The Cathedral, the English Civil War, and informal power

trumphaloJim recently wrote a primer on the Cathedral.  Nothing I love as much as a good conceptual definition!  (There’s also a good stab at a definition in the middle of this gentle introduction to the Gentle Introduction, which inter alia mentions the parliament of clocks, a clever parable which was new to me.)  I’d like to make a few observations.

The spectre of priestly rule

There has always been a slight tension between the “Cathedral” metaphor (an image straight out of the priest-baiting repertoire of classical liberalism) and the disproportionately papist sympathies of the people who use it.  In itself this is only a funny incongruity.

However, underneath lies a more fundamental tension.  The Cathedral-concept weaponizes Moldbug’s distinction between formal and informal power.  Power in the United States is not held by the authorities described in the U.S. Constitution or any other likely document; instead, it is held informally by the Cathedral.  As a result, we live in Weimerica.

So it is useful that Jim goes to the roots of the 2017 Cathedral: the cathedrals of 1517.  Why would the power of a bishop have been informal (or tended to become so)?

Church government

One of the issues at stake in the English Civil War: who was to rule the church?  The options were, roughly speaking, a. bishops,  b. synods of ministers, or c. no one (independence for each congregation). 

Within these alternative forms of church government, we could draw further sub-distinctions.  The Royalists wanted (and after many misadventures, got) a system of episcopacy where the bishops running the church were approved by the king, appointed on his authority, and ultimately subordinated to his sovereignty.  But a system with this hierarchical structure could just as easily have someone else at its apex… the Bishop of Rome, for example!  (The leaders of the Parliamentary faction genuinely did worry that some of the royalist supporters of the episcopal hierarchy were crypto-papists.)

An Aside: Theology ≠ Ecclesiology

The other religious disputes of Stuart Britain (about the vestments and the orientation of the altar and so on) were dear to the disputants, but primarily map onto their disagreements about Church government.  However, this mapping was in no way dictated by logic or theology!

This can be difficult to see.  In English we call the rule-by-synod position on ecclesiology “presbyterian” and the denominations descended from the seventeenth-century Scottish religious consensus “Presbyterian”.  Worse still, anyone with an interest in history (any anglophone, I mean) will at some point dive into the English Civil War, where he will encounter the world-historical consequences of the presbyterianism of the Presbyterians! 

Thus we anglophones project principled opposition to absolute monarchy onto this strain of Reformed Protestantism.   Yet on the mainland of Continental Europe, the situation was reversed.  From Rotterdam to Danzig, Calvinist ministers gravitated to princes who could impose Geneva on their subjects. If the sovereign in question reigned over a principality with mixed government, the Calvinists did not hesitate to foment attacks on whatever republican institutions stood in the way of royal absolutism. 

If you are a quick learner, and want to free yourself from the Left/Right political spectrum, take a look at the history of the Church, or at least of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  The diverse clusters of doctrines that have been brought together by different theological alliances in different historical episodes illustrate a point that you could still miss after decades of careful study of politics.

Exoteric Calvinism

The enemy of my enemy is my brother in Christ

The three possible outcomes for the Anglican Church immediately suggest three ecclesiological stances a participant in the English Civil War could take: pro-bishop, pro-synod, or pro-independent.  But they also point to three negative stances: anti-bishop, anti-synod, or anti-independent. 

(We could go further and describe stances that are rankings of these three options; but if we want to match the stances to the behavior of factions of people, simplicity is better. A large group cannot share a stance unless they have minimized all the intricate differences between their positions.  They will share a simple stance, or none at all.)

When the Civil War started, it seemed the Royalist side was pro-bishop and the Parliamentary side was pro-synod.  But after the Royalists had already suffered their major defeats, it became clear that the ascendant Parliamentary side was actually only anti-bishop, and within the the anti-episcopal ranks the pro-independent faction actually had a strong position.  (Soon, they achieved total victory.)  The defeated Royalists, conversely, had been united in opposition to Scottish parsons; Hobbes, for example, who had been fiercely anti-synod and defended the powers of bishops at great length, admitted he had no further objections to his Roundhead enemies’ religious policies after the Presbyterians’ defeat.

Powers, Capacities, Mechanisms

Why was Hobbes so strongly opposed to the synods, but indifferent to independency?  Let me attempt to reframe Hobbes’ position in the language of formalism.  The functions bishops perform are ambiguous in their scope, wide-ranging in the ramifications, and thus in the absence of a sovereign with unlimited formal power their powers would need to be considered informal.  Bishops do have discrete, enumerated powers within their bishoprics (assigning livings, hiring staff, supervising and disciplining priests, resolving doctrinal disputes) but collectively these amount to an indirect power to police liturgy, ritual, and orthodoxy.  This in turns gives bishops influence over questions of piety, merit, and even salvation; and a shepherd who tells his flock what to consider holy and unholy, saintly or damnable, can easily tell them what is just and unjust as well.

Such powers are difficult to contain within any fixed, formal limits.  Whatever types of formal powers exist in a community (and regardless of who holds them), someone who performs episcopal functions can stipulate when and how the use of these powers is pious or impious, godly or sinful: and implicitly, just or unjust.  Episcopal functions can be used to continuously redefine the proper scope of all other formal powers.  This is the heart of informal power.

However, an absolute monarch at the apex of an episcopal hierarchy eliminates the problem.  The king assigns XYZ formal powers in the secular realm, and then formally assigns the episcopal functions to bishops with instructions to give their blessings to the secular distribution of powers (among their other responsibilities).  There is no unambiguous limit to the bounds of episcopal power, so long as the bishops stay within their instructions; but the sovereign himself has unlimited formal power and can delegate as much of it as he wishes to underlings.  There is no need to fear informality.  No conflict between overlapping powers can occur; if the bishop sets himself against the kings ordinances, the king relieves him and finds a new bishop.

For our present purposes, let us call the sources of power which (like episcopacy) predictably metastasize beyond their formally-defined limits informal capacities, and the absolute monarch an example of a formal mechanism for selecting (or supervising, and in extreme cases replacing) someone to wield this capacity.  When a formal mechanism assigns an informal capacity, the resulting power is formal.

Synods, on the other hand, exercise the same informal capacities as bishops, but because synods are self-perpetuating and self-disciplining, the only possible checks on a synod’s exercise of its nebulous authority will be the indirect influence which the members of the synod are able to wield over each other, plus any influence outsiders possess: an informal mechanism.  Informal capacity + informal mechanism = informal power.

When each congregation is independent, the functions of the bishop are broken down and parceled out to individual congregations.  Each congregation has a very limited set of logistical decisions to make about liturgy and ritual in its own parish.  After this devolution of decision-making, internal questions of parish governance cannot be used to dictate the answers to general questions about justice and piety across many parishes.  Thus the formal powers delegated to the congregations are powerless reshape other formal powers.  Even if we assume that the internal politics of each congregation amount to an informal mechanism whereby different authorities seek to control a majority of the parish, formal capacity + informal mechanism = formal power. [edit: my thanks to Nick Steves for alerting me to a glaring typo!]

Succession and Justification

Since you’re already thinking about Hobbes, and Jim’s post touches on the apostolic succession, let me call your attention to apostolic succession as an illustration of Hobbes’ bête noire: historical justification of parvenu power.

Apostolic succession is a special problem for a Hobbesian – or a formalist – if the advocate of apostolic succession considers apostolic succession to be an informal mechanism for appointing people to wield informal-type powers.  Whether the authority founded on apostolic succession is taken to descend through a transnational hierarchy of priests or within the traditions of an autocephalous church, informal capacity + informal sovereignty = informal power.  If the New Testament recorded that Jesus Christ came not to supersede the Sanhedrin but to rebuild it on a global scale, then we would be stuck with a transnational conspiracy of informal power, I guess.  Lucky for us that it doesn’t, huh?

Imma backtrace you all the way to the Donation of Constantine, boy!

No matter how many trips you make to Mount Athos, no matter how much incense you burn, if you tell God-Emperor Trump his justification for gassing thousands of clergymen and replacing them with freshly-ordained archbishops should include “…and the new clergy are better because they can claim apostolic succession,” you done goofed. You just told the world that the God-Emperor’s nomination does not itself ordain a bishop; instead there is some other criterion that determines whether the nomination is valid.  Now Trump’s opponents will start to ask, “Well, wait a second, what does constitute valid apostolic succession?”  First they’ll ask whether the holy oil was properly applied during the ordination; then they’ll ask if it was properly stored on the flight back to the U.S.A.; next they’ll start to find reasons to be suspicious of Mount Athos, or else they’ll say that only oil consecrated on Mount Athos will work, and nowhere else.

Sounds like crazy quibbling?  This is how the those who yearn for priestly power actually think.  And we’re still only talking about the danged oil.  Think how many other dimensions of the consecration ritual might conceivably be designated mandatory, how many veto points these designations  could create, how much informal power would start to circulate around them.  As clever people continue to try to load additional conditions onto this first criterion for a valid ordination (apostolic succession), we encounter conditions like: “…and apostolic succession requires that the ordained have orthodox opinions about XYZ, too.”  This is tantamount to saying there are actually two necessary criteria for a valid episcopal ordination, apostolic succession (which we already knew about) and theological doctrine XYZ.  From here, invented criteria start to multiply freely,  and dissidents are always trying to think of something new.

This is not to say God-Emperor Trump would lack the authority or cunning to silence these heretics, should he make the mistake of justifying his ecclesiastical powers to them.  But why fall into the trap of justifying formal powers with criteria that supposedly exist outside that power?  Once you inform your subjects such criteria exist, the task of defining and adjudicating them inevitably becomes a locus of informal power.

6 thoughts on “The Cathedral, the English Civil War, and informal power

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