Sunday, 13 October 2013

Mass Demonstrations: The Anarchist in the Midst of a Hierarchical Church

Recently, a friend of mine who has a prominent lay position in the Church of Ireland (the Anglican Church in Ireland and Northern Ireland)  got in touch with me to ask me how I reconciled an anarchist perspective with being part of a church with a hierarchical structure- in his case the C of I, in mine, the Catholic Church.

Believe me, he’s not the first person to ask. 

Over the years, many people have asked me similar questions. Religious people frame the question around the supposed absurdity of a Catholic being a committed anarchist. Doesn’t anarchism reject hierarchies? Isn’t it against organisation altogether?

From the other direction, I have anarchist comrades who find the idea of an anarchist who chooses to remain within a huge, hierarchical church at best ridiculous and at worst untenable. Isn’t the Catholic Church reactionary and intolerant? Isn’t being part of it a surrender of one’s own autonomy?

That’s why I’ve decided to post my initial reply here for general consumption. To be honest, it’s good to get some of this into this forum from the outset. As this blog is a platform for my theological ideas about religion, politics and culture, it’d be difficult to truly understand my worldview without factoring in my devout Catholic Christianity as well as my committed anarchism.

I'll just mention that these are very brief thoughts on ideas that have had whole volumes written on them, so if anything strikes a chord, you can go as deep as you want into it.

Initially, you'd have to identify and define both of the two concepts; anarchism and hierarchical structure. So, very briefly, I'd hold to historian George Woodcock's definition of anarchism as ‘a system of social thought that has the aim of fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly at replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals’. This is crucial: anarchism is not opposed to organisation; on the contrary, anarchism is a method of organisation first and foremost. Anarchism is, however, deeply opposed to one specific form of organisation- the modern, authoritarian model of social organisation that we now call 'the State'. For the past two to three hundred years, we have become so used to the idea of the ‘State’ that we can no longer even contemplate the idea of the State not being there. This isn't surprising- the State controls most of the media, the schools, and the social order. It's in its own self interest to make sure that people think of it as utterly indispensable.

In one sense, anarchism isn't even opposed to authority; it is however deeply opposed and to the idea of centralised power. 'authority' is a concept of knowledge. A plumber, for example, is an authority into water and heating systems. When I have a problem in that area, I invite a plumber into my home to assess the problem because of his specialised knowledge- his 'authority'. I still have the power over my home. The plumber and I negotiate a price, he does the work and he leaves. If, however, he fixed the toilet and then decided that he was moving into the house, that would be an abuse of his authority, authority would have morphed into power, and would need to be actively resisted.

As to organisation, anarchism tends to see society not as a structure-rigid, unmoving, unbending- but as an organism: growing, moving, flowing. Structures are built; organisms grow. This has been the main historical arguments between Marxists and anarchists; Marxists tend to see society as something built, whereas anarchists see it as something grown (I’ve been on the sharp end of this argument over the years in Belfast in various projects that bring Marxists and anarchists into close proximity: the anti-war movement, the anti-globalisation movement, etc. Personally, I think we can all get along. While maintaining my anarchism, I’ve read copious amounts of Marx and find him never less than utterly fascinating and highly compelling).

This distinction is where I sit with the whole idea of church. I believe in God and I believe that God gives gifts of leadership, wisdom, and organisation to all of his children- not just to the white ones, the rich ones, the male ones, the straight ones, the American ones or the European ones. The original model of the Kingdom of God as I see it in the person of Jesus was broad, inclusive and growing. A bishop should be understood to be a role of organisational authority, not of prestige or (especially) power.

Of course, over the years, the church became exactly like the model of the Roman Empire it found itself in; the leadership came from the upper stratum of society. It became powerful and coercive. It became like the government.

But the original model of, say, a bishop was that of a shepherd, a father, a wise organiser. When these gifts of the Holy Spirit of God were recognised by the people, they were put to use. I have no problem whatsoever with that. The problem lies with humanity and its unending desire to rule, to dominate, and to control. That has nothing to do with the structure of the church: Catholic churches (by those I mean the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches) have one style of organisation: bishops, priests and deacons. Reformed churches (by those I mean Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists) have another. Non-Conformists (Baptists, Charismatics, Nazarenes, etc.) have others. Any one of those models can be oppressive and coercive, or harbour oppressive and coercive individuals in them; of course, for sectarian reasons, we tend to see the danger of abuse and coercion in the 'other' church as opposed to 'our own', but that's another story...

Anyway, anarchism is about standing up to and resisting abusive power, whether that's a pope in one circumstance or a cop in another. There's nothing inherently wrong with popes or cops (some anarchists would fundamentally disagree with me on that, particularly the ‘cop’ bit...). The question for me is who gets to be popes or cops, what safeguards are in place to control their power, and how we deal with them when they step over the line. People in power are not the enemy; power itself is, particularly and especially power in only a few hands. This is why anarchists see the need to diffuse power, to distribute it, to keep power in as many hands as possible- there is then less chance of abuse. I've always described money and power- the two ‘gods’ of our society- as being like manure: if you spread it around, it helps things to grow; put it all in one place and it's a big pile of shite.

I have no problem with archbishops or bishops as an idea. If love is their law, which is what I see in the person of Jesus, I’m satisfied.

And if they don’t model love, equality and justice, why is it up to me to leave the Church? The Church is precious to me; it’s my home. As Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the anarchist/pacifist Catholic Worker movement said, “Yes, the Church is a whore. But she is my mother...”

The French Catholic priest and anarchist Fr. Adrien Duchosal put it this way:

‘No Gods, no Masters’ and ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’- these two convictions I hold in all sincerity. No one can be the master of others in the sense of being superior. No one can impose his or her will on others. I do not know of God at all as supreme Master... God, at least the God whom Jesus calls Father and whom he tells us to call Father, is never presented as a Master who imposes his will on us or who regards us as inferiors. For Jesus there is no hierarchical relation between Father and Son. He says, ‘I and the Father are one... he in me and I in him' (St. John 10:30; 17:21).

Duchosal maintains the Christian perspective that when God chose to reveal himself to humanity he came in the person of Jesus, the servant, the peacemaker, the friend. Thus, as humans, if we are modelling the person of Christ in our words and actions- the Christian’s only purpose- whether we be pope, priest, or plumber, we are all equal. Any attempt to impose inequality on us- whether that come from a political party, a class structure or the Vatican- must be rejected and resisted.

God did not reveal himself as a hierarchy- Father, Son and Spirit are equal.

Jesus did not come to lead or to rule but to live and to reveal.

This is the anarchist vision at its root, and it coincides with the Christian vision at its root.

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