In Praise of Hierarchy -
a response to Jürgen Moltmann

by Peter Carnley
Archbishop of Perth and Primate of Australia

Peter Carnley

In this age of Australian republicanism a significant number of people share a natural tendency to be suspicious of hierarchy and monarchy. This is the case in relation to the political structures of the State, but it swirls around in the intellectual atmosphere and raises questions about the organisational structures of the Church as well. In the future we may expect to experience increasing disenchantment with such arrangements, particularly in response to the democratic and egalitarian sensibilities of the modern world. There is today a sustained and influential theological critique applied to notions of hierarchy and monarchy in both State and Church. Both from the reformed wing of the Christian Church, led by very influential and compelling theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, and from the ranks of progressive Roman Catholic thinkers. Most notable amongst the latter is an increasingly vocal band of very capable feminist theologians, who are determined to put down what they perceive to be the repressive authoritarianism of patriarchy.
I have in mind such spirited writers as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, for example, and Sandra Schneiders, who are very forthright about hierarchical structures being alien to the Gospel. As an example of the vehemence of this particular form of the contemporary critique, one of the most impressive feminist writers of the current theological scene, Catherine LaCugna, roundly declares that "any theological justification for a hierarchy among persons…vitiates the truth of our salvation through Christ."1
This theological challenge must be addressed and a response made to it by those who belong to hierarchically organised Churches. Just as surely we must grapple with strategies to defend ourselves in the face of the natural and culturally conditioned suspicion of hierarchy that is so much a part of the social environment. I believe this poses a major challenge for contemporary Anglicanism if we are to face the future with any degree of self-confidence about our inherited structures of ecclesial authority. In The Trinity and the Kingdom2
Jürgen Moltmann excludes both the possibility of the monarchical episcopate and the ranking of primacy amongst bishops in an episcopally ordered Church from his ecclesiology. It is clear that he views both developments as Christian aberrations. In so far as he is critical of the notion of primacy, he particularly has in mind the papal sovereignty of the modern Vatican, but his argument could apply equally well to primacy in the various autonomous Churches of the Anglican Communion3.

By contrast with the debates of the Reformation about Church order, where the appeal was primarily to the historical norms of the early church, the modern debate about equality of status versus hierarchy in ministry is conducted on dogmatic grounds. Moltmann argues that the hierarchical irregularities he condemns arise out of an insufficiently Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God. In other words, they flow from a fundamental, but mistaken commitment to a 'Christian monotheism', which concentrates attention on the unity of one God as the almighty ruler of all. This position has lost sight of an idea of divine unity of a different kind - the unity found amongst the differentiated but equal Persons of the Trinity. To Moltmann's mind, it is the absolute monarchy of monotheism that "provides the justification for earthly domination - religious, moral, patriarchal or political domination - and makes it a hierarchy, a 'holy rule'.4 "As long as the unity of the triune God is understood monadically*… a religious legitimation of political sovereignty continues to exist. It is only when the doctrine of the Trinity vanquishes the monotheistic notion of the great universal monarch in heaven… that earthly rulers, dictators and tyrants cease to find any justifying religious archetypes any more."5
Moltmann thus speaks of monotheistic monarchianism as "an uncommonly seductive religious-political ideology"6 which the early Church was only able to overcome through the doctrine of the Trinity. Moltmann works with a very negative and highly stereotypical view of the single ruler, who is characterised, whether in Church or State, chiefly in terms of 'domination'. Indeed, "the idea of the almighty ruler of the universe everywhere requires abject servitude", he says, "because it points to complete dependency in all spheres of life."7
The monarchical episcopate and the idea of primacy within a college of bishops thus tend to be corralled with 'political dictatorship' and 'the terror of naked force' which keep people in abject servitude and dependency.8 By appealing to the doctrine of the Trinity, Moltmann believes he is able to overcome the notion of a "universal monarchy of one God" which is the root of what he regards as "political and clerical monotheism" in State and Church respectively. It is just not possible, Moltmann says, "to form the figure of the omnipotent, universal monarch, who is reflected in earthly rulers, out of the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Rather, in the sphere of the State the unity of the equal Persons of the Trinity will be reflected in a spontaneously harmonious social consensus. Likewise, if the Church is to be "a community free of dominion", it follows that "the presbyteral and synodal church order, and the leadership based on brotherly advice, are the forms of organisation that best correspond to the doctrine of the social Trinity".9
The monarchical episcopate in a local Church or diocese, and worse, the primacy of one senior bishop amongst diocesan bishops in a national or regional Church, not to mention the universalist claims to immediate jurisdiction of an absolutist papacy, all fail to reflect the essential reciprocity of distinct Persons of equal status and divinity in the unity of the Trinity.

In terms of theological method, Moltmann acknowledges that it is difficult to track the exact nature of the interdependent relationship between religious and political ideas.10
Whether economic and political realities reflect and reproduce the superstructure of religion, or whether religious and metaphysical reality is constructed analogously with the economic and political world is not easy to determine. Almost certainly, a two-way reciprocal influence and conditioning is more likely. In the course of his argument it becomes obvious that Moltmann's tendency is to emphasise the conditioning of the political and earthly by fundamental religious and heavenly ideas and doctrines, rather than vice versa. In other words, he begins with the Christian understanding of the nature of God, and speaks derivatively of the nature of the Church. For him ecclesiology is a sub-category of Trinitarian theology. This quasi-platonic approach to an understanding of the Church is grounded in Scripture and the patristic tradition. Thus, for example, in John 17 Christ prays that his disciples may all be one, "as I and the Father are one" and that they may be in the Father and the Son as "you, Father, are in me and I in you".
This means that the newly created human communion in Christ is grounded in the communion of God. As I John puts it, our koinonia** is not just with one another; "our koinonia is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3, 6-7). As a consequence Cyprian*** could say that "the Church is the people that draws its unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit".11
It is not just that the Church 'reflects' something of the divine in its own structures. It is much more a matter of participation by baptism in an inter-personal relationship that flows from the divine - the Church being a creation of divine grace. The Gospel is an invitation to have to do with God, and baptism into Christ is the means of incorporation into the divine life. As 2 Peter 1:4 puts it: in the Church "we are partakers of the divine nature". For Moltmann, the doctrine of the Trinitarian nature of God reminds us that in God there is neither hierarchy nor inequality, neither division nor competition, but only unity in love amongst a diversity of distinguishable persons of equal status.
And the Church should express the same reality in its life. On the basis of this kind of ecclesiological thrust, Moltmann then goes on to argue that the unity of Being amongst the diverse persons of the Trinity is a quite different kind of unity from the absolute monarchy of the one God of 'monarchical monotheism'. Crucially, that it leads to different ecclesiological and political implications from those that flow from a rigidly unitarian monotheism. The 'monarchical monotheism' to which Moltmann takes exception is said to be one of the ancient heresies that constitute "permanent dangers to Christian theology"12, for it leads to a form of political and ecclesial totalitarianism.

Moltmann's argument involves a specific kind monarchianism (the rule of a single person). It is the kind of monarchianism that, in the ancient Church, denied distinctions within the inner life of God. Such a monarchianism was a feature of theology, for example, in the third century at the height of the popularity of modalistic theories of the kind promoted by Sabellius****, when he reduced the distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit to different and successive operations of the one God. The same initial commitment to the absolute divine sovereignty of one God, without any internal differentiation of persons, was also a feature of the subordinationism of Arius***** early in the next century. The kind of monarchianism Moltmann has in mind thus involves the heresy of, in one way or another, denying Trinitarian belief as in these classical ancient deviations from Christian orthodoxy. While we may accept this point, it is of some concern that at Moltmann's hands Ignatius of Antioch****** also tends to get tarred with the same brush! Indeed, Ignatius is explicitly identified as one who worked with the kind of defective Christian monotheism that Moltmann particularly has in mind.13
Ignatius is also said to provide a clear illustration of the ensuing ecclesiological error that Moltmann wishes to condemn. At a number of points Ignatius draws an overt analogy between belief in the sovereignty of the one God and the monarchy of the bishop "presiding in the place of God".14
Monarchianism in the ancient Church accentuated belief in God as an absolute monad, without distinctions within the unity. This is the specific kind of monarchical belief that Moltmann contends gets reflected in dictatorial and domineering political leadership in the State, and in an autocratic and authoritarian episcopal hierarchy of bishops in the Church. But there is another kind of monarchianism, which is entirely free of the taint of ancient heresy. This is not only compatible with Trinitarian belief but is an essential element within orthodox Trinitarianism. This is the idea of the monarchy, not of one God with respect to the created order, but the monarchy of the Father with respect to the other two Persons within the Divine Unity. Even Moltmann does not take exception to this kind of monarchianism. For example, in his criticism of the Western innovation of the double procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son (or Filioque*******), Moltmann unequivocally affirms the sovereignty of the Father: "The uniqueness of the procession of the Spirit from the Father (and therefore the 'sole causality' of the Father in respect of the Spirit)", he says, "has in fact never been disputed by theologians of the Western Church".15
"It has never been denied in the West that the Son (John 16:27) and the Holy Spirit (John 15:26) proceed from the Father, each in his own way; and that therefore the Father is - in different ways - the 'origin' of them both…"16
This means that the eternal priority, or the 'divine causality,' of the Father with respect to both the Son and the Spirit is rightly maintained. Moltmann concludes that the "Filioque was never directed against the 'monarchy' of the Father…". The Son does the Father's will rather than vice versa. Despite Moltmann's uncompromising critique of 'monotheistic monarchianism', there is in the doctrine of the Trinity itself an alternative expression of monarchy, which he judges acceptable.
This species of divine causation and monarchy does not suggest any kind of subordination of the Son to the Father. The Father and the Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit, are equal in divinity, and of equal status and dignity. But the Father enjoys a certain priority as the 'origin' or 'sole cause' of the other two Persons.
"The Father, being himself without origin, was always the first Person in the Trinity" (my italics). This notion of a legitimate monarchy of the Father within orthodox belief in a Trinity of diverse and distinguishable but equally divine Persons, leads to quite significantly different ecclesiological conclusions from those arrived at by Moltmann in his critique of 'monotheistic monarchianism'. The priority of the Father as the eternal 'source' and 'origin' of the other two Persons of equal dignity
and status, surely finds its closest ecclesiological expression in the principle of primus inter pares, or 'first amongst equals'.
This principle in turn allows us to articulate an understanding of the role of the Bishop in the Church and of a Primate amongst other bishops that is free of the falsely negative stereotyping engaged in by Moltmann. The Bishop is 'first amongst equals' in the Church in the sense that he is not separate from the Church, for he is shepherd and overseer of the Church and minister of order in the Church. He is one of the baptised people of God. Also, he is not necessarily present in the Church in some authoritarian and offensively domineering way, but in a way that respects the equal dignity of every other baptised member. This particular ministry of service of the bishop as a member of the Church, rather than as a domineering and dictatorial ruler who is somehow outside of it and over it, can be appropriately described as a ministry of order.
As Hooker so vehemently pointed out, it is the bishop who ordains17 and who is thus the 'cause' of ordered and authorised ministry - the one from whom ministry 'proceeds'. As the 'origin' and 'cause' of the ordered ministry of others, the Bishop in the Church is the human source and sign of the unity of the Church. Those baptised either by him or by the presbyters in ministry authorised by him, become members of a eucharistic community that is in turn presided over by him. All are in communion with one another by virtue of their shared communion with him. In this way he performs a specific and essential function of leadership and pastoral care in the life of the Church as 'first amongst equals'.
The concept of 'monarchy' is appropriately applied to the unique ministry of the Bishop because, as teacher, the Bishop is the one who must on occasion rule with respect to what is right and what is wrong in matters both of belief and Christian praxis. The function of the Bishop with respect to the regulation of liturgy and worship, and the ordering of belief for the purpose of the maintenance of the Church in truth, fall within his particular responsibility.18

The authority of decision-making and the power to act in this way is a concrete expression of the Bishop's monarchy. But it is exercised in humility, with due regard to the equal dignity and human rights of all of the Church's members, and with an appreciation of the need to consult, listen and take advice, rather than operate in the authoritarian and dictatorial manner that Moltmann believes necessarily flows from 'monotheistic monarchianism'. The doctrine of the Trinity is a source of fundamental theological principles which may be given ecclesiological expression. Some useful ideas on the nature of the Bishop's role in the Church come from Basil of Caesarea's exposition of the relational aspect of the Persons of the Trinity in terms of the concept of communion (koinonia). The Christian understanding of God as a Trinity of distinct and distinguishable Persons in one Unity of Being was expressed by appeal to the concept of 'communion' by Basil in his treatise On the Holy Spirit (374AD). Though the Trinitarian formula 'three Persons and one substance' was in the air at the time, the Biblical witness led Basil away from the concept of 'substance' to speak of God instead as 'three Persons and one communion'.
Basil thus spoke of the three Persons of the Trinity being of one heart and one mind, sharing a common will and a common purpose. Basil spoke of a "coincidence of willing" among the Persons of the Trinity. The Son does the Father's will, but it is not that the Son does the will of the Father begrudgingly, as a subordinate, out of a sense of duty or under some kind of duress; rather, the Father finds his own will freely and lovingly reflected back to himself by the Son, "like an image in a mirror". The ensuing inter-personal commun
ion created by a perfect harmony of wills, and the self-giving love of persons of equal status, is the ground of the unity of the Persons of the Trinity. If we follow Basil's logic, interpersonal communion is the essence of divinity, and the Communion of Saints is the communion of human believers together (whether living or departed) through their shared entry by baptism into communion with God in Christ. If the relations of the Persons of the Trinity form the basis for the eternal perichoresis********, and if this principle of the relationality of the Persons of the Trinity may be given ecclesiological expression, it is possible to think of the mutual interdependence of persons within the Body of Christ as a kind of ecclesial perichoresis.
Moltmann himself says that the "unity of the Christian community is a Trinitarian unity. It corresponds to the indwelling of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Father. It participates in the divine Trinity, since the community of believers is not only fellowship with God but in God too." In other words, the various members of the Church are one in the same kind of way that the persons of the Trinity are one. Their ecclesial life together involves a mutual inter-change of gifts within the one harmonious bundle of life. This is clearly a different kind of unity from that characterised by Moltmann as the regrettable political and ecclesial outcome of 'monotheistic monarchianism'. In the context of an ecclesiology of communion, the reciprocal roles of the Bishop in the Church, and those whom he ordains, together with the contribution of the laity, working in harmony with the ordained, constitute an interdependent network.
Between the Bishop and those whom he ordains, for example, there is a shared ministry which is described as "mine and thine" at the inductions and commissionings of parish clergy. The total ministry of the Church as a community of ministering people (instead of people gathered around a single minister) expresses the same ecclesiological mutuality and interdependence. This unity can be characterised as a unity of heart and mind or as a "coincidence of willing" in cooperative effort. So, the teaching ministry of the Bishop is received by the laity. The Bishop receives advice from theologians who are priests, or qualified and insightful members of the laity. The Bishop's leadership and pastoral ministry as shepherd and teacher and guardian of faith in this way constitutes a distinguishable function as 'first amongst equals' in the exercise of a diversity of gifts of the Spirit. The ecclesiological application of these Trinitarian principles thus takes us a long way from Moltmann's stereotyping of the Bishop as a domineering oriental potentate. Within Anglicanism a Metropolitan or Primate presides over gatherings of colleagues in the episcopate as 'first amongst equals' in a province, or autonomous regional or national Church. The universal primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to the bishops of dioceses of the constitutionally autonomous, but not independent, churches of the Anglican Communion operates according to the same fundamental principle.19
Once again, this is first established within an understanding of the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity, where the First Person of the Trinity enjoys a form of monarchy with respect to the other two Persons as their origin and cause, but without overwhelming them to the point where their individual identity disappears from view. It is hard to see that Moltmann can argue as he does concerning the nature of the inner relations of the divine life, and the monarchy of the Father with respect to the other two Persons, without going on to allow that in a Trinitarian ecclesiology
some ministers in the Church may after all exercise a kind of rule in relation to other members of the Body. Indeed, in a throw away line, Moltmann concludes his stinging critique of the 'clerical monarchism' of episcopal order, by saying "Of course most churches will in actual fact have mixed forms, with episcopal and synodical elements.'20
It may well actually be the case that in some churches, not least the churches of the Anglican Communion, a balance has very successfully been struck between episcopal leadership and synodical government! This alerts us at once to the fallacy of Moltmann's over-simplified and stereotypical portrayal of a domineering and utterly authoritarian episcopate. While Moltmann admits the idea of the monarchy of the Father in relation to the other two Persons in the doctrine of the Trinity, he will have difficulty in arguing against the idea of the episcopal leadership of the 'Father in God' in the Church. In the decision-making of the bishop-in-synod, where distinctions between the roles of Bishop, clergy and laity are preserved in the Houses of Bishop, Clergy, and People, we may have a very agreeable approximation in this world to the ideal relations of the distinct persons of equal status of the Trinity. In our synods any House has the right of veto over the others. On the other hand, when the consensus of "a coincidence of willing" prevails, the ensuing unity of heart and mind holds before the entire world the ideal of the resolution of tension between the one and the many, but without a totalitarian elimination of the distinct and free contributions of individual persons.


1 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, San Francisco: Harper, 1991, p. 400.
2 Translated by Margaret Kohl with new Preface, San Francisco: Harper, 1991 (originally published as Trinitat und Reich Gottes, Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1980, Ch. VI. Moltmann draws upon the classic treatment of the political ramifications of monotheistic belief by Erik Peterson in Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem, Leipzig: Jakob Hegner, 1935 and Yves Congar, "La monotheisme politique et la Dieu Trinite", Nouvelle Revue Theologique, (1981), pp.-3-17. See also T. D. Parker, "The Political Meaning of the Doctrine of the Trinity: Some Theses", Journal of Religion, Vol 60, 1980, pp.165-84 and A. Schindler, ed. Monotheismus als politisches Problem? Erik Peterson und die Kritik der politischen Theologie, Gutersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1978.
3 Ibid., p. 200
4 Ibid., p. 192
5 Ibid., p. 197
6 Ibid., p. 131
7 Ibid., p. 192
8 Ibid., p. 197
9 Ibid., p. 202
10 Ibid., pp. 192-3
11 De orat. Dom. x. 3, Patrologia Latina 4. 553.
12 Ibid., pp. 129-30.
13 Ibid., p. 200
14 To the Magnesians VI:1; to the Trallians III:1, where the bishop is explicitly said to be 'a type of the Father'.
15 Ibid., p. 182
16 Ibid.
17 Richard Hooker, Of the Law of Ecclesiastical Polity, VII ii 3
18 Cf. the Ordinal, particularly the promises made by a bishop-elect in the examination prior to consecration, 'to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's Word'
19 See Gillian Evans exposition of the Anglican approach to the understanding of the universal primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion and of a possible universal primacy of Rome in a reunited Christendom in "The An glican Doctrine of Primacy', Anglican Theological Review, Vol. LXXII, No. 4, 1990, pp. 363-78.
20 ibid., p. 202.

monadically = by this Moltmann means a single self-contained unit.
** koinonia = fellowship, communion
***Cyprian = early Church Father, (d 258AD)
****Sabellius (3rd Century AD) taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three modes of operation of the one God, rather than three distinct persons.
*****Arius: condemned for heresy of subordinating the Son to the Father.
Ignatius of Antioch c35 - c107AD
Filioque = the statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father "and the Son". Added in the Church of the West to the Nicene Creed.
******** Perichoresis = dynamic inter-relatedness and interdependence

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