I have a copy of the English Book of Common Prayer from the 1830s. In the back of that prayer book can be found several commemorations that cannot be called strictly religious: there is a set form of prayers to commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot which was an effort in 1605 to blow up the English parliament and kill the king, James I, in order to, among other things, restore the Roman Church in England. Another commemoration is for the date of the death of Charles I, the king who was forcibly removed from the throne and eventually killed or martyred depending on your perspective in 1649. Another celebrates the restoration of the monarchy a decade later with the crowning of Charles II which brought an end to the nearly two decades of the English Civil War. The introduction to that brief service reads in part: A FORM of PRAYER with THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, For having put an end to the great Rebellion, by the Restitution of the King and Royal Family, and the Restoration of the Government after many Years interruption; which unspeakable Mercies were wonderfully completed upon the Twenty-ninth of May, in the Year 1660. It is thus entirely in keeping with Anglican custom to recall political events of the nation and to see them through the lens of our faith.
This is precisely what we are doing this morning, as we celebrate our nation’s Independence, not merely as a civic holiday but one that should be commemorated in our churches and by all faithful Christians who are citizens of this nation. I have noticed an alarming trend among fellow Episcopal clerics. It is commonly taught by many that it is not a good idea to have patriotic hymns or services in the church. Many have worked to remove American flags from the interior of the church. Perhaps you’ve heard or witnessed something along these lines in another church? The reasoning behind this move is to a certain extent compelling. These religious leaders are trying to avoid the church adopting an uncritical attitude towards the nation in which it resides. If the mission and promotion of the nation become one with the mission of the church, social and political disaster is at hand. Think of the majority of churches in fascist Germany who largely remained silent and inactive about the Nazi program of world domination and racial cleansing. When the church enmeshes itself in politics, the church’s proclamation is often corrupted and its people can begin to think that God is exclusively on their side of a political or social issue. There is something to be said for this argument especially if one is residing in a particularly nationalistic environment. This qualification, however, is the reason why I don’t think it is a wise decision to remove flags from churches or to discontinue patriotic services. We live in an age of ambivalence about a great many things. There is ambivalence about religion—the fastest growing religion according to the demographers is no religion at all: the so-called nones—n-o-n-e-s—the nones are those who have no religious affiliation. It’s not that the nones don’t believe in God or in an afterlife—the nones are not atheists, but simply ambivalent about religious institutions. If it is possible, there is even more ambivalence about politics in our age. Very few trust the established political institutions and together with a big dose of ambivalence, most people cannot be bothered with patriotism. The kind of heroic sacrifices made by so many during the grim days of World War II when so many were either fighting abroad or managing their homes with victory gardens and limited rations seems like a world apart. No, our problem today is not an excess of nationalistic fervor, but a seeming apathy about our nation and its future. In one of his books, G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic apologist and satirist, offered the helpful insight that most ages are blind to their own weaknesses and vices. They pick on the vices of a former age, and congratulate themselves on being so much more superior, but all the while they are blind to their own faults. I think we have an excellent example of that in our own time. If in a former time, some were uncritically loyal to every action of the nation, and therefore, forfeited some of the prophetic role of the church, in this age, what we need is not less patriotism but more.
What does not it mean to be patriotic? Well, the word patriot is derived in part from the Latin for father, pater. To be a patriot is to be loyal to your fatherland, your homeland. Christians are sometimes accused of being so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good. I think this point is overwrought. Christians should place very high value on life on this world because it is where we learn to live in the world to come. If you want to be part of God’s family, the communion of love in his eternal kingdom, then you are going to need to learn how to get along with your own family, to do your duty to parents, children, siblings, and all those who might have a claim on your care and responsibility as kin. Similarly, if you are going to be a part of the Catholic, the universal Church, the body of all faithful Christians in heaven and earth, then you will need to learn to be a member of a local congregation: to offer yourself in loving service and ministry in whatever way the Lord has gifted you; to overlook the faults and foibles of others; and to live into the truth that Christianity is not something to be practiced individually, but as a body, a community of believers joined together in Christ. Finally, if you are want to be a citizen of that city above—the heavenly Jerusalem—you are going to need to learn how to be a good citizen of your city and state and nation in this world. If you neglect your responsibilities to these temporal powers, how will you possibly be a faithful citizen of the City of the Lord Almighty. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. And what are those civic virtues that we need to practice as patriots? Well, among other things, we might start with honest and diligent labour and industry, promotion of the common good rather than our own private good, establishing justice for all, fighting if necessary for the defense of liberty and the protection of innocents. St. Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. May we render to Caesar his due, even as strive to live as the children of our heavenly King and Father.
Fr. Lock is Rector at Trinity Church.