Ecclesiastical authority


Theo Hobson points out that the Church of England seems unable to "reform itself without simultaneously pandering to the reactionaries who don't want reform." He suggests that this "jelly-headedness" with respect to progressive change is built into the very institutional framework of a church that is built around an ecclesiastical hierarchy:

Could it be that there is a fundamental incompatibility between ecclesiastical authority and modernity? Maybe the very idea of an authoritative spiritual hierarchy is irredeemably pre-modern. That is why the reactionaries can't be defeated: they are always more in tune with the logic of the institution than the progressives. The fact is that the feminist movement is ecclesiastically subversive - and the gay rights movement, too. For they both expose the fact that church authority has a different logic to secular liberal principles.
This hierarchy is indeed pre-modern, a relic of an era when absolute monarchies ruled the world, when theological governance simply mirrored the prevailing model for authority found in the secular arena. We've come a long way since then in the secular world, but parts of the theological world are still stuck in the past. The result does seem to be a stodgy conservatism. We've certainly seen this tendency towards resisting progressive reform within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which had a brief flirtation with it under John XXIII but since that time has had a succession of reactionary popes, including the current one, who made a name for himself during his previous job by bullying and harassing progressive theologians within his church.

One of Theo Hobson's commenters pointed out that Rowan Williams, who is a representative of this ecclesiastical hierarchy in England, ignores the fact that "his Church is supposed to have been founded by a radical wandering Rabbi who spent more time talking to tax collectors and prostitutes than he did worrying about whether going with his convictions would lose him his pension fund."

At every turn, Jesus stood opposed to those who set themselves up as the gatekeepers, who presumed to control and define terms of religious discourse. How did it happen that a church that claimed to follow his teachings itself became just another example of the very theological authoritarianism that he resisted? As the Who once put it--meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


Harry said...

Personally, I am happy with a hierarchical arrangement.

At least Christianity hasn't become the sort of bland mush you seem to relish.

Where do you get off criticizing other people's religions anyway?

I thought you were tolerant and open minded?

Frank said...

Reactionaries have an out-of-proportion level of power in secular insitutions, as well. Just look at the influence of fundamentalism on American media and government outlets, as an example.

I think their level of power has more to do with their ability to focus on a particular end. A group of highly focused, dedicated individuals can often sway a majority of people who have more moderate feelings but are less tied to those opinions.

American government is held hostage by special interests as a result--they are willing to do the work to lobby for themselves, and everyone else can vent their complaints but no one is ambitious enough to actually do anything about the special interest lobby, so it stays.

I think a similar phenomenon happens in religious institutions.

Gary said...

Could it be that in this emerging postmodern world we are witnessing a subtle implosion of these pre-modern institutions? Given the average age of church parishioners for the mainline churches (at least from my experience), this seems likely.

Mystical Seeker said...


Do you think there is a way of achieving an institutional reform that would curb the power of reactionaries?


I do have to wonder what these institutions will look like in another 50 or 100 years.

Frank said...


The best answer that I have found is to have true grassroots, across-the-board involvement and interest in the process from all people. Then and only then will that power be curbed.

The problem is that most people get involved in times of crisis, then become complacent when the crisis is over and end up yielding to the people with stronger interests. For any democracy to work, there is a responsibility of the people to do their part, but I'm not seeing that happen in any institution--religious, government, etc.

I'm convinced there is some organic reason why that just doesn't happen (just like there is an organic reason why forms of socialism don't work when implemented, either). Theories are great, but when they don't work out on a consistent basis then maybe its time for a new theory.

I do believe that structures are part of the answer, so the idea that the hierarchical structure is contributing to the problem fits into this. I'm just not sure what structures would encourage a more wide spectrum of involvement rather than reactionary.

PrickliestPear said...

I don't see "reactionaries" as being on one end of a horizontal spectrum with progressives on the other. They are usually at a lower stage of spiritual (and often, but not always, cognitive) development. Those are the people to whom authorities cater because they are the ones who are less capable of making judgments on their own.

People often ask me why I stay in the Catholic Church. The reason is simple: if all the progressives left, there would only be conservatives (and largely uncommitted moderates). Progressives may not have a lot of decision-making power in the church, but we can have influence. You have to look at the big picture. It's not important to me to have church leaders whose teaching I can accept, because frankly, I'm quite capable of finding things out on my own.

Mystical Seeker said...

Denominational loyalty is a funny thing. I know that many people want to fight the good fight within their denominations in order to reform them. I think it is an admirable endeavor, but I don't have that sense of attachment to any particular denomination (I was brought up in a fundamentalist church that I long ago washed my hands of), so for me there is a different dynamic at work.