Someone recently referred to my chosen church, the Episcopal Church, as the “National Church.” He cited the fact that more than half of the Presidents of the United States have been Episcopalian, that the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church and that we have dominated the chaplaincy in the armed forces since the beginning (though not anymore.) It got me thinking. I think I know what that person meant. He meant that socially and culturally, when people think of official Church functions the images in their heads are largely taken from our tradition. He also meant that the Episcopal Church is the church of the influential, the movers and shakers and the guardians of the social contract. He implied that to be somebody in town you had better belong to the Episcopal Church. The Church was a voice for stability and predictability, an enforcer of the social contract beyond the pale of law enforcement.
The man is well up in years, and I can see how he still sees his church in this light. It certainly was the role the Episcopal Church played for many decades in our history. However, in the 60’s and 70’s the Church recognized that such a role in society imposes a muzzle. How can the Church speak out against the ills of the day when it is so invested in the status quo? We sought to recapture the prophetic role that is rightly the role of communities of faith. The idea is rooted in the tradition of the ancient Hebrew prophets who, more than foretelling the future, outlined in no uncertain terms the gap between God’s ideal and the reality of the audience to whom they spoke. Jesus took up this role with the corruption of the Jewish leadership of his day. (Remember, Jesus was also a Jew. His fight with the Pharisees was an in-house thing that gives no support to successionism and anti-Semitism in the Church.)
Since the days of those brave ancient Jewish voices the idea has been with us that government has no automatic corner on truth or righteousness and therefore MUST appeal to a higher authority for validity. The role of communities of faith in this process is vital. On the one hand we hold fast to the ancient truths, the time-proven patterns of wise living and holy community. On the other hand we speak to the gaps that emerge between that great ideal and the reality of our society. In the pluralistic religious context of today here is common ground between religious traditions on which the religious community can address the State. The State, on the other hand, must always resist any efforts of the religious community to co-opt its work and DO politics, and the seduction of using religion for its own ends.