May 30, 2011

Thought for 05.30.11

Primus inter pares — “first among equals” — is, as a term, an oxymoron that appears to convey meaning but which is a logical contradiction. In reality it is an absurdity and an impossibility. Instead of “first among equals” the Archbishop of Canterbury — or, let’s face it, any bishop or cleric — should be “last of all and servant of all.”

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
h/t to Mimi for the inspiration!


June Butler said...

Tobias, thank you. Will someone, anyone, please tell Abp. Rowan Williams. And tell him Br. Tobias Haller said so.

Frank Remkiewicz aka “Tree” said...

First among equals except he does not consider LGBT to be equals at least not privately. Publicly he just wishes people would not rat out the first among equals.

Daniel Weir said...

I agree with you, Tobias, but the term has been around for too long for us to be able to rid ourselves of it. Far better to continue to point out the ways in which it leads us into very dangerous territory.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, all. I made a similar comment at Facebook and it has provoked even more discussion. It seems to me that this particular epithet partakes of all of the well-meaning mendacity and false mythology of leadership. "I'm ever so 'umble, I am, Mr. Cup'e'feeld..." "I was only following orders..." "Some animals are more equal than others..." Dangerous territory indeed, Fr. D.

Paul (A.) said...

Or in other words, Tobias, "Imus inter pares".

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Paul. The more I think of the absurdity of the concept, except in those cases where the primus has a very strictly and purely canonical role to preside at the meetings -- much like our own PB in the original model -- the more I'm offput by the real abuses the ABoC has engaged in, as, for example unilaterally deciding to disinvite a duly elected bishop from Lambeth. Some bishops are clearly more equal than others!

Unknown said...

I believe Jesus did say something about those who are first and those who are last.

Erika Baker said...

I find it hard to get as outraged about the concept as you seem to. I agree that the Archbishop should not have abused his power the way he did, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with him having that power.

Whether a primus inter pares has purely ceremonial functions, is a chair of the meeting or has an elevated role during his tenure is purely down to the respective rules.

In business it is quite common to have an uneven number of managing directors and an elected CEO who has the casting vote.

If Rowan had been better at managing this crisis we might have commended him for his wise use of the power to unite a fractured gathering.

The problem is the abuse, not the power itself.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Amen, Keven. Hence my allusion.

Erika, I'm not talking about abuse of power, but the inherent contradition in the term. I'm objecting to duplicitous new-speak. One can't be entirely "equal" if one is "first" -- at the very least in an ordinal sense. "One" is not the same as "Two" or "Three" even in the absence of any power at all. A primus differes from all the others at least in that quality of "firstness" -- and when it comes with a job description that also grants a "power" or two; the "equal" part becomes even more false. Your analogy with an odd-numbered board demonstrates this -- the fact that one person has the deciding vote in contested elections sets her apart as not equal to the others -- it is a power only she possesses, even if it is only rarely used.

So I'm not talking about the abuse, or even the proper use of the power, I'm talking about the power itself as intrinsically incompatible with a concept of "equality." It is eyewash and false, and should be dropped. Leaders need to claim their leadership, and not conceal it with false humility. That, in my opinion, is the doorway to even greater abuses.

Erika Baker said...


But the ABC has, by definition, some powers that other Primates do not have, for example inviting delegates to Lambeth.
If there was no special role for a figurehead that the others could not exercise, what would be the point of having one?

Daniel Weir said...

It is interesting to note how widespread the use of the term is, e.g., the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Governors General in Australia and Canada. What seems to be the crux of the problem with the Arbp of Canterbury is that his authority within the Communion is, outside of a few areas, not well-defined. He has traditionally had the authority to convene the Lambeth Conference and the authority to invite or not invite bishops. He also chairs certain meetings. Other than that there are no agreed upon areas of authority and Dr. Williams has seemed, at least to me, to have tried to exercise authority that hasn't been granted. The same, of course, could be said of the Primates, and there are those who want to attribute to Lambeth authority it has never had.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, you keep missing my point. I'm not objecting to the powers, but to the title, which appears to me to be an oxymoron or contradiction in terms. I'm not objecting to figureheads having functions, but to saying that they are just the same as everybody else. They aren't. The first step to the fulsome Roman Imperium was Octavian's adoption of "First Citizen." See here.

Daniel, from my knowledge the Primus of Scotland is just that: like our PB in the original model his only canonical function is as chair of the synod. (I could be mistaken, but that's what I've been told.) I also have no objection to the term "primus" or "Primate" in and of itself. It's when we get into the Animal Farm world of "equal" that credulity is strained.

But I also agree that Rowan has not made good use of the power at his disposal...

Erika Baker said...

I don't think I'm missing your point (but forgive me if I do!). I'm grappling with the language and the concept, possibly ineptly.

In a group of equal people individuals do, depending on the occasion, assume roles that make them stand out, that turn them into leaders with special abilities and functions.

A priest presiding at the Eucharist is one example.
You might not want to call that priest "primus" but "president" is potentially as loaded.

The fact that someone has special responsibilities does not make the others in the room less equal.
At least not necessarily.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, I guess I just don't understand what you are saying here, but I can't think of any other way of saying what I've said already.

So let me use your language: If someone has a special ability or function, then -- even ceteris paribus -- the person is clearly unequal in that particular ability or function. That's what makes it special. Special is not "equal." QED (?)

I am only referring to equality in relation to the functions or powers, not some ontological equality. If that's the confusion. A priest is still a Christian just like the whole congregation; but she is not "the same" (i.e., equal) in function as she is the only one equipped with a particular faculty to do a particular thing. And I do see this as a necessary understanding if the "first among equals" has any functions at all that the others do not have.

Erika Baker said...

yes, so the Archbishop is still a Christian, like all other Primates.

I really do struggle here. This is not about ontological differences but about roles in a certain setting.

In your normal PCC, if you discuss the budget your treasurer will become the first among all the assembled equals by virtue of her role and expertise.

If you then discuss the fabrics and ornaments of the church your churchwarden will assume that role.

That's not to say that any of these people is intrinsically superior to the others. It just means that at particular points, they become those with special abilities and functions.

But that's not a power that confers any superior status.

What am I missing?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

What you are missing: It is the title or epithet I object to, not the status. No one calls the Treasurer "first among equals." It is the inherent duplicity in the title that I'm finding offensive -- as with Augustus of Rome, for whom it became part of his road to power.

It is inherently dishonest to claim people are equal when they aren't. It's the dynamic of the boss or the teacher who wants to pretend to be everyone's "buddy" or "one of the guys" when he really isn't. It is manipulative and false. It is both a failure in leadership and an abuse of leadership.

Erika Baker said...

I had always assumed the title to be a reminder of what the role is meant to be in order to counteract the temptations of political reality.

Like we call a priest a servant when everyone (including he himself) ususally see him as the boss in a parish.

Of course, if you don't interpret the title in that way, then I agree with you.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

That's it, Erika. But unlike "servant" which can be true (I've known clergy who really do model service rather than "lording it" -- and attempt that myself!) it seems to me that primus inter pares is inherently contradictory; it cannot really be what it is "meant to be" for the reasons I've outlined. I'd rather just say "primus" and have done with the pretensions to continue equality.

I suppose it's the inherent false humility that bothers me most. Be a leader who serves humbly -- that's the ticket.

Brother David said...

If I may create a scenario, it is a bit like the invitations to Lambeth Conference 2008.

"I, +Rowan Canterbury, have invited all of the canonically elected bishops of TEC, save one, +Robinson New Hampshire."

"But why have you done that sir?"

"Because it is my prerogative. I get to invite to the conference whom I wish to attend, because I am the Archbishop of Canterbury, Primus inter pares, the First among equals!"

"But sir, does this not make you more equal than the others."

"I am sorry, but that is all the time that I have for questions. Cheerio."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mi hermano, that is exactly the sort of scenario I am thinking of.