good. … The common goal of every hierarchy consists of the continuous love of God and of things divine, a love which is sacredly worked out in an inspired and unique way. (The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 1.2, 1.3)