4 July 2010
A Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
One of the major questions that seems to dog our national consciousness is that of the relationship between religion and government. When our nation was founded the framers of our Constitution determined that there should be no established church as there was in England and as there had been in most of the American colonies. They further determined that “the Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Enshrined along with the principal of free speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the twin notions that there would be no national church and that Americans were free to practice their chosen faiths are at the heart of democracy in the United States.
Religion, therefore has been at the centre of our national life since its inception and we have been arguing about it ever since. What I most frequently hear people of my acquaintance saying is that religion should keep its nose out of government. This sentiment is most often expressed in the aftermath of some pronouncement on public policy by a person of faith with whom my friend disagrees. Indeed most of the discourse about religion and public life in recent years has been taken up by the Christian right invoking religion to put forth a particular social and economic agenda and the so-called godless left saying they should keep their religious views to themselves. This argument has always made me feel uncomfortable in that I find myself defending the rights of those with whom I personally disagree to share their most deeply held beliefs with our leaders.
As a religious leader, I feel very strongly that people of faith should take their most firmly held convictions about the very nature of reality and apply those beliefs to their actions and to our public life. Week after week, I stand at this “pulpit” and challenge all of us to go forth from this place, nourished by the Body of Blood of Our Lord and filled with the very spirit of God, and live as if Christ’s life, death, and resurrection really matter. I call on us all to apply our faith and our love for God and for our neighbour in our occupations, in all aspects of our lives, so that we may participate with God in his work of reconciliation. I call each of us, including myself, to account for our actions and ask how they measure up to our vocations as Christians in, and not of, the world.
In a pluralistic society, there will inevitably be people with whom we disagree and we are called to share our views with them and demonstrate through our words and actions that there is another way. We hope that in leading our lives openly as people of faith—Christians who believe that God has called us to be divine lovers in his likeness and image—we will make a difference in a world full of anger and hate, full of violence and oppression, a world full of sin. In some way this principle must be applied to our national life.
As I have said, we do not live in a country where we have an established church. Perhaps some of us wish that the Episcopal Church had been selected in 1789 to fill this role. Indeed, sometimes we act that way, sometimes we are perceived in that way, and sometimes we are even called to act in that way as we were in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks as well as on great state occasions such as the death of a president. Indeed, Ronald Reagan’s funeral at the National Cathedral several years ago was a beautiful and moving liturgy, quite up to the standards of Westminster Abbey. Were we the national church, however, we would have other problems. In England, the issue has been that of the independence of the church. Is it an instrument government, even a ministry like the Home Office? Or is the Church to stand apart from the government of the day, or even from the head of state, and hold the nation to account for its actions, teach the nation to follow the teachings of the Church and, one would hope, of Jesus Christ himself?
I believe, as a Church we are called to help the nation to make meaning of our common life and, from time to time, it is the Church’s duty to hold the nation to account. We do this not because we support one political agenda or another, although sometimes the positions on social and political matters to which Christians are drawn can align themselves from time to time with one party or another. We should never, however, confuse the Church speaking out on matters of national importance with politics. In the 1950s our church was dubbed the “Republican Party at Prayer.” Along with demographic shifts, the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s changed the face of the Episcopal Church. Today we can seem more like the left wing lunatic fringe. Neither is, of course, true. In reality, we are a diverse church that encompasses much of the political spectrum in America.
We are called to be in the world, but not of the world. As the baptised, as the body of Christ, we are God’s. We are God’s hands and feet, members of his body in the world, and our priorities are his priorities. Christians engage in the national life because we are called to love God and love our neighbours. We are called to wrestle with all the problems of day-to-day life from the perspective of God’s kingdom, which is both here and not completely fulfilled.
From the Christian perspective, the ideals for which our Nation was created are noble and enduring. Liberty and freedom and democracy; the rights of people to self-determination, freedom from tyranny and oppression. Protecting the rights of free speech and assembly, free thinking, and yes the freedom of those with whom we disagree to practice their religions are all principles that Anglicans hold dear.
Ultimately, as we hold the nation to account and help the nation make meaning of our common life, we are called to put our faith in God, and not earthly institutions. And yet, we are also called to use earthly institutions, steward earthly institutions for Cosmic Ends, so that we may serve God as his very body in the world. Saint Augustine, writing the City of God in times perhaps more troubled than our own, believed that we were called to use the institutions of the world to further God’s purpose, “so long as the City of God is wayfaring on earth.” I call on all of us on this Independence Day to celebrate the noble principles upon which our nation was founded, to give thanks for all that our national life has brought and brings to the world, and, “so long as this City of God is wayfaring on earth,” I call upon each and every one of us to share our belief in the God who made us, who loves us, and who gave us his son, to participate in our national life, and make known the love of God into our world.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Independence Day, 4 July 2010
© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume