There are times when I think a monarchy makes sense.
I am not looking to change the system of government in the United States that we have right now or to support an uprising of one type or another, but there are times when I think that having a monarchy would make things easier. This usually is after there is a deadlock among politicians and nothing gets done, when narratives and counter narratives are cast, thrown, projected from one opposing party to the other, and when the mess of our democracy spills over so much that it leads one to wonder how it is that American has done as well as it has for so many years. When it feels like those in power are acting like children, I think that if we just had a king or queen, someone to tell everyone to stop, to sit down for a bit, to listen to each other, and then to do exactly what our royal highness thinks is best, then things would be simpler and easier. Every time a potential government shut-down looms, or when we are in the midst of a government shut-down, or an obvious answer to a problem is ignored because of personalities and party allegiance I cry out that it is time for America to have a monarch. This is usually a passing thought and desire. I would expect the monarch to think as I do because I usually am right (at least in my own mind) and the likelihood is that this would not be the case.
These desires for a change in governmental structure are always fleeting and temporary. I am a pastor of a Baptist congregation. Baptists have historically been a fairly anti-authoritarian group; we practice this in our churches. Being a Baptist pastor means that I do not have any real power or authority within the church and among the people of the congregation. I try my best to lead the congregation, but because of the ways that Baptists are organized it is the congregation that holds all the power and authority on an organizational (and at times spiritual level). If someone wants to join the church I make a recommendation about the individual joining, but it is the congregation that decides if they want to accept that individual or not. It is a rare thing for a congregation to say, “no” to someone expressing interesting in joining because then we are saying “no” a potential person who may serve on a board or committee, but it has happened. If a group of people in the church decide that it would be best to read only from the Precious Moments Bible during the worship service and the congregation votes and the idea passes, then if I am going to stay with that church I need to read from the Precious Moments Bible (the telling of the she-bear mauling the children is really interesting from a Precious Moments perspective – 2 Kings 2:24). I may try to convince, to persuade, to move and push, but really it is a group of people, the congregation, who decide together, and discern together the presence and the movement and the leading of God. This is what it means to be a Baptist, that the congregation holds the authority. I am far from a place of power that a monarch may have.
This organizational structure gets messy because there are multiple people with multiple opinions and passions, and arriving at a shared decision is not an easy thing. It gets so messy that there are times when I just want to move to a different denominational structure where the pastor holds all of the power and authority and where I can just tell everyone else how things are going to be. It is like I wish I was a monarch.
It is an urge for control. It is an urge to have everyone do what you may think is best because that would make everything easier.
These urges for control are ones that we all encounter especially when working with others. We encounter a multiplicity of ideas and counter ideas, narratives and counter narratives, news and alternative news, and we want to step in, to shout that everyone needs to stop and listen, and then we tell everyone what it is that they should do. We assume that we know what is best, what would be right for the community, and it would always be much cleaner and easier if people just did what we said and what we instructed. It would be easier if we could just step into the fighting group of children and impose our power and authority to stop the arguing and bickering. After all, we know what is right.
This is how many churches have viewed their presence in society. Since the Medieval area and before, especially when there was only one church, but even after, churches were the voice of morality for all. If you disagreed with the voice of moral authority, then most likely you were a witch of one kind or another and needed to be “cleansed.” We may say that we are glad to be past those days, but there was a certain level of simplicity and unambiguity in what was right and what was wrong (ignoring all of the controversies, disagreements, battles, atrocities, and other things of the like from those times). That is not what the reality is today (nor was it back then). The reality is that there are people who are not listening to each other, people who are fighting and arguing over what they believe is right, people who are being hurt, powers and institutions that are not caring for others. As a leader in a church community, I want to step in and tell people what is best. I want to step in and tell everyone how things should be. I want to tell everyone how they need to act. I want to be a monarch.
I don’t want to be any ordinary, run-of-the-mill monarch, but a religious one. Maybe you can see the temptation to believe that the best way to bring about a level of morality and order that would be good for all would be to move towards a marriage between the Church and the State where the Church would have the first and final say about what is best for all living in the State. Now I am going to be vague about what Church I am talking about – let the reader imagine whatever faith community and variant he or she prefers. A connection, a marriage and union between those with power and those who have a sense and direction of faith would make thing simpler and easier. Hence my desire for a monarchy is actually a desire for a theocracy.
Think of it. If there is one church that calls all of the shots then we would be sure to have a strong, unified sense of morality that would prevail and not wane and that we would all embrace with one voice. If there was one church that was in charge, then we would be sure about the lines of morality that may be drawn, and if there were ever a question we would only have to go to one place for any answer. Ambiguity would become a thing of the past. No longer would we have to have court battles questioning if something should or should not be banned. No longer would we have to have questions about whether or not one behavior was appropriate. No longer would we have to waste time and energy with such debates and wonderings. We would have one place to go for all of our answers to all of our questions of morality.
Gone would be the outlandish outfits worn by younger people that are suggestive; the church could dictate what would be appropriate (wool/cotton blends for sure). Gone would be the people who try to eat meat on Friday tempting those of us who are trying to keep Friday as a day of religious observance. Gone would be books that are about suggestive things like Where the Wild Things Are, or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, or The Dictionary (all which have been challenged and banned at one time or another). We would not have to worry about what our children are reading, what is showing on the television, or anything else if we just had one church controlling everything. We would sing the same songs, we would cook the same foods, we would be in harmony and concert around all things moral or otherwise. To just have one church calling the shots and dictating the behaviors of others would be a glorious thing! We need not a monarchy, but a theocracy for the sake of unity and simplicity.
In addition to having the voice of morality, having the government and the church united can offer more support for our struggling churches. Governments could support churches and pastors with taxpayer dollars, and this could be a good thing. If parishioners don’t have to worry about paying a pastor or supporting a building, then all of their resources could go towards mission and ministry. Resources can be focused on feeding the hungry, housing for the homeless, and on and on and not on that fat salary that all pastors collect.
Continuing with all of the positive reasons for a theocracy, if there is one church, and it is connected to and supported by the state, then the church’s ability to harken the presence of God in the world would be magnified. Access to television channels, public prayers, school education, could all be a part of the presence of such a church thanks to the support of the state. And if the church’s presence is magnified, God’s presence is magnified. What more could we ask?
If the satire is not obvious then I apologize. Being a Baptist, my preference leans strongly towards the historic separation of Church and State which has been the norm (albeit messy) in our country for so many years. Even as I mused the possibility of there being only one church, all of the responses, critiques, and arguments that are a part of my Baptist DNA were firing in the back of my mind. I do not want society have one church (or religion) that dictates the way all must live and believe. I prefer the diversity and the mess that comes from the diversity of ideas and faith traditions. There is some truth to the idea that having one church in power could be seen as a good thing but it would be at a cost. There are times when we see people making decisions and doing things, maybe even in the name of Christianity, that the majority of us find abhorrent and egregious. There are times when we get so messy with our plurality and multiplicity of ideas that it would be easier to just have one person say what is right and what is not. It would be good to have someone step into the public square and call the government to accountability when that is so obviously needed. But I do not want to lose the freedom and the diversity that we gain in the plurality of faith communities.
As much as I cannot fully embrace (or even partially embrace) such a notion, I must acknowledge the reality that the temptation is real. Things would be easier if just one person could step in and stop and change everything. The unified voice of Christ could be a real thing, and there would be power in such a reality. But let us remember what we would lose if we had only one church in charge of all things moral and ethical.
We would lose God’s freedom.
I trust that the obvious challenges and struggles need not be overly considered. One church can easily be controlled by one government and could lead to a tyrannical presence of the state in the world. Beyond the reign of the tyrant, what would be lost would be the nuance of denominational plurality and in that nuance is God’s freedom. A monolithic tradition becomes focused on doing things the way it has always been done and the way it will always be done. Change may happen, but only if it is not at the expense of power and tradition. Change would be feckless and micro. The norm, the center would seldom, if ever, change and this is not always a good thing. When other groups emerge in response to faith but with a different approach, we find that we are getting a sense of nuance. Often it is outsiders that bring an approach from the margins that offers a completely different way of understanding and experiencing the presence of God. Some of the differences may be small. Ask a Methodist and an Episcopalian to describe to you what they are doing when observing and sharing the Lord’s Supper and you will hear two very similar approaches. Yet there will be a nuance in each approach that will set them apart. Different traditions bring different experiences and different approaches and bring nuance to faith. Nuance makes things gray. The answers to theological and spiritual questions need the gray, they need the space beyond the black and white approaches that many take.
Some of the differences may initially be seen as great, such as baptizing adults rather than baptizing infants. Yet in time the similarity between the two rises to the top and the gray space of difference is again found.
In all the difference, God is free. God is free to speak to some through a hierarchal understanding of the priesthood and to others through a radical understanding of the priesthood of all believers. God is free to speak to some through the presence of the organ in worship and to others through the presence of a praise band. God is free to guide believers through a strict understanding of scripture and others through a loose, narrative/allegorical understanding of scripture. Often, we feel like we are the ones who come up with new and different ways to follow God, to be believers, but I would suggest that it is God moving us in different ways that are appropriate to different people. It is in the diversity of traditions and ways of being religious that God is allowed to be free.
Perhaps what is most important that would be lost would be the voice of the dissenter. If we just had one church that would call all of the shots, then where would the “no” to faith and tradition be found? Who would have the courage to speak truth to power and to call institutions to accountability if they are acting in a way that is contrary to the Bible if there is no space for dissent? The voice of dissent may be the one voice that speaks out against going to war, that may speak out against endorsing the death penalty, and is a voice that should cause the rest of us to pause and think before acting.
The voice of dissent creates a place for a diversity of believers in the community. The nay-saying voice invites others into a conversation, not into a time of criticism and disdain. And often it is God speaking through the dissenter, calling and coaxing the community to a better place. It is in the nuance that the dissent has a place to dwell and it is often out of the wilderness of nuance that the voice of dissent is heard.
This goes beyond unity and invites the critical thinking that many of us leave at the door when engaging in the status quo that has been achieved through a singularity of theology and liturgy. The voice of dissent calls to question actions that may harm others, actions that may go beyond the desires of God or may be the crack-pot idea that needs to be shared but need not be followed.
Of course there is danger when a space is made for such a voice. This voice cannot be regulated, tempered, or told where and how and in what way to speak. This voice needs to be free, and when it is free it may then become more attractive than other voices. The Old Light Churches of the Awakenings were churches of establishment and power. The voice of dissent spoke against a certain way of worshipping and experiencing God calling for a different experience of the Holy Spirit and caused much distress and hand-wringing. The voices of dissent spoke to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the congregation in moments of God’s power. And that voice gained popularity. In the marketplace of religious ideas, of religious experiences, the outside voice can become the attractive voice, the voice that pulls people away from the tradition and power that the establishment might have had and leads people towards nuance. There are risks. Churches might change, die, and close. Traditions may be lost. Ideas may be forgotten.
But a new thing may emerge. A new way of following God might emerge that would offer a way to people who previously had no way at all. One church, one way of being and living may be cleaner, but it will also be stale. A monarchy, a theocracy may seem easier, but much will be lost. A state sanctioned religion does not have the space for something new. The mess of a marketplace of religious devotion, of theology, and of dissenting, is one where something new, something needed may emerge. Yes, there are times when it would be helpful to have someone step in and speak truth and then demand that everyone just agree, but too much is at risk, too much can be lost in such a way. We listen, and maybe we agree, and maybe we don’t, but we engage and we all grow.
Those times that I desire a monarch are fleeting because I think of all that would be lost. I see the mess of disagreements and confusion. I see the mess of people looking at the same Bible and hearing different messages. I look at the mess and see God active, moving, pulling, and pushing within. I then sigh and jump into the mess, asking for guidance and grace.
We need the mess, the challenge of the diversity of ways, of being, and of believing. We need to trust in the presence and guidance of the divine, in the sincerity of those trying to listen, and in the new thing that may emerge. We need nuance, we need diversity, and we need dissent. And out of that mess we will encounter glory. In the end, I will look not to a monarch, but to the mess.