This is the first of three reflections on hierarchy.

By Christopher Wells

We denizens of democratic spaces do not much like rulers. We like, in the formulation of the French Revolution, liberté, égalité, and fraternité. We worry, with historical reason, that those who rule do so either by lineage or by fiat, both of which seem morally suspect as they remain unaccountable. How to reform a sovereign power when it has become lazy, corrupt, or simply second-rate? How to avoid the inevitable domination of kings, popes, and primates when they are given, or otherwise accumulate, too much power?

These questions touch on the problem of authority but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, on the problem of hierarchy: an interesting and ancient concept with a long political, religious, and theological history. In contemporary usage, hierarchy denotes the ranking of one above another in status or authority, and we commonly associate it with inherited systems of patronage and privilege. The liberal-democratic mind leaps to the Vatican, the military, and other forms of authoritarianism, underwritten by an all-too-tenacious patriarchy. Hierarchy passed into English from Old French and Latin but is Greek in origin, combining hieros, meaning sacred, and arkhēs or arché, meaning ruler. The English hierarch captures this. Orthodox Christians refer to bishops as hierarchs with reference to their authority, as distinct from analogous honorifics such as archpriest and archdeacon.

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Of course, western Christians know all about bishops and archbishops, and both these offices and their incumbents have often dramatized our ambivalence about authority and its associated powers. Simplifying only slightly, since the 16th-century Reformation, the Roman Catholic problem has been knowing who is in charge and worrying about it, while the Protestant problem has been not knowing who is in charge and worrying about it. Anglicans, falling somewhat accidentally in the middle, have faithfully reflected the indecision of all sides. In the Anglican Communion era, at least (from 1867 on), we are ever weighing pros and cons, consulting, starting to speak, and retreating again to the study. Muddling through.

Witness our latest considerations of the proper place and authority of the Primates’ Meeting, the instrument of communion of most recent vintage (1978) that seems bound to cause problems as it gathers the first or prime — in almost every case, arch — bishops to talk with one another. They may decide to do more than talk, which is the worry. Successive drafts of the Anglican Covenant mostly focused on the question of how decisions should be made and by whom, and its storied section IV saw the most rewriting. First the primates, then the Anglican Consultative Council, and finally a standing committee of both primates and the ACC were asked to decide what to do in hard cases. The Covenant is on ice, but the standing committee of the ACC soldiers on with one and another task, while the problem of structured authority and decision-making — also of bishops more broadly, as at the Lambeth Conference, and of the Archbishop of Canterbury — is deferred, for now.

The question of how best to structure the universal Church, and local churches, is a good one, and I do not propose to resolve it here. I will, in a second column, sketch something of the scriptural pattern of order, writ in trinitarian terms. But naming our context and questions is critical on the way to self-understanding. I take it that harnessing one of the oldest of Christian institutions, a variegated episcopate, more or less tops the list of ecclesiological errands before all the churches of Christendom. The World Council of Churches’ landmark Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) concluded as much in its retrieval of a scriptural oversight (episcopé) for all, and several Protestant traditions, including Lutherans and Methodists, have made adoption of the historic episcopate a primary point of possible development worth considering.

As an ordered pattern of administration and leadership that antedates the Dark Ages, the countercultural character of episcopal office seems more apparent to contemporary commentators. We sometimes forget that all sides in the 16th century found a place for reform, and the work has continued to today in perennial councils, synods, conventions, and special meetings that seek wise governance, led by the Spirit. In each case, we try both to apprehend the past and to leave room for adjustments, additions, and subtractions. All churches, including the Roman Catholic, are seeking some way in which sundry primates, archbishops and presiding bishops, and other designated overseers may sit alongside a representative group of others down the proverbial chain of command but no less empowered to speak or deserving attention. If, in this work, reflexive romanticism about the past remains a temptation — preserving in amber all that is old, never to be revised or revisited but only venerated — then its mirror impulse is presentist positivism, fed by something like amnesia or dementia: a wholesale replacing of the past with contemporary overconfidence. Both instincts tend to discourage dissent, and to decry the rain that historians inevitably conjure over parades of notional nostalgia and putative progress alike.

What we, the body of Christ, need at such times are ways and means to speak authentically together about the formative events — “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1). If and as we throw in the towel on Christian knowing per se or deem identification with the first-person plural too difficult, disorientation sets in, and with it a loss of confidence in universality or objectivity of any sort. When truth is put on notice by competing ideologies of powerbrokers and manipulators, decrying “alternative facts” in service of their self-interest, faith — in one another, in common institutions, even in God — can appear naïve at best, manipulative at worst. We relinquish the gift and call of universal concern, catholicism in its true sense, by so many accidental and intentional apostasies.

Christians profess belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, against which the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18). By this, we have held that the Holy Spirit of God animates the Church, even when the faith is lost, misarticulated, or betrayed in this or that place or instance for a time. God is faithful. Moreover, as a bond of love between times and places, God the Spirit, with the Father and the Son, serves as the first and final force in history, playing the lead role.

Is this drama in any sense hierarchical?

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of The Living Church Foundation.

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.

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