Hierarchy and Equality

by Roberta Topham.

Christian Aid week (13-19th May) reminds us of our place in the work to alleviate poverty. As an organisation, Christian Aid is rooted in values that have long also been important in the Methodist Church.  On their website they state their belief that “everyone is equal in the sight of God” and that one of their aims is to challenge and change systems that “favour the rich and powerful over the poor and marginalised,” thereby creating a more equal division of power in the world.[1]

These are aims and values that people the world over are claiming for themselves.  Developments in education and social media mean that increasing numbers of people are aware of possibilities and can work together to make their opinions known.  There has also been an increasing awareness of, and suspicion about, traditional structures of power and authority that have kept decision-making in the hands of a few based on their rank – what is often called hierarchy.

The origins of the term hierarchy are in the religious sphere, where a hierarchus was a steward or president at sacred rites.  When I was conducting research as a social anthropologist[2] I became aware that social studies of societies through time and around the world suggest that all groups need structuring principles that are usually expressed through some form of hierarchy, whether religious or not.  Anthropologists have also suggested that most societies generate within themselves opposition to such hierarchical structures.  The ethic of egalitarianism is a principle that has been strong in counteracting hierarchy and which has been taken up by many Christian organisations.

All the branches of the Church have had to resolve the tension between hierarchy and egalitarianism.   The Methodist Church, like several in the Reformed tradition, ended up with a balance that aimed to be as egalitarian as possible while recognising that the need for order meant the setting aside in ordination of some dedicated ministers (now deacons and presbyters). The historian Élie Halévy commented of this, “In Wesleyan organization, the hierarchical and the egalitarian principles were combined in equal proportions”.[3]

Within today’s British Methodist Church, while ordination is held as a significant spiritual event, it is clear from our doctrinal statement in the Deed of Union that we do not believe it creates a spiritual hierarchy.  The Deed of Union in Part 1, Section 2 (4), walks a tightrope to express this, stating that ministers have “a principal and directing part” in the great duties of stewarding and shepherding the Church but “hold no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the Lord’s people”.   The Methodist Church’s current structure and government functions to allow and encourage the contributions of a broad range of members in its decision-making.  It keeps enough order for us to hold together and have meaningful presence in a swiftly changing world, while making sure that that order does not privilege only a few or give to some a dominating position.  Instead we stress the equality of all before God and we seek not to give undue privilege to the voices of the ordained in our decision making, while receiving with gratitude (sometimes) the insights and leadership of those set apart.

As a Church we work hard to maintain our balance of hierarchy and equality through practices which keep it in check. Our decision-making bodies are integrated bodies of lay and ordained people at all levels. The President of the Conference for example is always an ordained person, but only holds that office for one year. The limitations this annual election presents have been questioned several times in recent years.   Each time it is reviewed, the same conclusion is reached. Holding this post for one year only is what has best expressed our Methodist polity, ensuring that the influence of individuals is limited and there is little development of an elite as the group of Presidents and (lay) Vice-Presidents is constantly being added to.

Currently, the Methodist Church is being asked to consider changing its practice by accepting the ordination of future Presidents of Conference as bishops in the historic or apostolic succession.  This is one of the proposals which is coming out of the current Anglican-Methodist conversations.[4]  Should the Conference decide to accept the ordination of some presbyters for a second time into a new order of bishops, this will significantly change the balance of hierarchy and egalitarianism in our Church and, I would suggest, radically alter the nature of British Methodism.

I find it hard to see how taking on board a symbol system that has represented a less egalitarian sharing of power will help those who have long been excluded. It is also difficult to see how such a step will be understood positively by people outside of the Church who are less and less enamoured of traditional power-structures based on rank. Perhaps as a Church we may deem that the good to be achieved by taking “the historic episcopacy into our system,” in terms of witnessing to our unity and the subsequent interchangeability of our ordained ministers, will merit the change.  If so, we will need to think carefully about how this move will affect our particular balance of hierarchy and egalitarianism, how it will change our theology of ministry, and how it will affect our commitment to increase the value that we put on the voices of those who have long been marginalised.  While recognising that our structures have not always brought dignity and equality to all as quickly as we would wish, and that there is more to learn, our experiences still provide us with insights to offer to others who are as concerned as we are to follow the way of Jesus in “bringing good news to the poor” and “setting the oppressed free.” As we join this week to support Christian Aid in this work, we might also want to be thinking long and hard about how our structures can continue to symbolise and increasingly incorporate these principles.

[1] Christian Aid Website https://www.christianaid.org.uk/about-us/our-aims

[2] Roberta R. Topham, Making Ministers, Making Methodism: An Anthropological Study of an English Religious Denomination (Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge, 2000) <https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.16270>

[3] Élie Halévy [1906] 1971/ The birth of Methodism in England. Trans. and ed. Bernard Semmel. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. [Originally appeared as two articles in Revue de Paris, 1 and 14 1906]

[4] Mission and Ministry in Covenant (Report from The Faith and Order bodies of the Church of England and the Methodist Church, 2017) <https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/mission-and-ministry-in-covenant.pdf>

2 thoughts on “Hierarchy and Equality”

  1. I accept that the proposal to ordain some Methodist Presbyters as bishops has difficult implications for the Methodist Church, especially in an anti-hierarchical age. But I believe the benefits to the proclamation of the Gospel outweigh the drawbacks, on two grounds. Methodism’s better understanding of the role of the laity (including Local Preachers) to church life has great potential in promoting the growth of this understanding within the Anglican Church. And greater unity is in my view vital for a world in which the divisions among Christian denominations are a great stumbling-block to people with no particular church loyalty.


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