This is a challenge to the leadership of The Episcopal Church, concerning how to be Church when the assumptions about the State prove inadequate or untrue.
The preface to the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer states, “…when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included; and the different religious denominations of Christians in these States were left at full and equal liberty to model and organize their respective Churches, and forms of worship, and discipline, in such manner as they might judge most convenient for their future prosperity; consistently with the constitution and laws of their country.”
The Episcopal Church ordered its liturgy and its structures on the assumption that the “constitution and laws” of a representative democracy were established as an enduring order.
While the Church has been often willing, and indeed obliged by the Gospel, to be critical of the ways that the constitution and laws were observed in practice, the Church has prayed and worked for the success of the general welfare of the United States of America and the institutions that are at the heart of the Republic. Ours is an “establishment” if not an established religion. We pray for the Nation and for the leadership of its government.
We are now in a time of considerable flux, where it is not at all clear that this experiment in representative democracy will continue to thrive. A combination of forces that lean towards oligarchy, corporate control, information management, and personality politics have all combined to place strains on any semblance of representative democracy. Some would argue that political power has already become completely reset, and that only the semblance of democratic processes remains, giving the appearance of a government of, by and for the people.
It is time for the Episcopal Church to turn its attention to how it ought to understand itself in relation to the State when the State becomes something other than a government of constitution and laws in which representative democracy can flourish.
What is our ministry in relation to the state, for example, if the form of the State is no longer representative, but autocratic, oligarchical, and based in power not delegated by the people, but held by other means?
There is considerable weight given in our polity to praying for those in authority, no matter how that authority is obtained or exercised. Caesar needs as much prayer for the exercise of good judgment and justice as does the President. The Dictator may be repulsive to our political sensibilities, but we might well pray that he exercises his power with mercy and justice.
But there is also weight given to resistance. A number of our colonial era parishes have a Parish owned Book of Common Prayer with the prayer for the monarch scratched through with a prayer for all in authority. That correction may be only to acknowledge that authority may change in its form. But sometimes the correction was in the hope that such authority would indeed change.
I believe that the American experiment with representative democracy is unraveling. If that is true, or even if it is only a strong possibility that such unraveling might take place, we as Episcopalians would do well to begin to think through how to be Church when the State, by way of its institutions, becomes less responsive and responsible to the general citizenry.
The Episcopal Church, through its General Convention and the Office of the Presiding Bishop, ought consider and hopefully inaugurate a series of conversations at every level of the Church’s life, to consider the Church’s relation to the government of the United States of America should that government turn further away from the hope of representative democracy. Issues to be considered by such conversations might well include:
At what point does the church determine that the State is now antithetical to its own vision and that therefore the church ought to be resistant to authority as it is present in the political system?
How are we to pray for those in authority, which such authority is anti-democratic, that is impervious to the just demands of the people?
How does the Church, in its own life, witness to the possibility of a common life formed and informed by compassion rather than power?
How do we prepare our people for life beyond the edges of representative democracy, where the quest for justice and respect for human dignity might require a level of resistance or resilience not part of our current way of being church? At what point do our baptismal promises diverge from our national allegences?
How do we prepare ourselves to be a church no longer establishment oriented?
I call on those who can do so to make resolution to the General Convention for the establishment of a General Convention Standing Committee on the Church and State, to assist the church at all levels to consider its mission in a post democratic society.
Mark Harris, 2023