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Gatherings in the Early Church

Sharing Christ with One Another . . . Not Listening to a Pulpit Monologue Jon Zens Although I have problems with some of William Barclay’s views, the following observations on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14, taken from his The Letters to the Corinthians [1], may be the best concise summary of...

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Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 21-03-2012


A Sociological Examination of the Traditional Elements of Religion

Religion comes first as a family or clan or personal endeavor to win the services of supernatural force in situations not otherwise controllable. Out of this endeavor a priestly caste comes into being and the gods are born. The recognized existence of specialists in the manipulation of the gods becomes the point of departure for a new system of relationships, a new mode of association between men and gods. This new system constitutes a church. It is a separate and distinct institution of society. It has its own traditions, its own learning and its own scheme of education for transmitting its knowledge and training its generations of experts. It has its own household and its own household economy. It bears the same relation to the rest of the community as any other institution seeking to live and grow in and with the complex striving disorder of works and beliefs we call civilization.

Since the Protestant Reformation in Europe, churches have multiplied and their importance has decreased. The Reformation was itself postulated on the principle that the relation between a man and his gods — or at least their revealed word — was primary and direct. It repudiated the well- known doctrine of Roman Catholicism that only through the mediation of a church, i.e., through the intervention of professional mediators, can a man establish communication with his gods…. Nevertheless, the institutional habit is so deeply ingrained in the social inheritance of the moderns that a religion without an institutional setting is difficult to conceive….

So far as religion exercises a recognizable modifying influence upon society, it does so through the medium of churches. Let us, then, inspect the general structure of the church, and get a view of its anatomy. On the first appearance the institution, however small and poor the example may be, looks pretty complicated.

Church Property

The first thing that presents itself to the attention is certain properties, land and buildings, inevitably. In each cult the buildings have a certain preordained and set form. Their appearance to the eye, outside, embodies age-old religious symbols, governing their architectural organization, such as the cruciform ground-plan and the spires of the Christian houses of worship, or the layout of the temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem, and the temples of the gods of Greek and other pagans….

Secondly, the arrangement is such as will facilitate the execution of the priestly ritual; it is functionally coordinated with the ritual. On the whole and in the long run, you will know a house of worship when you see one. In the rare cases where its exterior is not revealing, its interior cannot be mistaken. A public building for the manipulation of the supernatural as a rule bears its character unmistakably on its face.

The upkeep of land and buildings, together with the other costs of maintaining the ecclesiastical institutions, are met through membership fees, pew rents, gifts, donations, contributions and many other familiar and acknowledged sources of income — we shall advert to those in due time — but one that comes rarely under the public eye, at least in the United States, consists of landed possessions and endowments.

The aggregated wealth of the Roman Catholic Church compares very favorably with the possessions of more than one European state; national established churches, like the Church of England, often have holdings that make them wealthier proprietors than the Crown ….Wherever in the civilized world a church is found, there possessions accrue to it that add to its “spiritual” power the force and influence which wealth has everywhere. Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, Mohammedan mosques, the Brahmin denials, Mazdan shrines, pagodas of the Chinese or the organization of which they are parts, figure as corporate property-holders. The property may be very little, as it so often is among dissenting Christian sects — the Methodist and Baptist congregations, for example, of the hill-folk of Tennessee — but property they do have and do aim to hold and get.

To the possessions of churches certain privileges pertain that do not attach to secular properties. Church buildings are holy. They are sacred precincts upon whose handling rest definite taboos. These taboos in varying degrees and manners extend to church lands and church securities. Church lands often are sacred precincts, too. The sanctities begin with graveyards.

Graveyards are the earliest and most primitive holy places. Before all things they are sacred in their own right; very often they are attached to the churches, and the same feeling of fear and reverence that the dead evoke are extended to the house and lands which are associated with their last resting-place….

By a sort of emotional contagion, this manal extends to all known church properties, and the privileged status it endows them with extends under law to all unknown ones. The known ones other than graveyards are health-restoring and child-giving agencies ….Such are ancient healing springs or wells; such are localities sacred through their places in the biographies of gods and saints, which to see and touch is healing and renewing. All such places are sacred property. From them, too, a sanctity spreads to neighboring lands. Anything which a church acquires gets religious potency by contagion….

Independent ecclesiastical establishments, like the Roman Catholic Church, entrust the keeping and administration of their properties to the high officials of the hierarchy, the bishops and the like; evangelical sects invest ownership in the congregation, administration in a board or vestry ….It is the Church which looks after the properties, rents them, repairs them, develops them, assigns livings and so on ….

Church Stuff

Next to the “real” properties of churches come those which have formal and obvious ecclesiastical functions: the tools used in the celebration of the church rites — like sacred books, such as scrolls of the law, Bibles, psalters, hymnals, missals, prayer books; like musical instruments, such as ram’s horns, trumpets, harps, organs, tom-toms, and the whole range of percussion and wind instruments; like ecclesiastical vestments, such as the robe, the frock, the surplice, the cassock, the eileton, the chasuble, the cape, the stole, the cowl, the mitre, the biretta; ecclesiastical tools like the cross, the crozier, the monstrance, the candles, the beads, the font, the holy water, the holy oil, the pyx, the prayer-wheel, the phylacteries, the incense, the holy relics; ecclesiastical food and drink, like the consecrated wafers and sacramental wines, the fermented milk, the clarified butter, the soma juice, the unleavened bread; the first-fruits; the church’s symbols and figures of the gods — the carved and painted images to which worship is directed, and altars from and upon which the worship is conducted.

These and many other liturgical tools constitute what is usually called “personal” property. However their ownership be formally defined, their use and upkeep and the collection of the income there from accruing, like that of the “real” church property, is in the hands of a class of professionals who, by virtue of that fact, are the effective owners of these stuffs.

Church Clergy

Perhaps no item in the history of religions is so important as the development of this class. From the point of view of the efficacy of

1. Mana: Native Polynesian term: The impersonal supernatural force to which certain primitive people attribute good fortune, magical powers, etc.

religious association and the power of ecclesiastical property, the priesthoods are the churches. The authority over the one and the power from the other are vested in them. Continuity and unity of doctrine are established through their training; solidarity of craft through the detachment of their hearts and minds from equal allegiance to other competing social institutions. Custom, and nowadays custom far more than vocation, renders them a caste apart…. They are the spokesmen and manipulators of this Otherworld and its denizens, and some of its mana adheres to them. This is as true today as it ever was. Regardless of his status among the orthodox or heterodox, the professional religionist is enveloped in an otherworldly aura. He is not quite like other men….

Below these full professionals in their ranks and dignities are the lower orders of ecclesiastical organization, from curate and choir-master to sexton, in the Christian churches, and with relatively corresponding grades and different titles in other religions…. They differ from the true priests and ministers in that they are accessories and of themselves make no direct approach to the supernatural. Often they require no training at all, but assume their functions under guidance and carry them on by habit.

True priests and ministers, on the other hand, not infrequently need a very complicated and elaborate training, which may be begun at puberty and continue for years before ordination. Whatever the cult — Asiatic or European — the subject matters of the priest’s education fall into the same general classes. The educational scheme of the most liberal theological school of the West differs by principle in no essential from the most hide­bound conventionalized orthodoxy of the East. Roman Catholic and Japanese Buddhist, Indian Brahmin and United States Reformed Judaist, British Unitarian and Mohammedan Traditionalist — they are all taught their sacred scriptures, and the ancient sacred languages such scriptures were composed in; they are taught the traditional authoritative commentaries and rationalizations; the established defenses of their respective only true faiths against misbelievers, and the arts and crafts of the priestly profession

However trained, professional religionists are at one regarding the special dignity and worth of their calling. They, particularly the great uneducated majority among them, confirm the public sense that they are a caste apart; insist on it, in fact. “Over and above the priesthood of each member of the Christian Church,” declares A.H. Baverstock in The Christian Priesthood, “there is a priesthood, properly so called, which is given to a special class, in its plenitude to bishops, in a lesser degree to priests, and exclusively conferred upon these two orders alone. It involves a grant of illumination and divine power. It is a special gift of God, bestowed upon men called to this office and consecrated to it by a peculiar gift, for ‘no man taketh the honour unto himself,’ as we find in Hebrews 5:4.”

To the masses of the communicants and to the masses of the priesthood their vocation does single the ministers out as no other vocation singles out its practitioners. Some unique transformation of their consciousness and character is believed to take place — is not the belief itself enough to create the unmistakable difference of the gentlemen of the cloth from the rest of us? Whatever this difference be, it is the consequence of some unique election; of response, as they say, to a “call.” The “call” in Europe and America is assumed to be an indispensable preliminary to entering the priestly profession….

Theological schools of every cult and sect omit no available bait to get young men to train for the priestly professions. Where law schools, medical schools, schools of engineering, charge considerable tuition fees, divinity schools not only offer free tuition but provide, through scholarships and otherwise, living expenses and pocket-money. The status of the divinity student is made to carry with it various privileges, such as do not accrue to students for other vocations….

[Being in the clergyj exempts its practitioner from the usual charges upon the maintenance of communal institutions, and entitles him to various emoluments and honoraria from baptisms, masses, penances, circumcisions, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and other solemnities and celebrations in the lives of the flock. Like the soldier, he is distinguished from the rest of the community by his dress and his expression; and like the policeman’s, his status is one of authority over the rest of the community.

By virtue of his professional fitness to manipulate the supernatural, he tends to exercise infallible judgment and censorship over every matter, intellectual or social or aesthetic or economic, that comes before the public attention. His sermons tend to take the form of apostolic pronouncements, communicating the preferences of God.

With this God his meditations follow an established routine. His prayers pass on the desires of the congregants to the divinity; his sermons transmit the predilections of the divinity to his congregants. To his ministration of the due rites at the normal crises of the individual’s life- cycle, from birth to death, and at the turn of the seasons — Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving — are added those required by draught and disease, by war, shipwrecks, business depressions, earthquakes and so on. The solicitude of the living for the dead provides another occasion for manifold professional activity, and the more orthodox and traditional the cult, the more manifold the activity — and the more profitable….

To exercise their ministry the ministers of God must live, and to live they must eat…. The priesthood must live from the exercise of their profession, and they must lay by something for an old age which comes to them no less than to other men. Two sources of income seem to have been established for them. One is the certain endowment of the church …. Such fixed incomes accrue to established and orthodox churches like the various state-endowed temples in China, India, Japan, and the Moslem world, the Catholic Churches, the Church of England and so on…. The other source of income is the less certain payments for special services in unexpected crises — for remission from sins or crime, for exorcisms, for prayers to overcome sickness, to recover from losses, to make safe journeys, to make successful undertakings, to take years of purgatory from the allotment of a soul, and so on….

These direct sources of income are reinforced by customary exemptions of by reductions under law. These are aspects of the “privilege of clergy.” Clerical privilege is of long standing and arises out of complicated motives. It derives partly from the vestige of divinity that anciently adheres to the prophet and medicine man, partly from the benefactions of the civil power of ancient states. But its strong root is the power of the ecclesiastical corporation to set up and to maintain its own authority against the authority of the state; its canon law against the civil law, and the will of the church above every other will. In effect this power enabled professional religionists “to get away with murder”; in the Middle Ages no clerical crime was so bad that the civil arm could punish for it ….

Shaman and – medicine man, hierophant or flamen, monk, bonze, prophet or rabbi or priest, his approach to the supernatural as often as not is postulated upon a certain personal hardship and self-denial as well as a skill in the handling of religious vessels and the utterance of liturgical formulas. To compensate for the social restriction the churchman is endowed with certain extraordinary liberties. Infallibility attaches — how could it not? — to the supernatural and this aspect of mana thoroughly permeates the mouthpieces of the supernatural to man. As we have already mentioned: the clergy may, without any loss of face whatever, declare the sinfulness or the virtue of this or that aspect of sumptuary behavior; this or that event in the arts or the sciences. No proficiency in the subjects they pass upon is expected of them. They step in where experts fear to tread….

By Dr. Horace Kallen, a disciple and interpreter of William James, was a lecturer at The New School for Social Research and the author of Culture & Democracy in the United States & Zionism & World Politics.

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