We had a great day of celebration on the occasion of the Bishop's Visitation this Sunday, and since then I've been been confined to home, my head and body aching with fever and my energy drained. It's kind of a metaphor for how a lot of us feel about the Election campaign we've been subjected to. I had planned on writing something earlier this week about the Election, but my body failed me. I spent most of my time the last three days lying down, because it hurt to sit up.
I got up this Thursday morning feeling much better and turned my attention to writing a homily to deliver this morning at our Eucharist, at which we commemorated Richard Hooker, who is one of the greatest Anglican theologians.
I'm going to tell you about Hooker and how he helps us understand the Church, and that will take quite a few words, and then finally I'll say some things about how this all suggests a way of being in the wider world of society and politics.
Hooker – a distinguished scholar and parish priest, lived between 1533 and 1600, decades in which the Elizabethan Settlement was being received as the guiding principle of the Church in England after the Reformation and the break with the Roman papacy. This was a time of continued controversy, and Hooker, a man known for his profound learning and wisdom and temperate spirit, prepared a defense of this settlement in the face of attacks on it by a noted Puritan churchman.
The result was Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which combined his great learning from the writings of the early Church theologians and the legacy of Aristotle. The central idea is natural law, and that this is the foundation for all the positive laws of Church and of State, and that these laws are discerned through Scriptural Revelation, reason, and ancient tradition. Anglicans ever since have appealed to Scripture, Reason, and Tradition as the foundation for our belief and practice.
Book V of the Laws is a thorough defense of the Book of Common Prayer, which with great care and careful reasoning answers objections by Puritans in the church who wanted to take the post-Reformation English church in the direction of a totally unified body of doctrine, rather than the decision of the Elizabethan Settlement to come together in Common Prayer, recognizing that continuing disagreements and tensions over various points of doctrine were to be expected and tolerated and welcomed as normative in the life of the Church.
In this book Hooker gives us a very useful and thought-provoking understanding of the Church, and in reading it I encourage you to understand that the gender-specific language would have been normative in his day, although not in ours:
“The Church is always a visible society of men; not an assembly, but a Society. For although the name of the Church be given unto Christian assemblies, although any multitude of Christian men congregated may be termed by the name of a Church, yet assemblies properly are rather things that belong to a Church. Men are assembled for performance of public actions; which actions being ended, the assembly dissolveth itself and is no longer in being, whereas the Church which was assembled doth no less continue afterwards than before.”
The key idea here for me is that the Church is a Society, and this remains true after any assembly for worship, for deliberation and decision making or for service and mission has adjourned. This Society is drawn together by the call of the Holy Spirit making real in our lives the call of Jesus to join him in receiving the Kingdom of God into our lives. The Church is a Society which is called together by God and is continually gathering into itself people from various walks of life and from various cultures and languages and patterns of thinking and unique personal circumstances.
Sam Portaro, an Episcopal priest and thinker writing in 2001, draws out some implications from this definition of church as he observed the life of the Episcopal Church around him.
It is of the nature of the assembly, and its political agenda, to be partisan. That is perhaps why in our recent assemblies we have tended to act as parties unified around particular ideologies, and why we have so much difficulty in conceiving of ourselves as belonging to some larger organic whole. While some believe that unity is found in conformity to a single ideology or polity, such designs for unity among Christians are quite unlikely, and even undesirable. It is far more likely, and more consonant with the gospel as understood by Hooker, that any future unity will be based not upon unified public assemblies of partisans (or Christians), but rather in a spirit – a sociability , if you will – that transcends the limitations of assemblies.i
I find Portaro's insights into Hooker helpful and instructive. The history of the Church is a history of disagreement and difference. Just consider how many bodies of Christians there are in the world, after all. And within our Episcopal Church I know I'm not the only one who wishes people would all come to see things the way I see them! Partisanship is a fact of life. We tend to want to assemble with people of like mind. Any Christian assembly will be limited to the perceptions, ideals, and interests of the membership, dealing with the information that it has in the moment, and perhaps rejecting information that may suggest another way. God knows this, and loves us still!
This is what makes it such a challenge to be in a church which gives a major role in governance to a triennial General Convention of laity and clergy elected from dioceses by laity and clergy of those dioceses. Politicking of a quiet sort is always going on when deputies are chosen. There are various parties in the Church who want their point of view represented so that the decisions of Conventions will go the way they want them to go. This means that there are always in some sense “winners and losers” when the decision of a Convention goes in a way that disappoints some party of people. We've seen two major times of exodus from our church during my lifetime as an Episcopalian.
What we hope for, and to some extent realize despite our differences, is that after the decisions are made and the minority reports are in, we realize that we are all fundamentally in this together because of Christ's call; and that the Church continues on. The assembly is done, and the Society continues. We are one in Christ in ways that we have yet to discern, and that unity is a gift which we are constantly called upon to receive. We must have a certain humility about our perspective, and a fundamental respect for the mystery of what God is doing elsewhere and in someone else and with some other assembly, and for the timetable in which God seems to operate.
One of the Scriptures chosen for Hooker's feast day is from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 2, in which we hear these words:
“'What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him" --
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
As humans, we are limited in our understanding, and tend not to acknowledge that fact. But we are called by the Spirit, and the Spirit searches all things, and the Spirit has in mind nothing but good for us.
In other words, God has a vast grasp of things beyond our understanding, and a great deal of humility is therefore appropriate before the mystery of God. A great deal of humility is called for from every baptized person. We essentially ask for this when we pray over each newly baptized person, asking that they be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” (BCP page 308) This prayer commits us to a lifetime of humility and questioning and discerning, which promises joy and wonder along the way, as well as difficulty and conflict and obstacles to overcome.
This suggests something about how Christian life will be about living in society with questions and in dialogue, with more questions perhaps than answers, because the Spirit is searching everything, and, I would add, everything is vast!
But in all of this, we're pursuing a course described by Hooker. We consult the Scriptures, the Bible of the Old and New Testaments. We employ our God-given faculties of reason, which engage the whole person. We will consult and be instructed and challenged by ancient tradition, as in the ancient creeds, and we will pray always for God's guidance.
Now to politics.
Hooker's insights into the Society called the Church suggest for me insights into the society in which we all participate.
Partisanship is a fact of life in society. We all belong in one way or another to various traditions of thought about how society should be organized. We can be quite ideologically rigid about this at times. The advent of multiple outlets for news and opinion on the Internet has facilitated this reality, as has the advent of social media. We can easily confine our conversation to an echo chamber by refusing to listen to or view or read certain media outlets, or by blocking on Facebook those relatives or acquaintances whose political views we find abrasive. We tend to want to be around people who agree with us, or share our cultural assumptions. This partisanship has grown extreme and even toxic in contemporary life, and the travesty of this election cycle is the result of this developing trend.
And yet, I think we have within us a basic yearning for unity. At least the people I associate with do. Down deep within us is the realization that we are in this together, and that our welfare and security depends on our living together in a measure of peace. I see a lot of examples every day of people acting with decency and good will.
The American experiment in democracy has always envisioned, if not fully realized, the idea that “all men are created equal,” and put in place a Constitution and Bill of Rights which provides a way for us to be self-governed. We've done best when we've been led by statesmen or stateswomen, those politicians with enough strength of character and intellectual curiosity and humility and moral character to be able to govern with the aim of doing as much good for as many people as possible. In our two-party system we've seen statesmen of both major parties. These kinds of leaders can deal with difference and hammer out public policy in vigorous debate with the willingness to compromise.
To me, politics is very important because it is in the political arena that we are to learn to live together, to provide for the common good, to pay attention to and be responsive to the real needs of the weakest members of society. It stands to reason that people will come up with honest disagreements as how best this aim can be accomplished, and they'll have to work them out in the arena of advocacy and compromise that we call politics.
Because we know that politics is important, the current campaign for the presidency has been a stressful thing for so many of us. The divisions are deep, the partisan rancor and expressions of hatred ubiquitous. The words of Yeats come to my mind:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.ii
The campaign has raised for us concerns about how the political game is played in Washington, and tested our capacity to trust politicians to guard our security and to not be influenced by the opportunity to profit from their position.
The campaign has raised to public consciousness a shadow side of our culture in which women are treated as objects for men's desire and abused and exploited, and also challenged us to accept that there are many barriers to a woman coming forward with her story, just as there are barriers that any victim of abuse must overcome to tell their story. It is hard to do. We learn this in our "Safeguarding God's Children" curriculum. I have enough direct pastoral experience with abused and exploited people to have any illusions as to how many barriers there are to coming forward when there are so many standing by to silence or shame the victim, to blame the victim, to deny and to obfuscate and cover up for the sake of reputation.
The reality of terrorism in the world is huge for our political life. We all have fears about peace and security. We need our national leaders to be shrewd and cunning in this struggle against terrorists, but those of us who follow one who was scapegoated and expelled and crucified as an innocent victim should resist cultural pressure to single out and negatively categorize whole groups of people to blame for the sins of some. We have too much knowledge since Jesus as to how easy it is for the innocent to be blamed and expelled and even killed for the sake of expediency.
This has been a very difficult time for me and for you. I've been aware, as has one of my sisters, that "the children are watching, and they have a long memory." The campaigning will soon be done and the ballots counted and the next phase of our young experiment in democracy underway. We pray for God's protection and for access to God's wisdom; a wisdom we know is found in Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit. We pray that God will use us Christians as a means for reconciling.
We'll do this best as Americans in consultation with our founding documents, with the employment of all our faculties of reason, and with due respect for the body of law that we've accumulated during our young experiment in democracy. Those of us Americans who pray should pray.
In the midst of this I give thanks for the Church, and let me say a positive word about our assemblies, especially the assembly for the Holy Eucharist. In a society in which church attendance has plummeted relative to the population, church stands out as a place where people of various political persuasions still actually congregate in one place for a common purpose at the same time. That's pretty awesome, when you think about it.
In our Eucharistic assembly, we are all reconstituted each week as the Body of Christ, consisting of many members with a variety of gifts to serve God by loving God and our neighbors as ourselves. We gather at the altar rail, a Republican next to a Democrat next to a Libertarian next to a what-have-you. We all receive the Eucharist together. We know that as the worshiping assembly we are not the only people God loves. We realize that God's love is far beyond the boundaries of our assembly. But we know ourselves mystically drawn toward a unity which is in God's mind; a unity that we sense because we sense in the Eucharist that God loves all things and fills all things and doesn't know a creature that God doesn't love. We are to let this idea fill our imaginations and enlighten our thinking. Richard Hooker, I think, had this in mind! It's quintessentially Anglican in a way he described for us.
And we go forth into the world with that confidence that God is with us as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Let's remember our baptismal commitments as we vote. Let's also remember this the day after Election Day, and as we exercise the awesome rights and privileges afforded us in this United States of America to seek the good that God wants for all.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States and of our state and community in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 822)
iBrightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), p. 202.
iiWilliam Butler Yeats, The Second Coming. http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html