Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Obey the Emperor

Fourth Sunday of Easter
12 May 2019
10.30 Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

About twenty years ago, in advance of a NATO posting, I had to be positively vetted

As well as a very thorough exploration of my private life, the interviewer asked me if I was a monarchist

I was rather taken aback at the question as I thought the answer would be obvious

Looking back, I think it was a republican priest who taught me at School/and who was one of my referees/ who might have prompted the question

Nevertheless, I was obviously very happy to confirm to the interviewer that I was

Interestingly, graduate officers in the British Army do not swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

However, as you will have heard at my Induction on the 1st April, I was happy to re-affirm my allegiance to Her Majesty when I took up the position at Bolton Priory

The question, on both occasions, is of course is about authority

Whose authority do I accept whilst serving in the Army and whose authority do I accept whilst serving as Rector of an Anglican Parish?

Authority has always been a thorny question for the Church

At the time of the Reformation the question was whether you accepted the authority of the King or the Pope?

The Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to make it absolutely clear where a subject’s loyalty should lie in matters of faith

The first and foremost prayer we say together, at every Communion service, is for the Queen

In that prayer, we as her Christian subjects, acknowledge before God that we will

“faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey her, in thee and for thee according to thy blessed word and ordinance”

This prayer is quite deliberate

  • The Queen is God’s representative here on earth
  • She is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England
  • And we, her subjects, must faithfully serve, honour and humbly obey her

It could be seen as the perfect expression of the exhortation today in the Epistle of Peter

“Fear God and honour the Emperor”

It all seems so simple what could possibly go wrong?

The Church of England, however, has a habit of making a big issue out of something very small

Our current fixation with human sexuality perhaps is a classic example

But at the time of Elizabeth, the question of authority was very soon being tested with the vexed question of clerical dress

Clergy dress at the time of Elizabeth harked back to the reign of Edward VI (6th)

The surplice, in particular, was seen by many Reformers as a sign of the “popish priesthood”

 Many refused to wear it

The issue however, was not so much about vestments but about authority

Who had the authority to tell clergy what to wear?

  • Was it the Queen?
  • Was it her Bishops to whom she had delegated her authority?
  • Or was it Scripture?

As one puritan cleric said “How can that habit be thought consistent with the simple ministry of Christ?”

The Reformation historian J W Allen said this

“If you accept the Elizabethan system, you could not deny that it was for the Queen to declare authoritatively what doctrines are indeed in Scripture…The authority of Scripture became a kind of legal fiction”  

Therein, perhaps, lies the problem

Generally, within the United Kingdom, we have little problem with “obeying the emperor” particularly in what is a Christian country.

The reading this morning however tells Christians how to conduct themselves within a pagan society and that duty is also to “Fear God and honour the Emperor”

In my first sermon at Bolton Abbey, I preached on Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, as a devout Christian, found himself at odds with the State

In September 1933, the National Church Synod at Wittenberg passed a resolution to apply the Aryan paragraph to the National church.

This meant that pastors and church officials of Jewish descent were removed from their posts.

Bonhoeffer refused, saying that the church must not simply

“bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke itself.

But he went even further.

Christians in Germany will have to the defeat their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive

He didn’t just want to disobey the Emperor, he wanted to destroy him.

A similar conflict was found in the Church in South Africa during the apartheid years

The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa supported the Government which enshrined apartheid in its constitution

On the other hand, the South African Council of Churches opposed it

Archbishop Desmond Tutu used his position as President of the Council to denounce the government and its policies.

He not only opposed apartheid but he condoned violence as a means of ending it.

One Church honoured the Emperor, the other, again, not

Indeed, the moral imperative not to “honour the Emperor” seems overwhelming in both these cases

But how do we reconcile this with the exhortation this morning?

However, just as the Elizabethan Church found itself wrestling with this issue, so too did one of its priests who provides an Anglican answer to this vexed question to day

His name was Richard Hooker, one time Master of the Temple

In his disputations with Puritans, he was acutely aware of this problem of authority and realised that Scripture did not always have the answer to all our questions.

He first pointed out that, before Scripture can be understood and used as authority, it is necessary to understand the methods for interpretation

In other words, you need skill in interpretation

However, and most importantly, he said

There is a law written on the hearts of all people which shows what is good or evil

This he calls “the law of reason”

So not only was Scripture to be understood in the light of reason but reason itself was also a factor in determining what was right and what was wrong

Hooker is notoriously difficult to understand but I read an excellent article on him by Rowan Williams who summarised what Hooker said as follows

God teaches by many means, and we do no honour to God or to the Bible by imagining all God might ever wish to say to us can be contained in one volume… God is not glorified if we assume that we can please him by doing exactly what Scripture specifies and no more”

He went on to say this

The Bible does not give us an alibi for the use of common sense, ordinary discretion, imagination, willingness to learn from experience and whatever else belongs to mature human reflection on behaviour

It is absurd to think that the text of Scripture could exhaust these possibilities

As Christians, as Anglicans, we draw on Scripture

But we also draw on reason and tradition to determine how we should act in given circumstances

As we walk with Christ in the aftermath of his death and Resurrection,

As the disciples did in Eastertide and we do today

We all have to try and determine how we should live as Christians two thousand years later

And Hooker provides a most helpful guide.

But returning, once again, to the question of authority and clerical dress

Those of you at my induction may have noted, not just the surplice, but the black cassock worn underneath

You may have noted the seemingly innumerable buttons down the middle

There are in fact thirty nine of them

This is not accidental but is meant to represent the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion

It is the custom, however, for ordinands and clerics to leave some of the buttons undone

To show we don’t subscribe to all the Articles

If you had paid very keen attention to the words of my induction you will also have noted that I declared my assent to the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion

I also left some buttons open

Perhaps clerical dress is not so insignificant after all?

In the name etc