Sunday, October 07, 2012

Exile | Empire

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, why would someone who considers themselves to be a missionary in a post-Christendom context choose to be an Anglican priest? Isn’t the Established Church a Constantinian corruption? Why I embarked on the whole selection process that leads to ordination was simply in obedience to what I – and others – believed God was saying, and I think Scripture shows us that he is not answerable to us.  That said, what is my self-understanding of my calling?  It has a lot to do with my understanding of exile and empire.

I am an exile, both in terms of kin – my father’s people are all Southerners, spread north-south from East-Anglia to Kent and east-west from London to Bristol; but I grew up in Scotland, and have lived my whole adult life in the North or Midlands of England – and in terms of faith - as a follower of Jesus in a post-Christian, post-Secular pluralist society.

At various times in the history of God’s people, they found themselves living as exiles within Empires.  Through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29), God instructs his people in Babylon to settle, to build a life, to seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which he has sent them, to seek to bless their host nation and leave their own being blessed to God.  This principle articulates what we see supremely in three different stories set in different Empires at different times: that of Joseph/Zaphenath-Paneah, in Egypt; Daniel/Belteshazzar, Hananiah/Shadrach, Mishael/Meshach, and Azariah/Abednego in Babylon; and Esther/Hadassah and Mordecai in Persia.  Each is thoroughly embedded in the Establishment of the Empires to which God had sent them. (Except Mordecai) Each is known by a name that speaks of that culture and its gods, as well as by names that speak of the Hebrew culture and god.  Joseph’s father-in-law is a priest within a religion of Empire, and Joseph himself observes cultic practices that are alien to the practices of his own people.  Daniel’s friends are civil servants and he is a senior political figure, and while they refuse to observe certain cultic practices, they nonetheless embed themselves within the politico-religious dynamic.  Esther is called to live within the harem of a Xerxes, a king who has as many gods as he has wives and concubines, while Mordecai is elevated to second in rank to Xerxes.

Two other stories are pertinent here.  One is the story of the prophet Elisha and the Syrian general Naaman.  When Naaman informs Elisha that he wishes to worship, Yahweh, the god of Elisha’s people, within the cultic observances of Rimmon-worship, Elisha does not tell him he cannot, but sends him on his way with peace – right relationship with God and neighbour.  The other is the story of the first two churches planted in Europe: the mission-focus of one being providing purple clothing for Roman senators, the mission-focus of the other being detaining prisoners of the Roman Empire.

There is a sense in which the Church of England is part of the one true Church, no less or more so than any other tradition within the Church.  Whenever men have set out from the corrupt church to establish a pure church it has failed, sooner or later.  This is God’s judgement on our folly. Jesus said “I will build my church” – and he will not allow us to build it.  Whenever we seek to build the church, rather than to do what we were told to do – to go and make disciples – it is doomed to failure (in this sense, there would be nothing to be gained by my stepping outside of the Church of England).  Every member of the Church is both chosen/elect (‘clergy’) and the people of God (‘laity’): not two different groups, but two different ways of describing a trans-national people set apart as priests to mediate between God and the nations.

But there is also a sense in which the Anglican Church – the Anglican Communion – is the religion of the British Empire. This is so, even though both the British Empire and the Church of England no longer enjoy their former place of privilege and power: and in this sense, it is as false as the religions of the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires.  It is, I would suggest, within this sense that we have public worship services, as opposed to the underground gatherings of Christians in ancient Rome or today’s China.  And it is within this sense that I understand my Anglican priesthood: that I serve God within the cultic practices of a particular people group; that I seek the peace and prosperity of that nation, not least in blessing the people at significant rite-of-passage moments (but also through my promise to serve the monarch in all things lawful, God being my helper); and habitually doing so, am there when they seek help to deal with processing their response to the abduction of a young girl, the murders of police officers, the events that shake their world to the foundations.  My personal name is ‘Andrew Christopher,’ which means ‘the man who follows Christ’ but in the Empire I am conferred the name ‘Reverend Doctor,’ or, Belteshazzar, or...

That I see the Church of England as both part of the one true Church and a false religion of Empire is neither schizophrenia nor pragmatism, but paradox – both/and which we are invited to live with without either/or resolution.

Some people hold the view that all God’s people are priests – mediators between God and people – to the surrounding culture, and the ‘clergy’ are priests to the priests.  My own view is that all God’s people are priests in that they are sent to mediate between God and people, and that the ‘clergy’ (that is, those who are clergy in the way that we practice ordination in my context) do so specifically within the cultic structures of the Empire.  The congregation I serve do not need me as a priest (they need a High Priest, and that is Jesus).  In a time where they have all but lost the Story of which they are part, they need me as a story-teller.

Why would I dare to see myself as in any way comparable to Joseph or Esther or Daniel, rather than the nameless Israelites?  In large part because of where God has sent me: first to a top independent school, a Scottish school that produced two Westminster Prime Ministers (I know some Christians who believe that Christians should not be in such school contexts, but God sends where God sends), then to university education as far as PhD level.  From childhood, I have been trained to serve the Establishment of the land God has set me in; all the while knowing that God will not allow it to last forever, and that, living in its decline, there is even the possibility that I might outlive its fall.

Is this risky?  Undoubtedly.  But God is the most breath-taking of risk-takers.  It is only possible to make what Michael Frost calls ‘dangerous promises’ to the Empire (we will bless you, however greatly you sin against us) without losing our own identity if we also tell ‘dangerous stories’ (the scandalous Story of Scripture, which has been all but lost to my own community), engage in ‘dangerous practices’ (I’d argue that Sabbath rest in a 24/7 society is even more politically subversive than Communion; and that the Command to observe Sabbath is the command most broken by most priests within the religion of this post-Judeo-Christian empire), and sing ‘dangerous songs’ (edgy, raw Psalms, not sentimental mush).

I am aware that this will be for many of my brothers and sisters a thoroughly unsatisfactory answer to the question, why on earth am I a priest within the Church of England? But satisfactory or not, I hope it can be respected.

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