Ecclesiastical polity

Ecclesiastical polity is the operational and governance structure of a church or of a Christian denomination. It also denotes the ministerial structure of a church and the authority relationships between churches. Polity relates closely to ecclesiology, the study of doctrine and theology relating to church organization.

Ecclesiastical polity is defined as both the subject of ecclesiastical government in the abstract and the particular system of government of a specific Christian organization. The phrase sometimes is used in civil law.


Questions of ecclesiastical government are first documented in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and "theological debate about the nature, location, and exercise of authority, in the church" has been ongoing ever since.[1] The first act recorded after the Ascension of Jesus Christ was the election of Saint Matthias as one of the Twelve Apostles, to replace Judas Iscariot. The Twelve Apostles were the first to instantiate the episcopal polity of Christianity.

During the Protestant Reformation, reformers asserted that the New Testament prescribed an ecclesiastical government different from the episcopal polity maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, and consequently different Protestant bodies organized into different types of polity.[1] During this period Richard Hooker wrote Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the first volumes of which were published in 1594, to defend the polity of the Church of England against Puritan objections.[2] It is from the title of this work that the term ecclesiastical polity may have originated. sWith respect to ecclesiology, Hooker preferred the term polity to government as the former term "containeth both [the] government and also whatsoever besides belongeth to the ordering of the Church in public."[3]

Types of polity

Though each church or denomination has its own characteristic structure, there are four general types of polity: episcopal, connexional, presbyterian, and congregational.

Episcopal polity

Churches having episcopal polity are governed by bishops. The title bishop comes from the Greek word epískopos, which translates as overseer.[4] In regard to Catholicism, bishops have authority over the diocese, which is both sacramental and political; as well as performing ordinations, confirmations, and consecrations, the bishop supervises the clergy of the diocese and represents the diocese both secularly and in the hierarchy of church governance.

Bishops in this system may be subject to higher ranking bishops (variously called archbishops, metropolitan or patriarchs, depending upon the tradition; see also Bishop for further explanation of the varieties of bishops.) They also meet in councils or synods. These synods, subject to presidency by higher ranking bishops, may govern the dioceses which are represented in the council, though the synod may also be purely advisory.

Also, episcopal polity is not usually a simple chain of command. Instead, some authority may be held, not only by synods and colleges of bishops, but by lay and clerical councils. Further, patterns of authority are subject to a wide variety of historical rights and honours which may cut across simple lines of authority.

Episcopal polity is the predominant pattern in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican churches. It is also common in some Methodist and Lutheran churches, as well as amongst some of the African-American Pentecostal traditions in the United States such as the Church of God in Christ and the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.[5]

Hierarchical polity

Some religious organizations, for example Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses, The Salvation Army, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, describe their polity as hierarchical. In practice, such polities are similar to an episcopal polity, but often have a much more complex system of governance, with several dimensions of hierarchy. Leaders are not called bishops, and in some cases have secular-like titles such as president or overseer. The term bishop may be used to describe functionaries in minor leadership roles, such as a parish leader; it may also be used as an honorific, particularly within the Holiness movement.

Connexional polity

Many Methodist churches use a derivative of episcopal polity known as connexionalism, or connexional polity,[6] which combines a loose episcopal hierarchy with a bottom-up structure, centred on small groups of congregations called circuits.

Presbyterian polity

Many Reformed churches, notably those in the Presbyterian and Continental Reformed traditions, are governed by a hierarchy of councils (or courts).[7] The lowest level council governs a single local church and is called the session or consistory;[8] its members are called elders. The minister of the church (sometimes referred to as a teaching elder) is a member of and presides over the session; lay representatives (ruling elders or, informally, just elders) are elected by the congregation. The session sends representatives to the next level higher council, called the presbytery or classis.[9] In some Presbyterian churches there are higher level councils (synods or general assemblies). Each council has authority over its constituents, and the representatives at each level are expected to use their own judgment. For example, each session approves and installs its own elders, and each presbytery approves the ministers serving within its territory and the connections between those ministers and particular congregations. Hence higher level councils act as courts of appeal for church trials and disputes, and it is not uncommon to see rulings and decisions overturned.

Presbyterian polity is the characteristic governance of Presbyterian churches, and also of churches in the Continental Reformed tradition. Elements of presbyterian polity are also found in other churches. For example, in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, governance by bishops is paralleled by a system of deputies, who are lay and clerical representatives elected by parishes and, at the national level, by the dioceses. Legislation in the general convention requires the separate consent of the bishops and of the deputies.

Note that in episcopal polity, presbyter refers to a priest.

Congregational polity

Congregational churches dispense with titled positions such as bishop as a requirement of church structure. The local congregation rules itself, elects its own leaders, both clergy and laity, ordains its own clergy, and as a "self-governed voluntary institution", is a type of religious anarchism. Appointment of local leaders and councils by external authorities derives from a separate bureaucratic or associational polity.

Members may be sent from the congregation to associations that are sometimes identified with the church bodies formed by Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other non-congregational Protestants. Neither the congregations nor the associations exercise any control over each other, other than having the ability to terminate membership in the association. Many congregationalist churches are completely independent in principle. One major exception is ordination of clergy, where even congregationalist churches often invite members of the vicinage or association to ordain their called pastor.

It is a principle of congregationalism that ministers do not govern congregations by themselves. They may preside over the congregation, but it is the congregation which exerts its authority in the end.

Churches that traditionally practice congregational polity include congregationalists, Baptists, and many forms of nondenominational Christianity. Because of its prevalence among Baptists, and the prominence of Baptists among Protestant denominations, congregational polity is sometimes called Baptist polity.

Polity, autonomy, and ecumenism

Although a church's polity determines its ministers and discipline, it need not affect relations with other Christian organizations. The unity of a church is an essential doctrine of ecclesiology, but because the divisions between churches presuppose the absence of mutual authority, internal polity does not directly answer how these divisions are treated.

For example, among churches of episcopal polity, different theories are expressed:

Plurality and singularity

Plurality refers to systems of ecclesiastical polity wherein the local church's decisions are made by a committee, typically called elders. The system is in contrast to the "singularity" of episcopal polity systems as used in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, or the pastor/president system of many Protestant churches.

Plurality of elders is commonly encouraged, with variation of practice, among Presbyterians, some Pentecostal churches, and Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Plymouth Brethren (who employ congregational polity). The practice is drawn from biblical precedent, acknowledging that churches in the time of the New Testament appear to all have had multiple elders.[10]

See also



  1. ^ a b Doe 2013, p. 118.
  2. ^ Foakes-Jackson 1909; McGrade 2013, p. xxxii.
  3. ^ Hooker, Richard (1954). Morris, Christopher (ed.). Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. 1. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. p. 297. Cited in Becic 1959, p. 59.
  4. ^ "Bishop". 2018. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  5. ^ Dowley 2002, p. 646.
  6. ^ Doe 2013, p. 122.
  7. ^ Doe 2013, p. 123.
  8. ^ Doe 2013, pp. 123, 150–151.
  9. ^ Doe 2013, pp. 123, 151.
  10. ^ Strauch 1995; Viola & Barna 2008.


Becic, Marilyn Jean (1959). Richard Hooker and His Theory of Anglicanism (PDF) (MA thesis). Chicago: Loyola University. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
Doe, Norman (2013). Christian Law: Contemporary Principles. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-00692-8.
Dowley, Tim, ed. (2002). Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press.
Foakes-Jackson, F. J. (1909). "'Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity'". In Ward, A. W.; Waller, A. R. (eds.). The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: Bartleby (published 2000). ISBN 978-1-58734-073-4. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
McGrade, Arthur Stephen (2013). Introduction. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: A Critical Edition with Modern Spelling. By Hooker, Richard. McGrade, Arthur Stephen (ed.). 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. xv–cix. ISBN 978-0-19-960491-3.
Strauch, Alexander (1995). Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (3rd ed.). Littleton, Colorado: Lewis & Roth Publishers.
Viola, Frank; Barna, George (2008). Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House. Archived from the original on 2 July 2010. Retrieved 17 June 2018.

Further reading

Cragg, Gerald R. (1975). Freedom and Authority: A Study of English Thought in the Early Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press. ISBN 978-0-664-20738-0.
A study of religious authority (especially pp. 97–218) as well as the secular authority of the state.
Henderson, Ian (1967). Power without Glory: A Study in Ecumenical Politics. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press (published 1969). ISBN 978-0-8042-1497-1.
A study of the conflict and prestige of episcopal church authority with other forms of church polity as they affect inter-Christian relations and ecumenism.
Archbishops' Council

The Archbishops' Council is a part of the governance structures of the Church of England. Its headquarters are at Church House, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3AZ.

The Council was created in 1999 to provide a central executive body to co-ordinate and lead the work of the Church. This was a partial implementation of the recommendations of the report "Working Together as One Body" produced by Michael Turnbull (then Bishop of Durham) in 1994.


A chapelry was a subdivision of an ecclesiastical parish in England and parts of Lowland Scotland up to the mid 19th century.It had a similar status to a township but was so named as it had a chapel of ease (chapel) which was the community's official place of worship in religious and secular matters, and the fusion of these matters — principally tithes — initially heavily tied to the main parish church. The church's medieval doctrine of subsidiarity when the congregation or sponsor was wealthy enough supported their constitution into new parishes. Such chapelries were first widespread in northern England and in largest parishes across the country which had populous outlying places. Except in cities the entire coverage of the parishes (with very rare extra-parochial areas) was fixed in medieval times by reference to a large or influential manor or a set of manors. A lord of the manor or other patron of an area, often the Diocese, would for prestige and public convenience set up an additional church of sorts, a chapel of ease which would serve the chapelry: typically an area roughly equal to the old extent of the manor or a new industrious area. The chapels as opposed to mission churches/rooms had a date of consecration, dedication to a saint or saints and typically their own clergy and were by and large upgraded, "(re-)constituted" into parishes. A small minority fell redundant and were downgraded or closed, though at a lesser rate than mission rooms which usually cheaply built and declined after the invention of different modes of private wheeled transport.

The vestry, whether a joint board (with the whole parish) or dedicated in each chapelry, was empowered under an Act of Parliament in the reign of Henry VIII to collect rates to improve the roads, other general purposes, and administer the Poor Law (e.g. indoor and outdoor relief, the Speenhamland system and other wages systems) until the establishment of Poor Law Unions in the 19th century. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1867 declared that all areas that levied a separate rate should become civil parishes thus their number approximately equalled the sum of ecclesiastical parishes and chapelries. Civil parishes have been abolished in many urban areas, removing the third tier of British local government.

Chapter clerk

Chapter Clerk is the title usually given to the officer responsible for the administrative support to the Chapter of a cathedral or collegiate church in the Church of England. The post is usually occupied by a lay person but may occasionally be carried out by someone who is ordained. Some cathedrals refer to their Chapter Clerks as Chapter Steward or occasionally Managing Director.

Church Congress

Church Congress is an annual meeting of members of the Church of England, lay and clerical, to discuss matters religious, moral or social, in which the church is interested. It has no legislative authority, and there is no voting on the questions discussed.

Congregationalist polity

Congregationalist polity, or congregational polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of ecclesiastical polity in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or "autonomous". Its first articulation in writing is the Cambridge Platform of 1648 in New England. Among those major Protestant Christian traditions that employ congregationalism are those Congregational churches known by the Congregationalist name that descended from the Independent Reformed wing of the Anglo-American Puritan movement of the 17th century, Quakerism, the Baptist churches, as well as the Congregational Methodist Church. More recent generations have witnessed also a growing number of non-denominational churches, which are most often congregationalist in their governance.Congregationalism is distinguished from episcopal polity which is governance by a hierarchy of bishop, and is distinct from presbyterian polity in which higher assemblies of congregational representatives can exercise considerable authority over individual congregations.

Congregationalism is not limited only to organization of Christian church congregations. The principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Canadian Unitarian Council. Most Jewish synagogues, many Sikh Gurdwaras and most Islamic mosques in the US operate under congregational government, with no hierarchies.


Connexionalism, also spelled connectionalism, is the theological understanding and foundation of Methodist ecclesiastical polity, as practised in the Methodist Church in Britain, Methodist Church in Ireland, United Methodist Church, Free Methodist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Bible Methodist Connection of Churches, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and many of the countries where Methodism was established by missionaries sent out from these churches. The United Methodist Church defines connection as the principle that "all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns." Accordingly, the primary decision-making bodies in Methodism are conferences, which serve to gather together representatives of various levels of church hierarchy.

In the United Methodist Church and Free Methodist Church, where bishops provide church leadership, connexionalism is a variety of episcopal polity. Many Methodist churches, such as the British Methodist Church, do not have bishops. In world Methodism, a given connexion (that is, denomination) is usually autonomous.


A deanery (or decanate) is an ecclesiastical entity in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Evangelical Church in Germany, and the Church of Norway. A deanery is either the jurisdiction or residence of a dean.

Ecclesiastical Commission of 1686

The Ecclesiastical Commission was an English court of enquiry established in July 1686 by James II under the Royal prerogative, and headed by Judge Jeffreys. It was declared to have jurisdiction over the governance of the Church of England also empowered to try all offences punishable under ecclesiastical law. It was disbanded shortly before the Glorious Revolution.

General Synod of the Church of England

The General Synod is the Tricameral deliberative and legislative organ of the Church of England. The synod was instituted in 1970, replacing the Church Assembly, and is the culmination of a process of rediscovering self-government for the Church of England that had started in the 1850s.

Lay member of chapter

Someone who is not ordained but is a member of a Cathedral chapter. The 1999 Church of England Cathedrals measure introduced a requirement for cathedrals to include on their chapters a number of lay people. This varies according to each Cathedral's statutes. Some lay members are appointed by the diocesan bishop while others may be appointed by the cathedral community.

Some lay members of chapter are also appointed canons but this practice is not universal.

List of Church of England Measures

This is a list of Church of England Measures, which are the legislation of the Church of England. Since 1970, Measures have been made by the General Synod; prior to then they were made by its predecessor, the Church Assembly. Under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 (9 & 10 Geo. 5 c. 76), Measures have the same force as an Act of Parliament.

As of July 2010, there were 124 Measures passed and unrepealed.

Lords Spiritual

The Lords Spiritual of the United Kingdom are the 26 bishops of the established Church of England who serve in the House of Lords. The Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, and the Anglican churches in Wales and Northern Ireland, which are no longer established churches, are not represented.

Meeting of parishioners

The meeting of parishioners (also referred to as the annual vestry meeting or (AVM)) is held yearly in every parish in the Church of England to elect churchwardens and deputies (if any) for the forthcoming year.

The meeting must be held by 30 April and is commonly held immediately prior to the annual parochial church meeting. It is the last remnant of the old vestry meeting.

Parochial church council

A parochial church council (PCC) is the executive committee of a Church of England parish and consists of clergy and churchwardens of the parish, together with representatives of the laity.

Legally the council is responsible for the financial affairs of the church parish and the maintenance of its assets, such as churches and church halls, and for promoting the mission of the church.

Parson's freehold

The parson's freehold refers to a system within the Church of England in which the rector or vicar of a parish holds title to benefice property, such as the church, churchyard or parsonage, the ownership passing to his successor. This system is to be phased out, under the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure.

Province of Canterbury

The Province of Canterbury, or less formally the Southern Province, is one of two ecclesiastical provinces which constitute the Church of England. The other is the Province of York (which consists of 12 dioceses). It consists of 30 dioceses, covering roughly two-thirds of England, parts of Wales, and the Channel Islands, with the remainder comprising continental Europe (under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe).

Between the years 787 and 803, a third province, (of) Lichfield, existed. In 1871, the Church of Ireland became autonomous. The Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920 and therefore was no longer the state church; it consists of six dioceses and is an ecclesiastical province of the Anglican Communion.

The province's metropolitan bishop is the Archbishop of Canterbury who also oversees the Falkland Islands, an extraprovincial parish. The Church of Ceylon - Anglican Church in Sri Lanka has two dioceses - the Diocese of Colombo and the Diocese of Kurunegala which are extraprovincial dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Province of York

The Province of York is one of two ecclesiastical provinces making up the Church of England and consists of 12 dioceses which cover the northern third of England and the Isle of Man. York was elevated to an archbishopric in AD 735: Ecgbert was the first archbishop. At one time the Archbishops of York also claimed metropolitan authority over Scotland but these claims were never realised and ceased when the Archdiocese of St Andrews was established.

The province's metropolitan bishop is the Archbishop of York (the junior of the Church of England's two archbishops). York Minster serves as the mother church of the Province of York.

Richard Hooker

Richard Hooker (25 March, 1554 – 3 November 1600) was an English priest in the Church of England and an influential theologian. He was one of the most important English theologians of the sixteenth century. His defence of the role of redeemed reason informed the theology of the seventeenth century Caroline Divines and later provided many members of the Church of England with a theological method which combined the claims of revelation, reason and tradition.Scholars disagree regarding Hooker's relationship with what would later be called "Anglicanism" and the Reformed theological tradition. Traditionally, he has been regarded as the originator of the Anglican via media between Protestantism and Catholicism. However, a growing number of scholars have argued that he should be considered as being in the mainstream Reformed theology of his time and that he only sought to oppose the extremists (Puritans), rather than moving the Church of England away from Protestantism. The term "Anglican" is not found in his writings and indeed first appears early in the reign of Charles I as the Church of England moved towards an Arminian position doctrinally and a more "Catholic" look liturgically under the leadership of Archbishop William Laud.


A vestryman is a member of his local church's vestry, or leading body. He is not a member of the clergy.

By tradition

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