The Resilience of Feudalism

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Journalist and TV presenter Jeremy Paxman noted in his book, “Friends in High Places” that the ring-fencing of wealth and power in the UK has survived a revolution, a civil war, the dissolution of the monarchy, fifteen years of life as a republic, the de-episcopalization of the church, the establishment of the vote, the social reforms of the 1800s, charters for independent universities, universal education, the union movement, the enfranchisement of non-land owners and women, and a small number of socialist governments…and yet somehow, after all that, it’s still the same five families who own the country, the same school supplying the great proportion of prime ministers, and the same two universities providing the bulk of senior public servants and bishops.

How is that even possible? In a democracy??

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The image above is of the first American President George Washington. The image below is of King George III whose power America had fought off, replacing George Hannover with George Washington.

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There is not as much gold braid and brass adorning George Washington’s coat – but the similarity of the images hints at the continuity of ideas about governing authority and at the resilience of monarchical powers.

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The above images of  a C20th Pope, an Ancient Egyptian Pharoah, a C16th English Monarch, and a C18th Indian Maharajah exhibit expressions of power and superiority – all with an unmistakeable something in common.

Evidently feudal orders have a way of submerging and resurfacing with great resilience. Feudal forces can operate quite happily covertly as well as they do overtly. And feudal forms easily assimilate or express themselves through other hierarchies and chains of command. That’s what Jeremy Paxman’s book about power in Britain dramatizes.

FEUDAL AFFINITIES

Feudalism’s ability to work with or hijack other hierarchies is why states will generally prefer episcopal structures over autonomous congregations. After all how can the state control or monitor churches which exist independently, autonomously and in free association? This is why China tolerates episcopalized churches but persecutes grassroots cell churches. It is why Soviet Russia tolerated the orthodox churches, (which are episcopal in structure) while fiercely persecuting the pentecostals and independent evangelicals. It is why orthodox priests in Russia who spoke as if orthodoxy were anything other than a chain of command had a way of ending up in the gulag.

Of course there is an essential similarity of form between feudal social orders and episcopal church structures. It may be why, from the beginning, those churches which did not assimilate as the Roman Empire’s department of religion under Constantine were quickly labelled and persecuted as “heretical”. It is certainly why non-aligned churches were persecuted in mediaeval Europe. It is why continental reformers were persecuted and imprisoned, why British Baptists and Congregationalists were pilloried and imprisoned, why the Mayflower sailed from England, why the Aamish ended up in America, why the Moravians emigrated to Germany, why British Methodists were threatened with violence and prosecution, and why the C16th reformation of the churches was so ardently embraced by the oppressed, heavily taxed and feudalized populations of North Europe.

It also explains why the independence of the monastic stream of Christianity was so despised by Henry VIII. The monastaries’ to-one-side independence within Tudor society was dramatically evidenced in the dissolution of the monasteries, in that when the crown decided to close the majority of monastic communities the king had to send the military in to do it, by force, one monastery at a time.

Helwys

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(top) Thomas Helwys, leader of the first Baptist “sect” in Britain, in a neck chain
and (above) King James, of the King James Bible, who imprisoned him.

This natural compatibility of “catholic”  or “episcopal” church-order with a society still driven by overt or covert feudalism may also give light to why in the UK the (episcopal) Church of England remains generously supplied with bishops and senior personnel from Oxford and Cambridge, while the same academic bastions of the establishment are so poorly represented among the non-federated, independent and dissenting churches.

Some may wish to suggest that the generous representation of Oxbridge graduates in the established church’s upper echelons is purely a reflection of the calibre of Oxbridge in producing leaders. But it does not explain the relative paucity of Oxbridge graduates in the independent strands of the church. And this is the C21st!