06 July 2009

Church and State

The celebration of Independence Day is a venerable expression of our love for those whose sacrifice and vision created our country with its unique Constitution and guarantee of liberty for all citizens. It was a shaky start to be sure. As with any new idea, diverse opinions made gaining a solid foothold sometimes very dubious indeed. I continue to study a great deal of source documents and commentary on the development of what we call democracy. It is that, but wrapped in a republic form of government. We even say that in the Pledge of Allegiance: "...and to the Republic for which it stands..."

One article of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of religious expression. This was an absolutely new concept in civilization. The Roman Empire had attempted something like this by allowing conquered countries to continue the exercise of their indigenous religious practices. However, those religious entities could not engage in political enterprise. The confusion led to near collapse in the fourth century. Constantine steadied the empire's boat with his conversion to Christianity and mandate that all of the Empire would embrace Christian life and practice. From that point until the Constitution of the new United States, Church and State had been oppressively intertwined.

A large majority of the framers of the American system of government were Anglicans (Church of England at that time) and found it impossible to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown of England while fighting for independence from that crown and developing a new government. After the Revolution, the Anglican Church continued as the Episcopal Church. In its first General Convention of 1785, a form was set for celebrating the Day of Independence in public worship. Four years later, in the General Convention of 1789, with three Bishops of its own to create an independent body, it was determined that celebrating independence in a church worship setting was tantamount to, again, intertwining Church and State. To that end, worship celebrations for Independence Day were removed from the Book of Common Prayer.

The above status remained until the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1928. At that time, the liturgical celebration of American Independence was reintroduced with the stipulation that such celebrations would not reflect an exclusivity that had marked the Anglican status of State Church in Great Britain. With two World Wars and other points that raised patriotic conscience, the ideal of the liturgical reformers became lost with the "folks in the pew" of most Christian traditions. While not denominationally exclusive, we have come very close to state church status in our religious rhetoric and worship celebrations. In the Episcopal Church, I have observed many abuses of church/state status in parishes. In one parish, the American flag and Episcopal Church flag would be processed side-by-side at the head of the procession on Sunday mornings (right behind the cross). At the Chancel the two flags would part to let the procession pass. Then, the third stanza of "America" would be sung...during which the Episcopal Church flag would be dipped toward the American flag...as in submission. Now, folks, that is an abuse of church/state status.

Our government has been a little more guarded in maintaining an appropriate relationship between Church and State. Churches risk losing their status as independent religious bodies if the priest/pastor uses the pulpit to support a candidate for office or embrace a particular partisan political measure. One can speak freely about the moral or ethical implications of certain public, social political actions but cannot endorse a person or an issue from a partisan stance. This is a good thing. I am very careful in the parishes where I have been Rector to insure that I and my clergy staff use the pulpit for its intended purpose...the proclamation of the Good News and the challenge for living an ethically and morally sound life. That's tough enough on its own!

For reference, I am a veteran. I served with distinction in the United States Navy for six years and was decorated for my unique work with the submarine squadron staff to which I was assigned on active duty. It is an experience I treasure and would do again without hesitation. My military service was a time of growth, insight and development for me as a young adult. I am proud of that service. This is to say that I cannot be accused of lacking patriotism. There were a lot of dangerous things happening in the world in the early/mid-1970s -- things that most folks knew nothing much about. My work was in the thick of some of those events.

As a Priest in the Episcopal Church, I lead parishes that have veterans of all branches of service ... as well as non-military government service. I have heard and collected stories of courage, bravery and exemplary actions in combat and harm's way from every war in the 20th century. I am humbled by what these men and women accomplished to insure our ability to continue in the kind of government our forebearers envisioned. With them I celebrate our history of upholding freedom. However (and this is important), what we have proclaimed, we have also abused. I have seen the effects/affects of our prejudicial actions toward First Nations (Native American) cultures in the name of Manifest Destiny. This ideology was first artriculated by John Sullivan in the New York Morning News in 1842. It became a type of battle cry for the taking of land from peoples who had occupied it for centuries untold. Those people were told (in subjugation) that they were not free to worship in their cultural styles or continue their cultural practices. They were confined to lands that our government did not want -- because those lands were not fit for agricultural use.

While that seems like a digression, I believe it is fundamental to the understanding of Church and State. This past Friday (3 July) I celebrated Independence Day with parishioners gathered for our regularly scheduled noon Eucharist. I spent Independence Day preparing to leave for General Convention of the Episcopal Church. While I was traveling yesterday (Sunday, 5 July), our parish again celebrated Independence Day with liturgically assigned readings, prayers and music. Mother Anne Hutcherson (one of my two priest associates) had a wonderful sermon in which a flag belonging to her father was used. So, we do celebrate our freedom.

With all that, we continue to pray for people and governments different from us in ideology and practice. We pray for their souls' health and for wisdom in the ordering of their common lives. Those are prayers for transformation of heart and mind...not to be like us but to exercise integrity, humanity and compassion in their leadership. Jesus was very clear, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-48, which is assigned for the celebration of Independence Day). It is our work to pray for and, in our own lives, model justice, wisdom, compassion and mercy. The Church is where we are supposed to gain those virtues. It is the State in which we practice those virtues to create a just and equitable human community.
Church and State are related, but we have to recognize that, in the Church we honor God as sovereign and learn the truth of discipleship. It is not the State we honor, but in which we live and practice what it means to be created in God's image. It is imperative that we begin in our own boundaries where the freedom of others has been abused.

No comments:

Post a Comment