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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Feast of Christ the King

This is the day when Episcopalians and Methodists celebrate a 20th-century Roman Catholic feast by singing a hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name) written by a particularly obnoxious Baptist (Edward Perronet--ex-Methodist and all-out dissenter who launched vicious attacks on John Wesley). In other words, a truly ecumenical occasion.

The feast of Christ the King, celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, was first proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in 1925. In the shadow of growing totalitarianism, Pius proclaimed that Christ alone was the supreme ruler of the world, to whom all honor and obedience was due. In the post-9/11 world, the reminder is no less needed. Christ the King is a wonderful way to end the liturgical year, paying tribute to the glorified Christ even as we prepare to celebrate His first coming in the humility of the Incarnation. But of course the two can't be separated. The only Christ we worship is the Christ of the manger and the Cross, and His kingship can only be understood in that context.

This is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the nature of the Church as a political society. This is language used by theologians as different as Stanley Hauerwas and Oliver O'Donovan (Hauerwas once, in my hearing, called O'Donovan "the alternative to me"--i.e., to Hauerwas--so I'm not coming up with this juxtaposition out of my own head). I'm not sure which of them is right--I don't claim to be familiar enough with their work (especially O'Donovan's) to make an intelligent judgment. But where they agree, I think they're both on to something. This recognition of the political nature of the Church stands over against any notion of the Church as merely a dispenser of grace, a sort of sacramental or didactic vending machine. This may seem like a caricature, but something very like it can be found everywhere from liberal Episcopalianism to conservative evangelicalism. On the one hand, the Church is described as the vehicle for sacramental grace and the Gospel of God's all-inclusive love; on the other, it is seen as a mere engine for bringing people into a personal relationship with Christ by preaching the Gospel of human sinfulness and faith in Christ's atoning blood.

The Feast of Christ the King, without contradicting any of these emphases, reminds us that the Church is the society of which Christ is the ruler; a society which coexists with the kingdoms of this world but which has independent and frequently rival claims to theirs. Of course it's easy to point to ways in which these claims have been turned into a particularly vicious form of tyranny. C. S. Lewis called theocracy "the worst of all governments," and his opinion has plenty of historical backing. In my first-semester Western Civ class, I've been teaching about the Crusades, and while I don't think they were as thoroughly and irredeemably evil as my textbook implies or my students believe, they clearly involved some pretty horrendous stuff, and I see no way to avoid the conclusion that on the whole they did a lot more harm than good. (Maybe--just maybe--they helped prevent a Muslim conquest of Europe, but that's highly speculative; what is not speculative is that they ratcheted up Christian intolerance toward Jews, hastened the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, and seriously worsened the condition of Middle Eastern Christians; not to speak of the thousands of people killed on both sides.) The entire history of the High Middle Ages, while in many respects glorious, leaves me no choice but to believe that in some sense the Western Church of that era put on the Ring (to borrow a metaphor from Tolkien that would no doubt enrage him on several levels). Yet this is probably the era of human history in which the project of enthroning Christ as King was embraced most enthusiastically. Many of the evils of the Middle Ages can be traced to the Gregorian Reforms and their project of setting up the Church as an independent source of authority over against civil monarchs. This meant that the Church lost much of its moral edge precisely as it tried to gain the authority to proclaim moral and spiritual truths in the often cynical and ruthless environment of feudal politics.

The lesson of the Middle Ages, however, is not that the Church should abandon the claims made by Gregory VII and Innocent III. The Church has indeed been set over kingdoms to pluck down and root up, to build and to plant. But the instruments she has been given to carry out this mission are not the instruments of war and death, or even of democratic legislation (though the Church can and should urge its members to support legislation that corresponds with the moral law). The Church's weapons are proclamation and witness, and the worst punishment she has the right to impose is excommunication.

Even this much, of course, is regarded by our society as intolerable presumption. In this past year, we have seen a presidential candidate announce that he believes life begins at conception, but that this belief cannot affect his policies because it is "religious" and hence bracketed off from his actions as a politician. This incredible hypocrisy (not to speak of muddled thinking) may have helped lose him the election (at least I hope so). But in the process his own Church has been reviled for its intolerance and arrogance because some of its bishops declared that Kerry should not receive communion. If the Church dares to suggest that it is a real society with the ability to declare who is and is not a member, it is accused of launching new Crusades and reestablishing the rack and the stake as instruments of ecclesiastical policy.

To continue the Tolkien metaphor--yes, Gandalf put on the Ring, and the results were terrible. But centuries ago Saruman cut the Ring from Gandalf's finger, and the results have been far more terrible. And now, wherever Gandalf the Nine-Fingered wanders, the messengers of Saruman precede him, whispering in every ear that Gandalf's message of hope and resistance is only an excuse for taking up the Ring once again. Or even, where they find particularly receptive and ignorant listeners, they claim that Gandalf still has the Ring. Saruman would be glad to take from Gandalf the one Ring he does possess--Narya, the Ring of Fire, given him long ago to rekindle hearts in a world grown cold.

We must, as Gandalf, resist the temptation to seek the power of the Ring once again. But we must also resist the temptation to give up the fight against Saruman just because we have made disastrous errors in the past. The Ring--the corrosive force of power--is the ultimate enemy, and whoever holds or attempts to hold the Ring must be fought with all the strength we possess. That is the mission we have been given--to model for the world a different kind of kingdom, one ruled not from a throne but from the manger and the Cross.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy

There's a discussion going on over at Pontifications regarding the relative merits of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The good Fr. Kimel, host of Pontifications, has finally (after many clear hints) delivered himself definitively of the view that lay Episcopalians should get out without further ado ("Fly, you fools!"). To help us make up our minds where to go, he's invited two ex-Episcopalians, one currently an Orthodox priest and the other a Catholic priest, to explain their respective choices. The Orthodox priest. Fr. Freeman, wrote a wise and eloquent account of how he came to Orthodoxy. The Catholic, Fr. Hart, shocked everyone by announcing that he wasn't really that thrilled with Catholicism but it was the "default." It is in continuity with the early Church, and papal primacy allows Catholicism to adapt itself to various cultures while retaining its integrity.

Now perhaps it's a measure of just how jaded I've become that all of this seemed quite sensible to me--indeed I found Fr. Hart's candor refreshing. Too many people choose Catholicism or Orthodoxy as one takes up a hobby, because it's exciting and enjoyable. If the claims of either of these Churches are true, then whichever of them is true is not a hobby but a home, not a mistress but a mother. If the Catholic Church is the true Church, then it is the sinful, wandering people of God (yes, thank you Vatican II). I love Orthodoxy, but at times there seems something a bit docetistic about it. Yes, the Liturgy should be heaven on earth--at least it should be a glimpse of heaven. But there is also a "not yet." Catholicism has messed up far more spectacularly than Orthodoxy, but some of its failures have come precisely from its attempt to be the People of God rather than simply a dispenser of sacramental grace (I'm thinking of the Gregorian Reforms, for instance).

Monday, November 08, 2004

Goodness, it's been more than a month

since I last posted. I've been very busy with a number of projects: an article for _Christian History_ on Wibrandis Rosenblatt (wife of no fewer than three Protestant Reformers, though not at the same time); a paper for Sixteenth Century Studies Conference on Martin Bucer's concept of heresy; the fourth chapter of my dissertation; a talk on Anglican hymns which I gave at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia; and my two Western Civ classes at William Paterson University.

I've also been thinking a good deal about the Windsor Report, to which I've provided a link for those who don't already know what it is. Essentially, it's an attempt to provide guidelines for resolving the current dispute among Anglicans about homosexuality, as well as other disputes that may arise in the future. Our basic problem is that we developed as an outgrowth of the Church of England--the religious arm of the British Commonwealth, essentially. And we never really developed structures for deciding disputes and maintaining unity.

Some people worry that the Windsor Report's attempt to create structures to preserve unity will produce an "Anglican Pope." I think that's a lot of twaddle. One can have structures of accountability without a Pope. One can have a Pope, for that matter (in the sense of a figure with ultimate responsibility for the communion as a whole), without having all the apparatus of the modern, post-Vatican-I Papacy. The more relevant point, really, is that creating an Anglican Pope would be presumptuous and silly, since there is already a Pope sitting in Rome with a perfectly good claim to succession from Peter. Of course, he also claims a lot of other things--infallibility when he speaks ex cathedra; "submission of will and intellect" (whatever that means) even when he doesn't; the right to appoint bishops throughout the world (at least in the Western Church) and interfere in their dioceses; and so on, and so forth. Furthermore, corporate reunion with Rome is (IMHO) a pipedream. And personal conversion would involve denying the validity of my wife's orders, no longer being able to receive communion with her or with my parents, and numerous other things. If I'm convinced that I must do it, then I will. But not unless, and not until. Since I twiddled my thumbs about becoming Catholic for years before I met Jenn (my wife), this may be a very long "until."