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The cleansing of hierarchy

28 March 2013

FR ROLAND WALLS, the maverick priest who was formerly in charge of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, left the Scottish Episcopal Church for Roman Catholicism, despite his dislike of what he called "this hierarchical, pyramidal stuff". In a conversation recorded several years ago (preserved in Mole Under the Fence, by Ron Ferguson, St Andrew's Press, 2006), Fr Walls saw signs of hope: "In the Third World, we've got examples of bishops and archbishops who . . . give their lives for what they believe about the justice and the peace of the kingdom; where they live, in simplicity, the lives of the people they're living with, where their wooden cross is the sign of their wish to get out of the golden, bejewelled, hierarchical manifestations of power and dignity that the world, and the kings of this world, demonstrate." It remains to be seen whether the arrival at the Vatican of Pope Francis from Argentina will effect such a change. He is 76, and not in the best of health, and has layers of tradition, habit, and self-interest to contend with.

The Anglican structure is less opaque. Its Established character in England has, however, encouraged it to mirror the hierarchical ordering within the state, as witnessed at the enthronement of Archbishop Welby last week, whether or not the new Archbishop preferred to term it the inauguration of his ministry. The 50-minute procession signalled to all the participants where they stood in the line of precedence. Enthronements/inaugurations are not, of course, an everyday occurrence in the Church of England - most events are much more loosely choreographed. But Canterbury last week gave a glimpse of institutional concerns that seem far removed from those of Christ.

The examples of similar concerns in the Passion narrative are not flattering: the disciples squabbling about who will sit next to Jesus in his kingdom, as they approach Jerusalem; the diplomatic manoeuvrings between Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin. As always, Christ offers the antidote to these worldly approaches. First, the prize that awaits those who achieve greatness, or have it thrust upon them, is nothing desirable, as Christ warned his disciples. It is to set aside earthly trappings of wealth and status, and follow him along the path of sacrifice. As Francis and Justin doubtless already know, high office is not a pleasure to be enjoyed, but a burden to be borne. As the Maundy Thursday liturgy demonstrates, the call is to servanthood, not mastery.

Second, we see in Christ something of the relationships at play within the Godhead. Christ submits to his Father's will, but his obedience is freely given. Christ's sacrifice on the cross is not demanded, but offered. Christians, too, often project on to God their experiences of fallible, earthly fathers, and infect God with their hierarchical views. In Christ, duty and self-giving love are indivisible. As a result, the concept of duty loses all meaning. All that remains is love.

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