Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Altar and Throne

It would be hard to deny that when Monarchical Government and Hierarchical Society were the Established Order of things in Europe (largely the case until 1917-18), the major Christian Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran) appeared, at least, to bless, affirm, and sanctify that order, teaching obedience to it as God's will. But institutional Christianity has proved more flexible than some of its more traditionalist adherents would like (or than its revolutionary enemies thought it could be), generally today appearing to endorse Democracy and Equality now that these very different values are dominant in Western society, a transformation that applies to many Christians who would consider themselves "orthodox" or "conservative" as much as it does to Christians who would consider themselves "progressive." There is a lot that has been and could be written about this, but the observation I'd like to make here is that Christians (and for now I'm really referring only to the sort who even bother to think about this sort of thing, and primarily liturgical Christians who believe in a hierarchical institutional Church) can perhaps be roughly divided into three basic groups according to how they react to this shift.

For traditionalists (and it should come as no surprise that I count myself among this group), the human element of the Church were right then but are largely wrong now: Monarchy and Hierarchy remain the proper order of things established and desired by God, against which the world has been in revolt for the past 225 years, a revolt the Church should not at all appear to endorse or accommodate. For conservatives, the Church was right then and is right now: prudence requires the Church to adapt to whatever circumstances she finds herself in; forms of government and social structure are not all that important and what matters politically is order and stability. For progressives, the Church was wrong then but is increasingly right now: the ancien regime Church's collaboration with Feudalism is a shameful embarrassment and only recently is the Church beginning to see the light of Equality which is what Jesus really wanted all along. (Technically, a fourth permutation--wrong then and wrong now--could exist, but that wouldn't make any sense: it's unlikely anyone believes that the Church should not have been monarchist in the past but should be monarchist today.)

Note that the above classification applies only to issues related to monarchy/hierarchy versus democracy/equality; it is quite possible that a Christian could hold "conservative" views on theological and sexual matters but fall in the "progressive" category when it comes to perspectives on the relationship of Altar and Throne. Conversely, a Christian could be sympathetic to monarchy and aristocracy past and present without being particularly traditionalist on some other issues. While there is plenty of room in today's Churches for both conservatives and progressives as I've described them, genuine traditionalists may sometimes feel deeply uncomfortable with the state and apparent messages of their Churches today, especially with regard to their most visible clerical leaders. But what is the alternative to perseverance? Politically conservative and politically progressive Christians need to know, at least, that the politically traditionalist Christian viewpoint still exists, and why.

On the subject of Altar and Throne, here is a fascinating 1945 documentary on Westminster Abbey, produced not without difficulty during the war. Viewers familiar with the Abbey today will notice that the exterior was much dirtier. But in general it's reassuringly familiar if you've been there, despite all the changes in Britain and the world since then. [I first visited in 2002 (the only time I had to pay admission), had the great honour of singing daily services with The Incarnation Choir for a week in both 2009 and 2011, and attended services in 2012 and 2013.] The seven decades that have passed since this was fiilmed are but a blip in the Abbey's 900+year history.


James said...

It seems that I can't go your website. Is there a problem?

Theodore Harvey said...

The domain name failed to automatically renew. (The original URL,, was always available, but I don't publicize that URL anymore.) Try again and should now be accessible again.

James said...

Thank you. Great post by the way.