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Ancient and modern

Democracy and the C of E

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

By refusing to consecrate women as bishops, the C of E has failed in the eyes of all its Revd Lucys and Giles to fulfil its sacred calling of acquiescence to the commandments of a secular society. Fifth-century BC Athenians must therefore step in and show them how to do it.

All the ‘political’ words in English, from ‘policy’ to ‘police’, derive from the ancient Greek polis, meaning (roughly) ‘city-state’; and in ancient Greece, the polis wielded the ultimate authority over the sacred rituals that lay at the heart of its religious life. Priests did not run churches, preach, teach, meet in synods or claim moral or theological authority, let alone demand adherence to 39 articles. All they did was serve one of the gods with the appropriate cult. Many held the office merely because their families had held it from time immemorial. Further, though priests were experts on their own cults, secular experts called exêgêtai were also regularly consulted for advice.

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Most significantly, if any controversial problem of religious importance emerged, it was submitted not to priests but to the Athenian democratic Assembly (all Athenian males over 18). After due consideration, the Assembly would use its democratic vote to agree either to a solution to the problem suggested by one of its members, or to a proposal to submit the problem to the oracle at Delphi. In the latter case, a question would be framed and a deputation sent to Delphi to pose it. The Assembly would then act in the light of the reply. In other words, the priesthood and Athens’ religious life were under full state control. It was the Assembly that told the priests what to do, not the other way round.

This, then, is the outcome the Revd Lucys and Giles must press for: submitting all C of E problems to parliament. That body can then itself decide the solution, or refer it to the oracle (presumably the Lord’s). The result will be a church fully in step with the values of society, leaving the Revd Lucys and Giles to get on with honing up their long-neglected ritual skills. The summa theologica for them to consult on all this is Robert Parker’s superb On Greek Religion (Cornell, £17), my book of the year.

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