The hierarchy turned upside down

The comments in my previous post led to a discussion of whether I was calling for a removal of all hierarchies (especially within the church), or just a transformation in how they operate.

To put this into concrete terms: I’m a member of a church body that doesn’t have separate orders of bishop and presbyter. That has a “chairman” rather than an “archbishop”. Previously I was a low-church Anglican. My instincts, politics and church background are anti-hierarchical, or at least non-hierarchical.

However, I don’t have any problems with bishops as such. If the ELCE had a bishop rather than a chairman, I’d be happy with that (indeed, on balance I’d probably prefer it). So when it comes to the concrete, particular example of churches such as the Church of England, I am not calling for a removal of their hierarchies.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues over how those hierarchies function. Revd Bosco Peters has written a superb post on what the church’s celebrations of baptism, confirmation and ordination say about the relative importance afforded to each.

Revd Peters contrasts the splendour of a recent ordination service – a two-hour service in a “grand, full cathedral, with one of the world’s excellent choirs, with grand processions of robed clergy, coped archdeacons, billowing incense, and five splendidly attired bishops, with prostrations and much ceremony” – with the far humbler setting of the baptisms and confirmations which those being ordained would previously have experienced.

He continues:

In the Bible and in the early church, everything was the other way around. Baptism marked the great occasion. In the early church the lengthy baptism liturgy was celebrated throughout the Easter night with much drama after lengthy, intense preparation. Confirmation was integral to baptism, and ordination was the early-church equivalent of a little addition to a regular service.

This not only says something about an upside-down theology that makes ordination appear more important than baptism, but it tells us something about where power lies in the church. That ordination service may have been very splendid, but it was also communicating (however inadvertently) a view of the church in which power and legitimacy flow down from the top of a hierarchy to the laity at the bottom. The world knows what processions (or “motorcades”, as modern leaders prefer to call them) are for – the projection of power – even if the church forgets (or pretends to).

A church in which baptisms were more spectacular occasions than ordinations would be a church that was getting its approach to hierarchy right, or at least more right than most.

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