Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What is a “hierarchy”?

“Hierarchy” comes from the Greek words for “sacred leadership.” Church organizations vary from predominantly egalitarian and democratic to highly structured and institutionalized. Even the most egalitarian tend to feature some sort of division of labor within their leadership, but they typically choose leaders from among the rank and file members. Roman Catholicism is perhaps the most hierarchically structured of the churches. A leader, called the pope or Holy Father, has been elected, since the Middle Ages, by a body called the College of Cardinals. The pope is the ecclesiastical descendant of Peter and the custodian of apostolic tradition. Cardinals are specially appointed by the pope from among the bishops and archbishops. Another rank of clerics have the honorific title of monsignor, a designation until recently further divided into those called “right reverend” and a lower rank called “very reverend.” The office of priest, from which the upper levels of the hierarchy are taken, consists of men responsible for the day-to-day life of the church in its thousands of parishes. Another office, that of deacon, is just below that of priest. Men studying for the priesthood are ordained as temporary deacons, but more recently the office of permanent deacon has been made up of laymen chosen and trained for the work of assisting parish priests. Several other churches retain a highly structured organization, but generally on a smaller scale. For example, many have archbishops and bishops as main administrators. Many of the Eastern Orthodox churches are governed by patriarchs, to whom archbishops (or metropolitans) and bishops report.


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