by Robert Brow
Protestants of the non-Episcopal sort have usually assumed that bishops and popes are the wicked fruits of medievalism or priestly pretensions. That the ordered hierarchy of priests and bishops under one pope was part and parcel of European feudalism is a fact. That the Protestant Reformation abandoned the hierarchical idea is by no means proved. That many Protestant clergy long for its restoration is evident in the ecumenical movement.
We have seen the transition from Jewish synagogues governed by lay elders to Christian churches grouped under city church bishops. When bishops meet together in council, one of them becomes first among equals, and if he is elected for life he naturally attains a higher status. At its worst the complete system can be caricatured as: Christ established Peter, who was succeeded by the popes, who chose bishops, who made sonic men priests. The priests then make certain people Christians by baptizing them and feeding them with the sacraments.
When the Lutheran Reformation and the English Methodists substituted superintendents for bishops there was no change in the hierarchical principle. Actually there was not even much of a verbal change since the Greek word episkopos literally means superintendent. Anglicans retained the previous system intact, but instead of one pope, appointed two archbishops. This helped to clarify the point that there was no need to have one figurehead for the whole of Europe or even for one country and also made the old English game of balance of power easier to play.
Presbyterians reverted to government by elders, but with the stress on a highly educated ministry, elders were no match for the minister, who soon received more deference and authority than the old priests. With the best will in the world it was still impossible to prevent the hierarchical principle from re-establishing itself. "Moderator" sounded less impressive than "Pope" or "Archbishop," and by changing frequently he could be prevented from learning the ways of power; but then the office of stated clerk provided hierarchical continuity. A similar situation had occurred in the Middle Ages when the head deacon, who was basically an administrative assistant, gradually became so powerful under changing bishops that the position of archdeacon was filled by a priest often next in line for the bishopric.
The Episcopal system can operate with a considerable degree of democracy, so that in some countries the Anglican bishop really. has very little power to act apart from his diocesan council. In practice there is often very little difference between the Episcopal and Presbyterian types of organization, especially in the younger churches. This explains the ease with which church union schemes can unite Episcopal and non-Episcopal churches, once the thorny problem of the meaning of the act of unification is clarified. Organizationally there is evidently no insuperable problem in further acts of unification with Roman Catholic hierarchies. It is interesting that in the United States and some parts of Europe and Asia there are Roman Catholic bishops with over-lapping dioceses. In Britain, for example, there seems to be no great problem c)n the part of the Roman Catholics in accepting the Anglican bishops with their Prayer Book, married clergy, and canon law, functioning in overlapping dioceses together with the existing Roman Catholic bishops. The point is that the problems of church union are basically theological, economic, and emotional, not organizational.
The greatest divergence from the hierarchical system was among the Baptists, Mennonites, and Congregational groups, who insisted on the complete independence of each local congregation. A large addition to the Congregational system of government in the twentieth century has been the phenomenal growth of the independent Pentecostal churches. The stronghold of true Congregationalism is the possession of the title deeds of the church building and the right of the congregation to call and dismiss a pastor without pressure from any other authority. This means that conferences of such churches must be for consultation and fellowship only. If functions like the training and ordination of ministers are centralized, the essential Congregational principle is lost. Inevitably there is constant pressure from the executives of the church hierarchy to surrender local autonomy in order to give greater strength together. When churches are no longer free to dispose of their property or change their affiliation to another conference or call the minister of their choice, then they are basically more Presbyterian than Congregational. When in a Presbyterian system executive power continues for any length of time in one man by virtue of his office, whether at the presbytery or the general assembly level, then for all practical purposes there is a transition to an Episcopal system.
The gradations of hierarchical organization may be set out as follows, depending on the exact point where ultimate authority resides:
In the modern church situation the exact point of ultimate authority is usually obscured by a large number of checks and counterchecks. At the time of the Reformation the Anglican Church changed its ultimate authority from papal to national. On the theory that all Englishmen were Anglicans and all were represented in Parliament, the Church of England found, and still finds, itself subject to Parliament. Its bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister, who might be an atheist. In the United States both Anglican and Methodist Episcopalians use democratic methods to elect their bishops, and give them strong executive powers similar to a United States president. Congregational churches have tended towards synodical government, and have easily joined Presbyterian-type groups in church union schemes. Many non-Episcopal churches have very authoritarian bishops among them. Even anticlerical groups like the Brethren assemblies can be invisibly dominated by a powerful personality.
Since Pope John XXIII the Roman Catholic Church has been engaged in a tremendous struggle to rearrange its centers of authority. The supranational power of the pope and curia is being challenged by the bishops. In the parishes laymen are beginning to erode the absolute authority of the parish priests. Among Protestants there are slightly less obvious battles in every major denomination. As effective authority moves from the session to presbytery, from parish council to diocesan council, from a bishop or superintendent to an elected body, or from a hierarchy back to local churches, the whole countenance of a denomination may change. Like the tides there is always a movement of ebb and flow; and as long as God is God, man's worst may often turn out for good. Since the days of Wycliffe many laymen and some of the more evangelical ministers have bewailed the fact that the hierarchy and its "organization men" dominate the scene and force the Holy Spirit to find a home among the newer sects. It is possible that the tide may have already turned, and the day of true local church Congregationalism may appear as unexpectedly as it did in the early apostolic churches.
Apart from that hope, what can we conclude from this dismal survey? Primarily that denominational names are deceptive. They do not indicate the true structure of the church, which is organic. Ultimate power may reside in the least likely hands. Second, it should be recognized that a degree of hierarchical development is almost inevitable, however much one may long for the simplicity of the early churches. Unrestricted government by all members at the local level has rarely proved effective. Within the organic church -the true body of Christ and around it as it exists on earth, denominations are inevitable. Third, I suggest that at the local level elders have functioned acceptably, whether they are called the session, the parish council, the deacons, or the church board. In God's economy it seems that local churches with elders are the essence of the visible church.
Beyond these generalities we may find that the structures and levels of authority that seem so basic to our denominations are in fact matters of temperament rather than theology; and the surprising thing is that God blesses even in the systems which we find most distasteful.