Part IV of “Working Thoughts in These Days”.
Obedience—Secular and Ecclesial
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2.1-4
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are god’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” Titus 3.1-3
I do not normally delve into politics, and keep my own views close to my vest. I often state that I am a monarchist (meaning that Jesus Christ is Lord and King), and that I should not be blamed as I voted for George III. However, in the interest of full disclosure I am a Chesterbellocian Distributist at heart. Thus, in many ways I do not have a dog in the political fights that rage in our State and Nation.
That said, in my private devotions I like to use the following prayers from the 1928 BCP:
“O LORD our Governor, whose glory is in all the world; We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and to all in Authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.” (Morning Prayer)
“ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Prayers and Thanksgivings)
I have been saddened to see how quickly positions on the Virus have been politicized, and have noticed that as we separate into political tribes we show a marked tendency to judgmentalism and groupthink. We no longer seem to pray for our leaders, but to continually think the worst of them, their motives, and despise their very persons. We have forgotten that they are persons, and have made them caricatures, deemed them inhuman, and made them objects of our derision. Neither the political right nor the political left are immune to this, or can claim the moral high ground. I think of social media posts that, depending political affiliation, call out one side for calling an authority names, while disparagingly naming their political opponent. Bluntly, this is not Christian behavior. It is also not Christian behavior to disparage our brothers and sisters in Christ because they hold opposite political views. We must always respond with grace and love, especially to those with whom we disagree.
I do think we all need to be reminded of the requirement to be obedient to the authorities placed over us, even if we do not like them personally, or agree with their policies. This is why we have elections in this country, and are allowed to change our government in intervals. That is not to say that we must be in lock-step agreement with decisions that are made, or not hold to opposite views and seek to make those known in a civil and Christian manner. Of course, we do not need to be happy with everything that is done, and we have a right to organize, seek redress and change, but we need to do so as Christians.
We also need to be aware that we are not required to obey immoral laws, but these are radical exceptions, and not all cases with which we disagree are immoral. Not all cases of disagreement rise to the level where we are to be the next Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or even The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We must exercise great caution in our application of this “exception”, and even in so doing must remember our Christian witness.
It is also important that we carefully analyze whether the decisions are truly “unchristian”. We are not currently being asked to deny our faith, but to take steps to limit the spread of the Virus. We must also be careful to discern the motivations of those who call us to active disobedience, or who actively disobey themselves. Is it being done purely as a Christian witness, and if so what is that witness? Is it being done for the sake of publicity and to be viewed as a martyr? Is it being done quietly and with grace or is a call put out for media presence and coverage? Are they intentionally putting people at risk to make their point?
As regards our own Governor’s edict that the Church, though essential, must limit its attendance to 10 during Phase III and 50 during Phase IV, it can be graciously challenged and even taken to the courts, but there is nothing approaching a radical immorality to the rule. It is limiting, and it has caused difficulty, but we can worship in smaller gatherings until such a time as we can gather as the whole comm
unity. I do not see that the church must disappear to the catacombs at this time.
One of my spiritual heroes (Fr. Zacharias) wrote the following at the beginning of the crisis in the UK:
“If we do not obey our governors who are not asking much, how will we obey God, Who gives us a divine law, which is far more sublime than any human law? If we keep the law of God we are above human laws, as the apologists of the 2nd century said during the Roman Empire which was persecuting the Christians. It is surprising to see in the country where we live, in the United Kingdom, that the footballers show such understanding and discernment so as to be the first to withdraw from their activities with docility towards the indications of the Government to take prophylactic measures. It would be sad for us, people of faith, to fail reaching the measure of the footballers and showing the same docility towards the authorities for which our Church prays….Therefore, my dear brethren, it is not necessary to make heroic confessions against the Government for the prophylactic measures that it takes for the good of all people. Neither should we despair, but only wisely machinate ways so as not to lose our living communication with the Person of Christ. Nothing can harm us, we must simply be patient for a certain period of time and God will see our patience, take away every obstacle, every temptation and we shall again see the dawn of joyful days, and we shall celebrate our common hope and love that we have in Christ Jesus.”
At the same time, as those who proclaim daily that we believe in “the holy Catholic church” it is incumbent upon us to be obedient to those who have been duly placed in spiritual authority over us. Bishops are of the essence of the Church Catholic, and while we may question the decisions made by our shepherds, we are obligated to follow their directives, provided they lead us not into sin. Theirs is the greater burden and judgment, and I am reminded of St. Sophrony of Essex’s experience in obeying a command from his Abbot. When he hesitated to obey, as it would keep him from returning to his hermitage, the Abbot gently told him, “God does not judge twice”. The responsibility for our spiritual welfare falls upon the Bishop’s shoulders, and we are freed through our obedience.
That means, even more, that we need to keep our Chief Pastors in our prayers as they negotiate these days. Do not doubt that as a priest of the Church I have been fully engaged in the councils of the Church in the Diocese of Springfield on these questions, but 17 years ago I vowed:
“Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), The Ordination of a Priest, 526 (Also occurs in The Ordination of a Deacon, 538).
It is never appropriate for a priest or deacon to make a public spectacle of themselves in taking their bishop to task in homilies and writings. The place for disagreement is in the council chambers. As I told the Mission Leadership Team, if there was a time that I could not fulfill my vow of obedience in good conscience, I must first take counsel with the Bishop, and if still given direction that I could not obey, the only action that could be taken with integrity would be to resign my Orders. I am reminded of St. Theodoros’ writings:
“The struggle to achieve obedience is won by means of renunciation, as we have learned. He who seeks to be obedient must arm himself with three weapons: faith, hope, and divine and holy love (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13). Thus defended, he will ‘fight the good fight’ and receive ‘a crown of righteousness ’ (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Do not judge the actions of your spiritual father, but obey his commands. For the demons are in the habit of showing you his defects, so that your ears may be deaf to what he tells you. They aim either to drive you from the arena as a feeble and cowardly fighter, or simply to terrify you with thoughts that undermine your faith, and so to make you sluggish about every form of virtue. A monk who disobeys the commands of his spiritual father transgresses the special vows of his profession. But he who has embraced obedience and slain his own will with the sword of humility has indeed fulfilled the promise that he made to Christ in the presence of many witnesses.” St. Theodoros Century of Spiritual Texts 41-43
I am also comforted by the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers. St. Ignatius of Antioch (the God-bearer) wrote movingly of the Episcopate as he made his way to martyrdom in Rome, and his letters to the churches have been preserved. One of which states,
“May I ever have joy of you, if I be but worthy. It is, therefore, seemly in every way to glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that you may be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery, and may in all things be sanctified.” Ignatius to the Ephesians 2.2.
“So then he who does not join in the common assembly, is already haughty, and has separated himself. For it is written “God resisteth the proud:” let us then be careful not to oppose the bishop, that we may be subject to God.” Ignatius to the Ephesians 5.3
It is the special vocation of the clergy to be obedient to the Bishop, but it is the duty of all Christians to do the same as they would Christ himself. While perhaps not popular in today’s environment, there can be no argument that this was the teaching of the Ancient Church.