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A church without nobility?

Monday, November 5, 2018

I think it’s one of those false-facts that the word “Posh” means “port out, starboard home” in reference to the privileged cabins on steam ship voyages to India. This origin has been somewhat debated. One question one could ask is “why isn’t soph the opposite of posh?” If “posh” arises in this way, then it would be reasonable for “soph” to have entered the vocabulary for the obvious reason.

Another word which has dubious described origins is the word “snob”. Many people seem to think that it comes from a Latin abbreviation sine nobilitate – without nobility. The idea is that untitled people allowed some privilege such as sitting at High Table would be announced as “snob”. That makes some sense – we can certainly see Hyacinth Bucket fitting that bill. However, the word “snob” is originally an 18th Century word for a shoemaker. That would make the sine nobilitate origin a load of cobblers! (Sorry!)

I have preached on this before, but it is an important subject for the Church to consider, especially as there are many churches across every churchmanship which have been described as snobbish. Clearly, this is contrary to what the Church should be. One might say that the Church should be sine nobilitate whenever nobility is defined by the world. The ancient Philosophers often spoke of the virtue of nobility – indeed, my confrere Fr Anthony Chadwick is at present, writing a piece for the Blue Flower journal on the idea of nobility of spirit. I am looking forward to reading this because it does perhaps show how we need to understand nobility before we seek to jettison it from the Church.

Certainly, the Church should not be snobbish. Understanding what this means will enable us to diagnose its presence in the Church and seek a remedy for it. We need to be able to recognise when it occurs and, also, where it does not occur so that we do not lose confidence when we are genuinely seeking first the kingdom of God.

In order to convict or acquit a church of being snobbish, we need to understand the common definition of the word. To this end, the OED says, a snob is “A person with an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth who seeks to associate with social superiors and looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.”

We therefore have the following conditions for snobbery:

1)      A respect for a high social position.
2)      This respect is exaggerated.
3)      A desire to associate with social superiors.
4)      A disdain for those who are regarded as socially inferior.

Underlying this whole definition is the idea of a social hierarchy. The society here need not be a the general ambient society we inhabit. It can be a specific stratum of society: if we restrict to musical society, then we can have musical snobs; if we restrict to the fashion industry, then we have fashion snobs. We also need to have a defined hierarchy, i.e. a way of making some comparison as to whether someone else is superior or inferior to you.

It’s interesting that the word hierarchy is ecclesiastical in origin. A hierarch is a high priest, not just a priest and we can sort of see these ideas present in the ordering of the spiritual beings from Angels up to Seraphim.

The most obvious hierarchies exists in the military services in which people are ranked according to their authority and level of command. I am largely ignorant about the military and whether there is a form of snobbery there. I don’t hear of it, largely because my impression is that members of the forces are under a strict discipline. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a form of snobbery in the ranks based on that system. It would seem counter-intuitive to me that the army would allow a good officer to have such a casual disdain for those under his or her command: quite the revers, the good officer takes the welfare of those who are technically inferior very seriously. The campaign depends upon it.
I have used the word technically very deliberately. The captain is a superior to the private in her platoon, and necessarily the private is inferior to the captain. That is not a superiority of worth, but of an ordering necessary to carry out the demands of military service.

And now, perhaps, we begin to see the whole crux of what snobbery is. There may be a necessary hierarchy in a society, but it is how much worth the individual places in that hierarchy. A snob is, essentially, hierarcholatrous – a little neologism of mine, but I hope makes sense. The snob worships the hierarchical structure particularly when it affords concomitant privileges with each rank.

Often this hierarchy is quite arbitrary. I could regard people who know Greek as being better than those that don’t and thus see my rather poor knowledge of the subject as being superior to the person in the street that knows none. Often, however, the hierarchy comes from a necessary capacity inherent in the person. An army captain needs to have the intellectual ability in applying the facts of reconnaissance in order to direct her platoon appropriately, but she might not have the same intellectual capacities as her colonel who may have a wider grasp of the situation. If the captain demonstrates the capacity to become a colonel, then there is always the possibility for promotion.

This perhaps gives us some idea as to how to apply the idea of snobbery to the Church.

Is there a hierarchy?

Clearly there is a gradation and many would see it along the lines of layman, deacon, priest, bishop. However we can already begin to see refinements within each grade: for example for a bishop, we could subdivide into suffragan bishop, diocesan bishop, archbishop, metropolitan, patriarch (if we are using an Anglican Catholic understanding). Yet, even for Anglican Catholics, we can see that the last three are essentially the same. There is no sacrament that will turn a bishop to an archbishop, nor an archbishop to a patriarch. Their existence comes about from the level of responsibility that God puts upon them.
Within the monastery, there is also natural hierarchy: St Benedict arrange It in terms of length of service save that which is determined by the abbot who is called the superior. This is not hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy: it becomes necessary for the running of the monastery in the same way that the hierarchy of the Church is for the running of the Church. Snobbery results when one starts attributing worth to people according to their position in the Church.

 And that’s not on.

St Benedict says of the Abbot

For the Abbot must have the utmost solicitude and exercise all prudence and diligence lest he lose any of the sheep entrusted to him. Let him know that what he has undertaken is the care of weak souls and not a tyranny over strong ones; and let him fear the Prophet's warning through which God says, "What you saw to be fat you took to yourselves, and what was feeble you cast away" (Ezec. 34:3,4). Let him rather imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went to look for the one sheep that had gone astray, on whose weakness He had such compassion that He deigned to place it on His own sacred shoulders and thus carry it back to the flock (Luke 15:4-5). (Chapter xxviii of the Rule)

Further, in Chapter lxiii, St Benedict really sets out what hierarchy means.

Let all keep their places in the monastery established by the time of their entrance, the merit of their lives and the decision of the Abbot. Yet the Abbot must not disturb the flock committed to him, nor by an arbitrary use of his power ordain anything unjustly; but let him always think of the account he will have to render to God for all his decisions and his deeds.

Therefore in that order which he has established or which they already had, let the brethren approach to receive the kiss of peace and Communion,  intone the Psalms and stand in choir. And in no place whatever should age decide the order or be prejudicial to it; for Samuel and Daniel as mere boys judged priests.

Except for those already mentioned, therefore, whom the Abbot has promoted by a special decision or demoted for definite reasons, all the rest shall take their order according to the time of their entrance. Thus, for example, he who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day, whatever be his age or his dignity, must know that he is junior to one who came at the first hour of the day.

Boys, however, are to be kept under discipline in all matters and by everyone. The juniors, therefore, should honour their seniors, and the seniors love their juniors.

In the very manner of address, let no one call another by the mere name; but let the seniors call their juniors Brothers, and the juniors call their seniors Fathers, by which is conveyed the reverence due to a father.

But the Abbot, since he is believed to represent Christ, shall be called Lord and Abbot, not for any pretensions of his own but out of honour and love for Christ. Let the Abbot himself reflect on this, and show himself worthy of such an honour.

And wherever the brethren meet one another the junior shall ask the senior for his blessing. When a senior passes by, a junior shall rise and give him a place to sit, nor shall the junior presume to sit with him unless his senior bid him, that it may be as was written, "In honour anticipating one another."

Boys, both small and adolescent, shall keep strictly to their rank in oratory and at table. But outside of that, wherever they may be, let them be under supervision and discipline, until they come to the age of discretion.

This all sounds very alien to modern ears. St Benedict’s rather draconian treatment of children seems quite unpalatable. Yet, we must consider again that a child’s mind is not yet an adults and must be disciplined. We would not think of giving a five-year old the vote. However, we do see St Benedict strive to stamp out snobbery. Seniors are to be respected and juniors loved. Each are recognised as having the indelible worth of being human. The steps of humility are designed so that each individual must, must, must look for the worth of the other above the self. This stops inferiority in grade becoming inferiority in worth.
To indict a churchmember of snobbery, then, must be to indict him of hierarcholatry. We need to look at those four characteristics of snobbery in the context of the Church.

Respect for a high social position

St Benedict and St Paul insist on respect for everyone, especially those who have a responsibility of care for others. The persons to be respected most are those who exhibit Christ most. St Ignatius reminds us that the Bishop must be regarded as an ikon of Christ for the Diocese possessing, as he does, the fulness of the grace of ordination.

Thus respect is something that is part of Christian culture and of the wellbeing of the Church. It gets corrupted when this respect is not centred on Christ. The bishop becomes a snob precisely when he uses his position as Father of the Diocese to impose secular demands, or to equate the phrase “prince of the church” (princeps being the Latin for leader in as much a way as a captain is the prince of his platoon) with the modern understanding of “prince” as a royal and thus deserving of earthly privilege and earthly obedience. The same is true of any other member of the clergy.

Thus corruption of this Christian respect for superiority must come from equating it with earthly connotations.

However, the obvious hierarchy is not the only hierarchy in the Church. We remember that we can grade people in more ways than just one. For example, we can grade people on their knowledge of, and adherence to, Ritual Notes. We can even grade the version of Ritual Notes that is used, or whether it’s Fortescue or the Directorium Anglicanum.

However, it must be clear on how this gradation is not in service of Christ. The Ceremonies and Liturgy of the Church are to be performed excellently to maximise Christian worship. We take pride in what we do, set high standards, and seek the best for Glory of God and for the edification of His people. It does matter where the thurifer stands at a particular point in the liturgy precisely because taking the liturgy seriously for the love of God is an act of worship. The standards of liturgy and ceremony needs to be set high and we must aspire to it for the love of God.

That being said, there are liturgy snobs, and they come into their own in the fourth criterion for snobbery.

Conclusion: To indict a church member of snobbery, we need to demonstrate the hierarchy used and how it is deflecting that member from the service of Christ.

Exaggerated respect

Many clergy have to suffer some rather fawning and flattering individuals who seem to want to ingratiate themselves. A cheerful “great sermon, vicar!” certainly is a kind word for the priest, though it’s clear that it can be exaggerated by someone with an ulterior motive. The Protestant will decry the veneration of Our Lady as idolatry, but our need to venerate her can be demonstrated just as coherently from Holy Scripture as the Doctrine of the Trinity. However, we can exaggerate respect for her. She is not the Co-Redemptrix: that goes too far when she is seen as a source and not the instrument of our redemption.

Respect for the clergy becomes exaggerated when it goes beyond reasonable. Not every sermon the bishop will preach will be the best that’s ever been heard and he will probably be the first to admit that. The key feature of exaggeration is the lack of proportion, especially when it crowds out the worth of others’ contributions. Again, this is linked with the fourth criterion, but the effect of exaggeration will be that it will stick out like a sore thumb.

Conclusion: To indict a church member of snobbery, we need to demonstrate that the respect that that member has for the hierarchy established in the first criterion is disproportionate with respect to the worship of Christ.

Desire to associate with superiors

Given that the multitudes flocked to hear Our Lord preach, we have to admit that there is something that is right about trying to seek out God and remain in His court with praise. If the Bishop is an ikon of Christ then it’s clear that there ought to be something attractive about being in his circle of friends. This becomes problematic when there is a presumption that we are always entitled to be in the presence of our superiors and feel slighted when we are shut out of that presence.

We do note that Our Lord often went to pray by Himself, i.e. even without St Peter, St James and St John whom scripture shows clearly were the “inner circle”. However, the presence of that “inner circle” doesn’t prevent the others from being disciples. However, it is clear that the Lord chose His disciples because they merited being chosen. One of the big controversies in Protestant-Catholic dialogue is the nature of Election. Given that the Greek verb ekelego is used more or less universally to translate the Hebrew bachar, and that bachar means to choose on the results of a trial, it’s difficult to see how the Elect can ever be chosen unconditionally.

Indeed, the parable that Our Lord tells with regard to associating with superiors is that of the wedding feast in which we would be best advised to take the lowest place and be invited higher than to assume the higher place and be required to move down. If we truly recognise that it is the responsibility of the superior to make the choices necessary for the good order of the Church, then we should not presume to overstep our limitations.

There’s nothing wrong with putting our hat into the ring when there is to be an election, but when there is no election keeping one’s place is the wise and Godly choice – especially without grumbling.

Conclusion: To indict a church member of snobbery, we need to demonstrate that that member seeks membership unreasonably and unseasonably to groups determined by the superiors in support of the Church largely through the process of the disproportionate respect shown in the second criterion.

Disdain for inferiors

This last criterion is, by far, the most damaging for the Church because it is an obvious sin of pride and thus sets up divisions within the Church. If we disdain people because they do not meet our criteria for respect, then that is appalling. God has already set the criterion on which human beings are to be respected: our neighbour is to be loved as the self is loved.

We have seen that the first criterion does not preclude the setting up of high standards for worship. However this las criterion shows that, when we fall short of those standards, we are not to be looked down upon or derided. A Mass celebrated faithfully in poverty with a tin mug and dry crust on a shelf is no less a Mass than that on the high altar in a grand cathedral. We are to use the most excellent means of worship at our disposal, and God will judge the intentions of our heart. It is perfectly reasonable for the priest not to use a server who is dilatory and lazy. However, it is less reasonable for the priest not to use a server who drops the cruet of wine once and yet tries to make amends and learn from their mistake.

It is correct for the superior to seek to correct the juniors in the way of excellence in worship so that they might be edified and find themselves better integrated into Divine Worship. It is not so to make fun of the mistakes of juniors in a way that belittles them and shows our lack of respect for them.

Disdain is most chiefly shown in the making fun of others. Needless to say, the purpose of a good joke is to make everyone laugh. The best jokes will make God laugh. Thus it is possible for a joke to be exclusive and thus inappropriate. We can make a joke about someone, but if that person cannot freely laugh at it but rather finds it troubling or offensive, it is excluding that person. Thus jokes can be racist by excluding people by race, sexist by excluding people by sex, or antichristian by excluding Christians, et c. The more inclusive the joke, the better it is. The more exclusive it is, the more it demonstrates disdain and disrespect. Of course, it might not be at all funny in the first place.

Disdain occurs when we demonstrate the idea that we are of greater worth than our inferiors through poor humour, through wilfully ignoring their contributions, through patronising behaviour and through excluding them from confraternity.

Conclusion: To indict a church member of snobbery, we must demonstrate the disdain that the member has for those who are inferior in the hierarchy demonstrated in the first criterion.

Clearly, any Church that allows snobbery to thrive must be guilty of a culture of snobbery, so it behoves every church to take charges of snobbery carefully and to examine its practices carefully. I have already stated that the quest for excellence in worship is not an example for snobbery in itself but that it can engender it in others through a sense of false hierarchy. Likewise empty titles and positions in the Church could be indicative of snobbery, so again, it behoves a church to ensure that those who hold office in the Church are taking their responsibilities with the gravest care and are aware of the judgement that will fall upon them. A bishop may reward a clergyman with the title of Canon when they have demonstrated a significant contribution to the Church, but as soon as that clergyman seeks to exclude others by using that title, he has made it worthless.
Our sole object of worship is the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and it does us good to venerate the company of Heaven whom we seek to join through the true worship of God. Notice how the saints desire us to join them with all their hearts! How could we ever describe the saints as being snobbish? If we seek to be saints, how can we ever dare to be snobbish?

Snobs are indeed an exclusive club: you can tell who they are as they sit in the outer darkness where there is a wailing and a gnashing of teeth!

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