(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
So far, we have discussed three of the four potential ruling groups in a Polity (regime), according to the model of Samuel Finer: the Palace, the Nobility, and the Forum—as well as a few of the possible hybrid Polities such as Palace/Nobility. Now, let’s discuss the fourth potential ruling group: the Clergy (or as Finer designates it, the Church).
A pure Clergy polity is vanishingly rare—Finer identifies only the Vatican and the historical Tibetan theocracy as pure Clergy polities. Far more often, a Clergy is joined with another ruler type and gives it legitimacy; the most common of these is Palace/Clergy. This is perhaps because the Clergy’s own legitimacy depends solely on religious justifications, and usually excludes a justification based on political or military power. (Indeed, a Clergy that actually justifies itself based on its coercive power is probably in the middle of a collapse of its authority.) Instead, endorsement by the Clergy turns obedience to the Palace into a religious virtue.
That said, the potential power of a Clergy should not be underestimated. There were times in Medieval Europe when the Pope was able to raise up kings and cast them down, and when the Catholic Church had the most powerful bureaucracy and intelligence systems around. (Largely because few Christians outside of the Church could read.) But while at times the Church could call on military forces of its own, typically its power depended on its moral authority—the widespread belief that the Church’s dictates ought to be followed, even among the nobility or monarchs. Maintaining that moral authority usually requires that the Clergy act and make sacrifices in accordance with its religious teachings, and demand such sacrifices from the populace and other rulers—at least in public!
A Nobility/Clergy polity would be unusual, since a fragmented nobility would coexist uneasily with a centralized Clergy; but Finer does note one example, the Teutonic Order during its bloody rule of East Prussia and the Baltic, starting in the 1200s: ”The Order consisted of three classes of brethren: the priests, the serjeants, and the knights. These knights had to be both noble and of German blood. There is no mistaking the religious nature of the Order; no brother might hold private property or marry, and all had to follow a very harsh discipline and rule.”
For Clergy to rule along with the Forum would be difficult, since rule by God often exists in tension with rule by the people. Finer suggests one exception: Congregationalism, when the people choose their own religious/political leaders, almost always in small communities where people know their neighbors face to face. I would add another possibility: when the Clergy sees its role as maintaining a religious rule that underpins effective rule by the people, such as a taboo against monarchs or military dictatorship.
As authors, here are some key questions to keep in mind: what religious/spiritual beliefs does the Clergy base itself on? What personal sacrifices does it make to distinguish itself from “normal” pious nobles? How does it secure compliance from the rulers, even without an army? What would make the Clergy lose its moral authority and threaten its influence? Does the populace take the Clergy seriously? Do the elites? How can a member of the Clergy exploit its moral authority for personal gain, and how many members actually do so? Does the Clergy have any tangible basis for power, like land holdings or a military force? What happens if someone (Clergy or otherwise) has a crisis of faith? What would happen in a religious schism?