Church and the Rebuilding of Society

Our culture spends a great deal of time and energy discussing the role, the limits and the reach of government.  As the political season begins to heat up, we can safely predict that we will hear these words and phrases: conservative, progressive, tax and spend, big government, Libertarian, Tea Party, infringement of rights, overreach.  Usually these phrases are shorthand and connected to some animus if not dismissiveness toward people whose politics we find threatening to the American way of life.

We face big problems in our political arena, and who is not frustrated by the seeming habitual deadlock of our congress and the rarity of real cooperation between the major two parties. But perhaps our dysfunction is more social rather than political?  I wonder if our problems are rooted in a lack of attention paid to our society’s health without which our political life is bound to fail. To put to more starkly, government is one thing; society is another, and in so far as the Church becomes more political in nature, we may be avoiding on a deeper calling.  

This idea comes to me after reading an article about how we read one of our nations core documents.  In an article about the Declaration of Independence, Gordon S. Wood talks about how this distinction, the one between or political and our social arenas, was alive in its writers:

Jefferson and many other revolutionaries in 1776 always put society ahead of government…Government for Jefferson, as it was for other liberals like Thomas Paine, was a necessary evil.  It was society that Jefferson and Paine always celebrated. Society, wrote Paine, in the opening paragraph of Common Sense, “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections.” Government acted only negatively by restraining our vices…the confidence that Jefferson and the other revolutionaries had in society alone flowed from their assumption that every person, regardless of rank or education, had a natural social or moral instinct that ties them by affection to their fellow human beings. This social and moral sense, this natural feeling of affability and benevolence, became for the revolutionaries a modern substitute for the austere and martial conception of virtue that sustained the ancient republics.   

It’s been said that we are all political animals.  Since becoming a bishop, I have become more aware of the political nature of the Church, both in its internal operations—its resolutions for Convention, its Canons and Constitutions, its nauseous (to me) gossiping about who will be elected the next Presiding Bishop- and its external involvements.  Being asked to ruminate from scripture and theology about the death penalty, gun control, health care, is mostly new to me. I do wade into those waters cautiously, perhaps even reluctantly, and not without some careful, prayerful study and preparation.  I find that political waters, though necessary to wade into occasionally, are not my natural habitat. I prefer to consider how the Church can be a school for living in the divine milieu of the Trinity, where mutual affection and respect is grounded.  I wonder if we in the Church are being called not to pay more attention to our social habits and practices. 

What concerns me now is how we, as social beings, heal and nourish our social ties, those bonds of benevolence, compassion, and mutual dignity that have so eroded in our culture. The word society means a companionship, which literally is  “a breaking bread with.”  It often surprises people when they are reminded that the legal name of the Episcopal Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.    Archbishop William Temple famously said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” 

In the early centuries of the church, as the Roman Empire was disintegrating for many of the reasons our culture seems to be disintegrating, a brother and sister formed societies of prayer and work.  Benedict and Scholastica set forth a framework for living together that was characterized by mutual affection, care for the community, hospitality, prayer and reconciliation.  Sister Joan Chittister among others have claimed that Benedictine spirituality is what saved western civilization from utter chaos.  The Church has inherited from Benedict and Scholastica certain effective practices for the rebuilding of our society, and they can be found in the liturgical practices in our prayer book.  

Take, for instance, the Exchange of the Peace.  For many of our congregations it is a point of pride that it takes so long for everyone to exchange the peace with everyone else in the assembly.  The instinct is natural:  we don’t want anyone to feel left out.  But let’s consider how the peace follows the General Confession and Absolution.  This is the moment when we are assured our sins have been forgiven and that we stand reconciled before God and with one another.   The reason for this is that when we come to the altar we are not in danger of contradicting Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:   

So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Have you ever noticed how rarely the true meaning of this Christian practice is in play when we exchange the peace?   How often is it more the case when we extend our hand in greeting, we are already search for the next person to greet, and there is hardly even any eye contact. That the peace resembles “speed dating” and not shared dignity could be a sign that the bedrocks of the Christian faith, forgiveness and reconciliation, have eroded to a point of trivia.  

This is the kind of careful attention to the social fabric of the Church, the depth and authenticity of our companionship with God in Jesus and with each other,  that concerns me prior to the political stances or partisanship any of us may feel called to claim in the public sphere.        

The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire