The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Jeremiah 11.1-14; Romans 13.1-10
Yesterday morning 24 women and men were ordained as deacons, here in the Cathedral
It’s always a wonderful occasion; the church gathered around the bishop praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to give those to be ordained the authority to minister in the church. But away from all the liturgical excitement there’s another part of the process that goes on.
The previous evening the bishop had gone along to the retreat house where all those to be ordained had been spending a few days in silent reflection. In addition to delivering his Charge to them they also took the necessary Oaths and Declarations that the Church of England requires of its ministers. In a life time of ministry you have to do this again and again and again, every time you receive a new license in fact, and it’s the license that enables a person to minister legally as a bishop, a priest or a deacon, or in fact as a Reader in the church. Anyone who holds the bishop’s licence must make the same oaths and declarations.
The reason I mention this is because one of those oaths, alongside that of Canonical Obedience to the Lord Bishop of the diocese, is an Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign. The person to be licensed is required to say whilst holding a copy of the Bible in their hand
I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law. So help me God.
I was reminded of that when I was reading the Second Lesson, Romans 13, in which Paul speaks of the way in which as Christians we relate to civic and political authority. Paul is very clear that we have a duty to be good citizens, that despite what other people were saying about these followers of the man Jesus, who after all was crucified as a common criminal and a kind of insurrectionist by the Romans, that Christians were supporters of an ordered society. Indeed in verse 2 he goes as far as to say
‘whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.’
It’s the kind of text that assured kings of old that they had a divine and unquestionable right to rule, the kind of text that would lead the Russian Orthodox Church of our own day to stand shoulder to shoulder with President Putin, that would lead some in the church in unquestioning support during Hitler’s rise in Germany.
But there’s another story to tell. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who at one stage in his ministry was at the German Lutheran Church in Forest Hill, was critical of the Nazi Party and also participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This outstanding theologian managed to square the circle of this apostolic call to obedience with his own conviction that active resistance was necessary and he paid with his life for doing so. He’s now regarded as one of the modern martyrs of the church.
Paul is very clear that we must pay what is required of us
‘taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.’
knowing ultimately that ‘love is the fulfilling of the law.’
It’s this that Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu and Oscar Romero and all those who’ve stood in resistance to what might appear legitimate authority have seen as the higher calling. They’ve followed and lived out the essence of what Paul is talking about and the essence of what the prophets like Jeremiah were talking about.
Political power does not give leaders the right to ignore the basic law of love; ‘respect to whom respect is due’ is as important a principle as any other part of what Paul says. Political power does not put the person wielding it above the law and respect for those in authority does not make Christians of necessity complicit in wrongdoing – in fact the reverse must be true.
Those who are called upon to govern and lead us must show us the same respect as we must show to them – and when that respect is lacking within the political system, whichever system it is – Christians have the duty to speak truth to power, however uncomfortable the powerful might find it.