Last weekend, my parents visited and so on Saturday we went for a day out with them. The weather was inclement and so looking for an indoor option, we ended up at Lichfield Cathedral. Two things stood out to me from the visit.
The first was that the Cathedral had housed a shrine for St Chad who had been an earlier bishop in the old kingdom of Mercia (died 672AD). At some point, Chad had been elevated to the status of “sainthood” in the Roman Catholic Church. The Cathedral had managed to obtain what was believed to be his head, as presumably different churches competed for body parts in the belief that these would have miracle working properties. A touch screen information point explained that the shrine was placed between the High Altar and the Lady Chapel to show the St’s closeness to the Virgin Mary. In some Cathedrals you will find that the lay out is as follows:
- You enter into the Nave – this is where there ordinary congregation sit.
- There is then a crossing where the North and South transepts meet the Nave to form a cross. This is usually where the pulpit is.
- Further up is the Quire where clergy and choir sit and at the top of this is the High Altar for communion.
- The Lady Chapel – a shrine to the virgin Mary is then sometimes further behind the High Altar.
Now consider the implications of the layout, especially with a Saint’s shrine in between. The implication is that meeting Jesus at the Cross, represented by taking communion is only a staging point along the way. The Saint has now been placed in effect higher than Jesus, more important than the Gospel, between the cross and Mary.
The second thing I noticed as I explored the Quire was the ornate and elaborate Bishop’s seat (a cathedral exists essentially as the seat or cathedra of the Bishop). It had never really struck me before how ridiculously extravagant and over the top such things were. Fascinatingly, back in August 2020, Ian Paul picked up on the ridiculous nature of the bishop’s mitre, pointing out that these were dispensed with at the Reformation and are a fairly recent innovation in the church of England. Regalia, pomp, elaborate thrones and bishop’s palaces set Bishops apart as distinct and over the people, even over the rest of the clergy, ruling like lords and kings (some of them literally are lords with seats in the upper house of parliament).
If we think of bishops as lords and rulers, other than and above the rest of the clergy, then we may too see the clergy as over and above the ordinary people. Ian writes:
I recently posted a picture of myself in suit and tie, and a friend commented ‘I see you are disguising yourself as a lay person’. I was doing no such thing; the Church of England’s theology of ordination does not remove the ordained from the laos, the people of God, but sets them apart in terms of training and supporting them to minister. They have authority to teach, but it is an authority within the people, as primus inter pares, first amongst equals. I can never appeal to the authority of my teaching simply by dint of being ordained, by appeal to my office; I can only appeal to its correspondence with Scripture and the apostolic inheritance. Being ordained priest or presbyter, does not end one’s ministry as a deacon, and being ordained bishop or overseer does not end one’s ministry as either deacon or presbyter. By the same token, being ordained into any of these three historic orders does not remove the ordained from being part of the people of God.”Ian Paul: https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/bishops-should-throw-away-their-mitres/
Now of course, we low church and independent church evangelicals don’t go in for such trappings do we? We don’t wear dog-collars and we avoid titles like Rev. But it’s not always that clear cut. There are still churches where the expectation is for the pastor and elders to parade onto the platform at the start of a service. I’ve experienced a change of demeaner from people when they’ve found out that I’m involved in full time Gospel work. I remember on one occasion when I was working down at our church building that a lady knocked on the door with a flyer from another church. She started to talk to me and asked me if she could speak to the pastor. I explained that I was the pastor at which point, she practically bowed and humbly apologised for how she had spoken to me. How she had spoken was fine and I kept pointing out to no avail that I was the same person that she had begun the conversation with.
There are different ways that we can demonstrate an unnecessary deference and indicate hierarchy. It isn’t always about the pastor either. I’ve experienced encounters with men and women who in different ways have indicated that they believed that they were worthy of special honour, that church business should defer to them and that they were in some way my boss. I should also add that I’ve met many humble believers who could have made a thing of the rank they carried in the world or the position they had in the church but have been careful not to. They have been oh so clear, that among God’s people the only true authority is that which comes through and from the teaching of God’s Word for the purpose of growing disciples.
Yet whether it is the exalting of a person, a role or even a place, we need to be careful that we don’t put things on a level with or even higher than Christ. Nor, should we set people or things as mediators between us and Christ. When we do that, it is a form of idolatry. We can love, respect and pay attention to those God has given to us as pastors and teachers without falling into hero worship.