Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lady Powerscourt II: Hierarchy

On Iustificare it has been argued that,

"In as much as there is a hierarchical structure within the shared-life of the divine community, so too the human community was created with a hierarchal structure. This hierarchal structure would be largely lost if God had created a genderless human community. "

While I leave it up to others to debate whether there is hierarchy within the divine community, that is, within the Trinity, I will remark on hierarchy as a social reality in the life of Lady Powerscourt. This enables me to remain with the intents of my own blog and respond to the concept of hierarchy at the same time.

Lady Powerscourt was by birth a member of the upper class and was married to Viscount Powerscourt. She became a widow while she was young and all mention of her relates to her life as a widow. I will restrict my comments to that period of her life. She had servants and tenants. In this sense she was the mistress and social superior of many men and women.

By being the widow of a landowner, she had a rector, a priest of the church on her property. This rector was the Rev. Robert Daly, her social equal but one who retained his position due to her endowment. He later became a bishop and eventually the editor of her letters. He held her up as an exemplary Christian, not as an exemplary woman.

Another man who entered her life at Powerscourt was John Nelson Darby. He was initially a lawyer but became an Anglican priest in the parish neighbouring Powerscourt. He came with Robert Daly to the prophetic conferences sponsored by Lady Powerscourt on her estate.

While Daly remained in the Anglican Church and later became a bishop, Darby became the leader, if not the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. The early meetings of the Brethren were in part funded by Lady Powerscourt who acted as patroness of the men and women who met to discuss scripture apart from the Established Church.

While the Brethren did not officially celebrate communion until after the death of Lady Powerscourt, she was considered one who by her wealth enabled this group to meet without the approval of the religious establishment. She provided a venue for clergymen to meet and eventually withdraw from the hierarchical church to which they belonged.

The Brethren are so named, not because they celebrate the role of the male, but because they have thrown off worldly and anti-Biblical hierarchy within the church. Within the Brethren there is a notion, at least, of egalitarian relations in the 'priesthood of all believers.' While in the early days women were often mentioned for their spiritual contributions, they quickly retreated into silence.

Unfortunately, Darby later in life became an authoritarian leader who excommunicated those he disagreed with. He was once engaged to Lady Powerscourt, but withdrew from the engagement in order to devote himself to teaching, study and travel in the establishment of the Brethren. Lady Powerscourt died shortly after at the age of 36.

In Lady Powerscourt's life we see illustrated the hierarchy of birth, land ownership, wealth, and episcopal church organization. She enjoyed the position of power in most of these contexts; in the church, she enabled many clergy to reject the hierarchy in which they found themselves. In relation to her husband, she was released from this hierarchical relationship, if indeed it was that, we do not know, by his death after a brief marriage.

In Lady Powerscourt's life, hierachy is, in fact, a powerful theme. However it bears little relation to the sex of the particpant.

In response to the statement on Justicare, I would ask why we wish to prolong the existance of lifelong hierarchical relations between men and woman, when we are only too glad to see the other hierarchical structures fall.

We all enter into task-related hierarchical structures as part of the necessity of daily life. However, we do not imagine that these are beautiful metaphors of the divine community. To see hierarchy as the best reflection of the image of God, opens up many other questions that we have in our society abandoned.

I fail to see any intrinsic and logical connection between the fact that the human race is male and female, and hierarchy; beyond the diverse and harsh realities of our human condition and all that we seek to overcome in looking beyond this world to another.


Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for this great post! One small correction: Lady Powerscourt may have been the patron of Rev Daly's living. But he was not "one who retained his position due to her endowment", at least in that she would not have been able to remove him although she was obliged to support him. As a Rector he could be removed only by church courts for proven wrongdoing. Lady Powerscourt's role would have been restricted to the choice of his successor, when he became Bishop of Cashel in 1834; or was this in fact the prerogative of "the young heir" mentioned in the history noted below? I accept that I am assuming here that the rules of the Church of England also applied to the Anglican church in Ireland at that time.

The Powerscourt referred to is apparently the well known Powerscourt Estate just south of Dublin.

I found an interesting history of the meetings at Powerscourt, and written by a woman, at the second half this page.

Gerald said...

We all enter into task-related hierarchical structures as part of the necessity of daily life. However, we do not imagine that these are beautiful metaphors of the divine community.

Oh but I do. I see all hierarchical relationships as typologically related to the image of God that humanity expresses. Employer/Employee, Government/Citizen, Elder/Congregant, etc. Hierarchical relationships are not a necessary evil, an unfortunate outcome of the fall, but rather a permanant reflection of the divine image. Even Christ will be eternally "under" the Father, that "God may be all in all."

There is glory and beauty in such relationships that are, in my mind, lost in a strongly egalatarian societal structure.

Interesting post though. As someone who grew up in a dispensational environment, it was interesting to read about the connection between Powerscourt and Darby.

And not that it matters much, but it's "iustificare" (latin) rather than "justificare."

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for the additional information. I think I was aware of the error with resepct to the endowment as I wrote it and meant to come back and rephrase it. I wonder if she originally gave him the position. I don't know. In any case, I had read that he was no longer part of the Powerscourt meetings after 1833 - if he was a bishop that explains it. He must have been a very tolerant person!

In the frontispiece of my edition of the Letters, it says "Robert Daly, Rector of Powerscourt, Afterwards Bishop of Cashel." I misread that as him becoming Bishop after she had died but obviously that was not so. I assume now that he simply wanted to identify himself as the rector of Powerscourt first and bishop second. I will follow your other links, and come back to this topic again.

I think I have given hierarchy a greater than necessary role, which reflects the constraint of my topic. I shall try another interpretation another time.

Anonymous said...

Iustificare, sorry Gerald. BTW Soteriology, without the extra 'i'.

As Employer to Employee,
As Government to Citizen,
As Elder to Congregant
So Husband to Wife. Gee Gerald.

Might I suggest that there are many less egalitarian societies still around today where you could seek out the beauty and glory whose loss you mourn.

I, on the other hand, neither condemn hierarchy as an 'evil' nor uphold it as an 'ideal'. It is part of our humanity that we must negotiate community according to various imperfect models.

Dispensationalism - you will forgive me if I don't comment on that today.

Gerald said...

I'll quickly forgive you for not mentioning dispensationalism--it's a past that I've long repented of.

I think that our continued discussion of this topic might quickly turn unduly polemical. In this I'm not particularly interested. I've greatly appreciated your interaction on my blog and hope you check in from time to time. Very helpful input. I know I'll be checking back here on occasion. Blessings.

P.S. Thanks for tip on soteriology--and in the title of my blog no less!

Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne wrote:

Might I suggest that there are many less egalitarian societies still around today where you could seek out the beauty and glory whose loss you mourn.

Indeed, Suzanne, but please take pity on Gerald's beautiful wife! (see I would hate to hear that she was forced to cover up her hair and arms, as would be true in the only remaining societies which are really not egalitarian.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


Gerald has indeed been blessed with a beautiful family! I wish them the very best.

Gerald said...

Thank you both.

And good thing you chimed in Peter--my dear wife was just one day away from a head covering until I saw your comment here. Whew! That was a close one! :-).