Clarification: Informal Mechanisms


Reading Nick Steves’ comments on The Cathedral, the English Civil War, and informal power today in This Week in ReactionI was struck by the following sentence (emphasis mine):

>He distinguishes between “formal capacity” and “formal mechanism” and argues that the latter alone (the buck stopping with a conscious agent) is both necessary and sufficient for formal power.

I was enchanted with the pithy “both necessary and sufficient,” mostly because I wished I had thought of it myself; but I couldn’t immediately say whether it was simply a rephrasing of my conclusion, or a further corollary Nick had drawn out from it.  A moment later it dawned on me that this was not a corollary but rather an interpretation of Nick’s own — one of the fun things about TWiR being, of course, Nick’s talent for spotting the angels in the rough-hewn blocks he surveys. So I began to get distracted and think about what exactly Nick might have meant, and in what sense an informal mechanism might transform an formal capacity into an informal power, and whether it amounted to a sly J’accuse leveled at Calvinism; and I wanted to see precisely what I had written that he might be reacting to, so I opened up the post and —

Oh.  I typed the opposite of what I meant.  That was why he described the formal mechanism as a “necessary and sufficient condition”!

Setting things Straight

Hobbes’ position on the government of the Church of England was that episcopacy would be acceptable, rule-by-synod would be terrible, and independence for each congregation would be acceptable.

Left to Right: Episcopacy, Synod, Independent Congregations

The challenge is to explain, not just Hobbes’ support for episcopacy, but his relative indifference to the choice between episcopacy and independency.  (Someone with second-hand knowledge of Hobbes might he endorsed episcopacy because it was more hierarchical and orderly.  Why, then, would the most chaotic of the three options be one of his top two choices?)

Each parish must resolve logistical matters (blank circles).  Each color represents a possible approach to their resolution.

Recall that I mentioned that bishops have “discrete, enumerated powers” over all the congregations within their bishoprics: I mentioned assigning livings, hiring staff, supervising and disciplining priests and resolving doctrinal disputes.  But in effect, these discrete powers bishops wield give them either direct or indirect authority over all the decisions a congregations faces, in the Reformation or at any other time.  Should a church be built with its apse to the east?  Will the minister face the congregation or will both minister and congregation face the altar?  How much coffee cake will be served after the service?  All congregations face decisions of this kind.

Most of these questions are not deeply significant, at least when considered in isolation.  However, one’s answers to each of them reflect underlying theological assumptions and collectively they determine how a particular congregation worships God.  When a bishop intervenes in a particular parish he is enforcing standards for liturgy and ritual which he wants the entire bishopric to observe; and where he succeeds, he establishes a certain orthodoxy across the many parishes which are his responsibility.

Church government under episcopacy (L) and independency (R)

Left to its own devices a congregation would resolve these matters, but in its own way.  The congregants are quite likely to think about the relevant questions from a theological stance at odds with their bishop’s.  They may not take any unified theological stance at all!  And when there is no governing body which disciplines the congregations, each congregation’s stance is different not only from a hypothetical bishop’s, but also from all the others.

Thus on issues where independent congregations are free to disagree, questions that arise while running a church are still answered, but not in a way that gives rise to a general standard of orthodoxy.  Even locally, where the daily lives of two parishes overlap, the fact that each of them runs things a bit differently makes it impossible for them to attribute any very profound meaning to these choices; but in a state as a whole, it will be a matter of common knowledge in the public sphere that different congregations reach different conclusions.  What is considered orthodox will have nothing to do with internal parish matters.

If independent congregations’ choices do not affect what they all consider to be orthodox in matters of religion, they do not affect who or what will be judged piousgodly, or holy in the public sphere.  Piety and godliness strongly influence whether someone can be considered well-meaningvirtuous, or just as well.  (It is hard to grant these traits to those whom one judges to be impious and fiendish!)  So if independent congregations have no say on piety, nor do they have any say on benevolence or justice.  Better still, they cannot choose to run their church in a certain way with an eye to the effect it will have on a debate over what is just and what is unjust!

This is why Hobbes’ many objections to rule by synod and rule by pope did not extend to independency.  A bishop could, in theory, exert his influence over what his flock considers just and unjust to undermine his sovereign’s laws and policies, but when the sovereign makes and unmakes bishops none would dare to turn their influence against him.  When the bishop’s responsibilities are parceled out among the parishes, on the other hand, the ominous influence evaporates entirely, so there is no risk it will be misused.

That is why Hobbes was happy with Cromwell’s religious policy.

Capacities and Mechanisms

When I analyzed formal and informal powers into component capacities and mechanismsI just wanted some throw-away labels to translate a distinction that was important to Hobbes into the language of formalism.  But as I’ve continued to think about the issue the terms have grown on me, so it is worth getting the distinction clear.

The capacities that bishops exercise are informal because bishop’s indirect influence over general attitudes towards justice could be used to redefine the laws and rights of others.  A synod which has authority over an entire people also exercises an informal capacity.

A single congregation which makes its own decisions has no more ability to redefine laws and rights than a McDonald’s franchise.  Therefore independent congregations only have formal capacities.

When it comes to the mechanism which determine how the capacity is exercised (and by whom) it is Charles I’s bishops who resemble a franchise system.  So long as it is clear that Charles I appoints them, it is a formal mechanism.  For a synod or an independent congregation, the answer to this question is ill-defined, so the mechanism is informal.

How Capacities and Mechanisms affect whether a Power is formal or informal.  (For each concept, the Roman letter denotes formal, and the Greek letter informal.)

So informal power requires both a informal capacity and an informal mechanism governing how/by whom that power is used.

(Note that in the lower-left quadrant, c+m=p, the executives of the different branches of the Trump Organization are appointed by God-Emperor Trump, but the hotel franchises, vineyards, and frozen-meat empires they administer would not be able to undermine the God-Emperor’s authority regardless of how they were chosen.)

Of course, this 2 x 2 matrix assumes that a sovereign exists.  If no one exercises sovereignty, then even if some politician who holds an impressive-sounding office goes through the motions of appointing bishops, informal powers can dominate that politician, and influence his appointments as well.

But Wait!

There was a reason why I thought that Nick might be onto something.  I threw out the capacity/mechanism/power schema simply to illustrate Hobbes’ views on church government.  The argument assumes that when a congregation bickers about how to solve a certain problem, typically someone who exercises informal power over the individual congregants (and thus over what decision they reach) will either be a member of the congregation himself, or at least personally connected to the members.

For example, if Adam employs Bob, Chad and Dick, they hear him talk a lot during the work-week, and when the parish holds a meeting they have special reasons to treat his views with deference.  Maybe he even has a supplier, Eddy, from the neighboring parish; so Adam has a bit of influence there as well.  But that’s the extent of his reach.

This assumption is what generates the conclusion that an independent congregation will not only reach a different conclusion than a bishop would have liked, but that every congregation will skew in a different direction.  It’s an accurate assumption for seventeenth-century England, which was our topic: but I may have overstated things a little bit.

Let’s change our example, and now say that the (((ACLU))) has members in Boston, Chicago, and Denver.  If the membership of a Congregationalist denomination overlaps with that of the ACLU, then the ACLU has influence over individual congregations’ decisions; and further, this influence will be comparable in churches in Boston, Chicago, and Denver, even though the congregants from different cities are unknown to each other.  The ACLU may not care about any individual church, but if it wanted to change the position of the denomination as a whole, it could reasonably exert influence in many different cities at once to accomplish that goal.

The ACLU probably doesn’t have that much influence over how parishioners (of any denomination) run their parishes.  But if the actors with the most influence over each congregation were all organizations with national reach, then the congregations’ decisions might start to look very similar again.  If the informal mechanism over all of the congregations were to become coordinated, then it looks like a synod again.

But in TCY, who cares if some denomination of Congregationalists start acting like a synod?  They must be less than 1% of the population.  And we already have tons of denominations governed by informal mechanisms — synods, popes and patriarchs, anything you could imagine.  So long as no one denomination controls most of nation’s religious life, none of them can determine the general consensus on what is just and unjust, because each denomination’s idiosyncrasies will veer off in a different direction. Nothing to worry about!

Remind me, why did they call this place “the Protestant Rome”?




5 thoughts on “Clarification: Informal Mechanisms

  1. In theory, congregational churches can be quite un-pozzed. Cf. Fighting Fundies. They do this (I think) by recapitulating the authority structure of traditional hierarchical church organization (patriarch -> bishop -> congr) in the person of the (nominally elected) pastor. For the life (or popularity) of that pastor, individual congregations can resist pozz, often to an alarming extent (cf. “no slacks, no blacks, no tracks”), even using nominally democratic procedures. But the system is unstable. Cult leader/Pastor dies, cannot be replaced -> congregation goes liberal. Well-spoken “moderate” lay person gains disproportionate influence in the congregation, cult leader/pastor is fired -> congregation goes liberal.

    So too, every group of allied low church polity churches has a “denomination” which invariably presents the tug of the synod, which tends inexorably toward pozz. (This is the principle reason I left denominational low church polity protestantism.) The fighting fundies remain so by being fiercely independent… i.e., of pope, of bishop, of synod, even of “denomination”… which is why there are umpty-hundred types of non-pozz fundamentalist Christian denominations. It works, but it’s no way to exercise influence over the culture of an entire nation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thoughts. File this under “how to adopt leftist tactics without turning bolshevik”.

      For the sake of simplicity I left the details church gov’t within each parish vague… “some informal mechanism”, rather than going into ministers, deacons, presbyters, members, meetings, committees, and all variations thereon. My mental shorthand was that, in all forms of church government, the basic question is appointing/electing/vetoing/firing a minister, after which that minister is in fully in charge day-to-day, subject only to prudent respect for the mechanism which can replace him. (Tbh the main reason I didn’t make this shorthand explicit in the post was that I couldn’t find a good clip-art minister, and I didn’t want to make the diagrams too busy, anyway.)

      But perhaps this was a mistake and I need to think about ministerial Gleichstaltung.

      Have you ever read anything about religion in pre-Revolutionary New England? I’d be curious to hear how your thoughts on “fighting fundies” intersects with that period.


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