Worshipful Companies

Michael Metzger

Nigel Pullman isn’t sure why London’s 110 guilds—tax advising, marketing, consulting, insurance—are called “worshipful.” Here might be a reason why.

Since medieval times, the top trades of the City of London, such as ironmongers, wax chandlers, haberdashers, scriveners and weavers, have been recognized with the rank of “livery company.”1 Livery comes from the Old French livree meaning “delivered,” as well as the medieval Latin liberare for “liberate” (to “hand over”). The original sense was the dispensing of food and provisions to servants (or horses, as in livery, or a livery stable).

London’s elites populate these guilds. Liverymen promote best practices, raise money for charity and vote for London’s Lord Mayor and the city’s sheriffs, although that is largely symbolic. The guilds exist to build networks and business, and to make London a better place. To gain full status, a group needs to show it can raise an appreciable amount of money, attract at least 100 members and last for hundreds of years.

There are now 110 livery companies in London, some of which trace their history to the 12th century. Each one is called a “Worshipful Company.” The Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers, was founded in 1322. New industries include the Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners (it joined the livery ranks in 1986) and the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants (recognized in 2004).

Sixteen years ago a group of public-relations consultants decided they wanted to join the club. They formed the Guild of Public Relations Practitioners. Their motto: “Influence Integrity Trust.” They lobbied the City of London’s Aldermen for recognition but it’s been a slow slog. The Worshipful Company of Marketors believes PR and marketing are, in fact, the same thing. Why have a redundant guild?

This raises another question, however. What makes these guilds “worshipful?” Nigel Pullman, chairman of the Livery Committee, isn’t sure. He speculates that it may be because medieval guilds met in churches. Maybe. But there could be a better reason.

Throughout the Old Testament, one word—avodah—is translated five different ways: as work, worship, service, ministry, and the arts. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, he told him “to cultivate it and take care of it.” The Hebrew “cultivate” is avodah, to work. Later, avodah is translated as “worship,” as when God said the Israelites would worship him (avodah) on this mountain (Ex. 3:12).

Later in the Old Testament, avodah is rendered as service, or ministry. The Levites were assigned “to do the service, or ministry (avodah) of the Lord” (Num. 8:11). We are reminded of this in Great Britain, where the chief civil servant is the Prime Minister.

Finally, in I Chronicles 28:21, avodah is rendered as “craftsmanship” as well as “work.” King David, speaking to his son, Solomon, says the priests and Levites are ready for all the work on the temple of God. Those skilled in any craft will help in the work.

After Christ’s resurrection, “the primary bearers of the new faith were rank-and-file believers who traveled for commercial reasons.”2 Businesspeople spread the gospel of deliverance (livree) and liberation (liberare) from sin and death. As the church extended into the British Isles, the Old English word describing anything done for all it’s worth—worth-ship—was wedded to avodah. This is where we get our modern word, worship. Work done as it ought to be done is worshipful.

It’s widely recognized that guilds would never have attained their success had not the church taken them under its tutelage. This is why large numbers of medieval guilds induced thousands of men to join monastic communities—centers that gave rise to modern capitalism. They sought to do work as worship.

It’s a shame Nigel Pullman is apparently unaware of this. If he learned the connection between work and worship, he might see that the Public Relations Practitioners should be a shoe-in. Francis Ingham, the current master, has recast the guild’s pitch: “Doing business as well as doing good.” Sounds like avodah, doesn’t it?

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Max Colchester, “In London, PR Professionals Make Pitch for ‘Livery’ Status,” The Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2016.
2 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 73.

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1 thought on “Worshipful Companies”

  1. Never let there be less good questions! Like seeing the legacy of a trace of a culture’s core commitment to something biblical.

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