Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christian faith not based on "divine right" of kings or bishops

When Queen Elizabeth II speaks, as is her tradition on Christmas Day, she points, this year, to the human benefits of reflection, of pausing to consider not only the past but also the future. Thoughts of those loved and lost, those newly entering into the family circle, and prospects for the future, linked to those almost sacred words, "duty and service," seem to pour from her lips as if they were engraved in both history and in faith.
In Queen Elizabeth II, history and faith are one; she is, after all, the head of state of Great Britain and of the Commonwealth of Nations, a British attempt at "empire" albeit of the benign kind, as well as Head of the Church of England.
Sometimes, her personal and professional "duties" seem to pose a special conflict, as when, for example she remained in Balmoral, Scotland, for four days, before then Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded her to return to London, to the throngs of grieving Brits mourning the untimely and tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales  in a tunnel in Paris. They needed their "Queen" to share in their grief, and although delayed, welcomed her agreement to enter and share that grief publicly.
And, because the public perceptions of "royalty" demand a scrupulous attention and discipline to the details of that presentation, including staging photographs, rehearsing ceremonies and speeches, (she is known as "one-take Windsor" to those producing her Christmas Day messages!) and the pretense of royalty also demands hundreds of servants, as part of the "duty" of preserving what has come to be known as a feudal and hierarchical model of power, the "faith and spirituality" part of her headship are given short shrift, at the demands of the political, the public and what has become known as the requirements of "the firm" of the British monarchy itself.
Nevertheless, for those of us colonials, many of whose grandparents and great grandparents emigrated from England, we can see the blurring of the lines between crown and church, and the unfortunately consequences of that blurring.
As part of the "firm's"(The Crown's) maintenance of its inscrutable public persona (Jung's word for The Mask) individuals have lost their heads, their marriages, their employment, their public reputation and their previous standing inside the royal household, at the mere whim of the monarch, or his or her agents, depending on the "firm's" needs to appear strong, in charge, invulnerable and even perfect. And, in all cases, there was never any redress, reconsideration, reconciliation or rehabilitation of the "miscreant".
Similarly, the Church of England has spawned a culture of "the firm" in its pursuit of the moniker as the "Right Religion" (words from a sign hanging over the entrance to Huron College in London, Ontario), through the unassailable authority of its bishops, and archbishops, its canons and its deans. Unilateral decisions made by those individual authorities have the force of  God's law, with or without recourse to something called "due process" (inaugurated as early as Habeus Corpus in the Magna Carta of 1215) whereby individuals are assured their legal innocence unless and until such innocence is disproven in a public hearing, usually inside a court room presided over by a judge under strict guidelines and perhaps a jury of ordinary people who, upon hearing and reflecting on the evidence, are provided options of both the degree of conviction and the punishment deemed appropriate for the misdemeanour.
The British monarchy, being non-elected, is responsible to no one and to no "judge and jury" save and except public opinion, which history demonstrates they have both the funds and the cunning to micro-manage to their advantage. Individuals in their penurious employ are exposed to their every whim, for the reputations of their career and their persons, without recourse to anything resembling due process, remediation or reconciliation. Once dismissed, forever forgotten seems to be the royal administration of authority against those who have contravened their edicts. And who is going to challenge that kind of authority on this earth? One former favourite valet of the Queen Mother was found dead in the street, five years after having been evicted from his residence, and his duties, upon her death.
While the British monarchy has historically deemed both its creation and its longevity on the theory of the "divine right of kings," believing as it once did, if not still holding to that caveat today, that God had installed them on the throne, thereby elevating the "raison d'etre" of the monarchy to God's will and presumably the Holy Spirit's collusion.
Borrowing the "divine right of kings" into the church hierarchy, and thereby justifying the rulings of those "elected" into the hierarchy of the church as part of God's will is analogous to the Roman Catholic Pontiff's dogmatic assertions that rise above human debate and scepticism and doubt, and make those rulings "unassailable, not open to appeal," and of course, not open to amendment or change. That is partly why there are no woman priests or bishops in the Roman Catholic church, and why the gays and lesbian lifestyle is considered "sinful" by the Roman Catholic church. And it is also why the current Pope's "Who am I to judge?" rhetorical question about gays and lesbians prompted so much public attention and discussion, because although he did not alter the teachings of the church, he nevertheless altered the tone of all previous Popes on the matter.
For the Church of England and its daughter churches to continue the practice of the divine right of bishops, as the authority empowered to "rule" without contextualizing that "rule" into processes that respect the individuals who, in the church's mind and view, have transgressed against church rules, dogma and doctrine, is another of the many aspects of infantilizing of its parishioners, its praxis and its future on an altar of naivety, and feudal and unchallenged or unchallengable administration of that authority. There is a profound chasm of difference between Jesus' "Go and sin no more" to the prostitute and any bishop's consent to the permanent ostracisism (in the Roman Catholic church it would be called "excommunication") of that prostitute in the contemporary Anglican churches, or the demonizing of gays and lesbians in so many Anglican daughter churches in Africa, for example.
On a personal note, I once discussed the option of ordination in the United Church of Canada, with a female clergy and pastoral counselling supervisor, while I studied in the Anglican tradition. I recall vividly her counsel: "You and I are both abused children, and in the Anglican church, the location of power and authority is clear, it resides with the bishop, while in the United Church, it floats around a table of laity, and one is never sure where it comes to rest with which person or persons. So, I would advise you to stay with the Anglican church for that reason."
In reflection, after decades of engagement with the power structure and the rulings of the Anglican church hierarchy, I would, on balance, gladly submit to the gathering of all the relevant evidence and the relevant options by a group of my peers, whose decisions would be able to be appealed, and reject outright the political motivations of too many decisions made to preserve the perfect mask of the "firm" known as the Anglican/Episcopal church, both daughters of the Church of England.
When I swore an oath of obedience to the bishop, I did not ever believe or intend to sacrifice  my person, nor my beliefs nor my autonomy nor my dignity nor my reputation to the authority of any single human being, no matter what office he or she held. I believed then, and continue to believe today, that I was entering a culture in which my person would be respected, would be appreciated and would be valued, not above that of any other, but at least from a reasonable expectation of being given honourable and honest consideration and the option of reconciliation, which, from my perspective, is the heart of the gospel message, allegedly at the heart of the church's mission.
And the recent death of Nelson Mandela, the epitome of human reconciliation, having been reared in both the African traditional culture and the Methodist church, has only prompted more reflection on how Christian are exhorted to treat their enemies. And once again, the gap between theory and praxis, at least in the Anglican tradition is so wide as to be unconscionable.
Unfortunately, for both the monarchy and the Church of England and its daughter churches, the Episcopal Church of the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada, this feudal, hierarchical, monarchical even pontifical structure is both witness to and agent for unilateral decisions unappealed, without either due process or forgiveness, and clearly without opportunity for reconciliation.
The Royal family is replete with dismissals of those formerly in its employ who, through the most minor of indiscretion, brought dishonour to the "firm" and its public image, while, of course, those who are inside the "family/firm" have brought the most egregious disgraces to the "firm/family" without so much as a rebuke, publicly or privately. Similarly, within the culture of the Anglican/Episcopal churches, those in power continue unassailed regardless of their "mistakes" while those in their employ are vulnerable to private, even secret investigations, deliberations and decisions that neither incorporate all the available evidence nor a willingness to consider such evidence when presented voluntarily, outside the purview of the official investigation.
Priests whose marriages are clearly broken and lying destitute on the cellar floor of the rectory, so long as no one in the parish or especially in the diocesan offices is aware, or speaks of the truth to anyone publicly, continue to hold their appointments until retirement and their reputations until long past that date.
Priests whose dependence on alcohol, while merely whispered among those who are aware, by evidence and not by rumour, continue to perform their public "duties" without the slightest encounter of officialdom with the truth of their illness, nor their need for professional help.
Affairs between clergy and parishioner, unless exposed and regaled against often by parishioners determined to seek revenge for previous "slights" of either  party, continue unexposed and under-reported, so that the "firm's mask" remains as intact as it is humanly possible to maintain.
Unfortunately, while preaching both a loving and a forgiving God and His Son Jesus the Christ, and an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God, it would seem that it is God's will that the "firm" remains "perfect" at least in its public image, unless and until the "controls" on that mask can and do no longer "hold" and then it becomes the "official duty" of both the monarch and the bishop to perform what is commonly known as "damage control", a cargo ship load of which became necessary upon the divorces of both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, and upon the confessional interviews of both Diana and Charles, each seeking revenge on the other during the proceedings of their divorce headlines.
While perhaps necessary in the political arena, these cover-ups and omissions of "due process" are neither appropriate nor tolerable in the church arena, to which they have been grafted as a piece of  skin is grafted to an open wound on the human body, in order to bring it back to health. Cover-ups and omissions of due process are, unfortunately, not analogous to spiritual health, pursued through the pursuit of the whole truth, even or especially when those truths are inconvenient, messy, perhaps even pathogenic and remediable, under the appropriate supportive and healing arrangements.
The ministry of the church, in fact, is not analogous to the "duties and the service" of the monarch, and the culture of the church's persona is not, and never has been, congruent with the aspirations, the goals and the purposes of the Christian church, no matter its denominational imprimatur. Clearly the Anglican imprimatur has flown across the Atlantic and attached itself to the church praxis as if it were sacred, sacramental and baked into the culture of the church "cake"....unable to be removed from that cake without exposing the crumbs of the cake for what they are, sugar, spice and fruits dried, decayed and lifeless on the chopping block. Even the Altar Guilds in too many parishes function on the basis of perfectly pressed linens, perfectly folded, and borne along through history by mean-spirit imposition of the authority of the "Head" of the Altar Guild, as if she were the "Mother Superior" of her own convent.
It is long past time for the Church of England, the Episcopal and Anglican churches to incorporate into its spiritual life, a publicly endorsed and publicly designed "due process" to which all miscreants can appeal, in the sad and often tragic circumstances that find human beings being human beings, filled with gaps of judgement, behaviour and attitudes that would, on the surface, make the "firm's establishment" blanch with embarrassment, (and perhaps insure fewer short-term financial contributions and contributors) while, if the whole "story" were known, would seem much less toxic, dangerous and much more tolerable than a perfectionistic praxis of the Christian faith would permit.
It is time to separate church and state, at the highest levels of the Church, in order to assure its continued viability, vitality and very survival.
"I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly!" comprises no idle or hollow aspiration, today, yesterday nor tomorrow, and on the birthday of the baby Jesus, it seems appropriate to think of a new birth inside the life of the institution that is pledged to keep His words, His life and His promise of love and forgiveness alive!

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