What are the rules? Who gets to write them? And perhaps most importantly — who gets to break them and when?
These are questions I have been ruminating about the past few week in preparation for today’s sermon. They are questions that are always relevant, but there are times in history when they come at us — full force — with an urgency that can’t be ignored. Right now is clearly such a time for people all over the globe, and for us as Americans, but even more importantly, for us as Christians, living in the US. Because even though we have separation of church and state in the US, things are being done by our government — in our names — and often in the name of Christian values — that don’t sit well with many of us, do they?
I received an interesting email last week — one that got me thinking about a different time in Anglican history when religion and government were also bound up quite tightly. A time of debate, acrimony, division, and bloodshed, just as we are having now. The email referenced an article I published in 2014 in the journal of Anglican and Episcopal History on The Ecclesiology of Prayer Book Illustrations.
So let’s just pause for a moment and have a show of hands — how many of you know that there are ILLUSTRATED Books of Common Prayer?
Kind of fun fact, right? Not what you would expect? Wait, aren’t we Anglicans all about prayer and the WORD? Well, illustrated prayer books DO exist, and let me tell you, they are amazing. I treasure the time I spent in Keller Library at General Seminary, examining rare, illustrated editions of the BCP. The illustrated prayer books there date from as early as the 1630s to as late as the beginning of the 20th century.
The email came from a retired professor at Boston College, who is working on a book. Our correspondence spurred me to read my own article again (after all, I wrote it 4 years ago) — and doing that reminded me of an illustrated 1636 edition of the BCP I had studied. What caught my attention at the time, aside from the beauty of the images, was that the illustrations were not from 1636. They were dated 1653.
Why is that important? Indulge me for a moment as I remind you of some Anglican history. King Charles the 1st of England was martyred by beheading in 1649 — his death was the culmination of a long struggle between the Royalist faction — that supported the Divine Right of Kings — which was eventually defeated by the Commonwealth faction — led by Oliver Cromwell. Charles the 1st married Henrietta of France, a Roman Catholic. During almost half of his 25 year reign, William Laud was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was one of the key figures in the Beauty of Holiness movement — a group that strove to return elements of Roman liturgical piety to the Church of England. You might be surprised to hear a list of some of the very controversial practices they reintroduced into worship. How about actual stone altars instead of free standing tables? Or east facing orientation of the priest during the eucharist? Or making the sign of the cross at baptisms, and clergy wearing a surplice over the cassock for services? All of these things were seen as “creeping popery” by the more protestant factions within the church. Some who disagreed vehemently even went so far as to leave England when Laud became Archbishop, including a person familiar to New Yorkers, Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan.
During the years 1645–1660 — before the monarchy was restored and Charles the 2nd was crowned, the BCP was entirely banned — replaced by “The Directory of Public Worship.” At that time, even owning a BCP could result in a death sentence. So if our General Convention’s discussion idea of prayer book revision filled you with horror this summer — please remember that our squabbles don’t hold a candle to the stakes in the 17th century versions of the same. Historians refer to that time period as the English Civil War.
The arguments were fierce then, and the stakes were indeed high. Perhaps their acrimony might remind you of what is happening in our country and among Christians right now — when the discourse has become so divisive that lives are, once again, at stake. I’ve read editorials saying that we are in a “cold” civil war right now in America — but from what I can tell, it doesn’t feel so “cold” for black and brown people who are asking for recognition that their lives do matter. Or for LGBTQ people who are worried that the privacy of their bedrooms will be invaded by others in the name of “religious liberty.” Or for children separated from their parents at the border — 500 of whom are still not reunited with their families.
What are the rules? Who makes them? Who gets to break them and when?
What did Jesus have to say on that subject?
At first glance, the gospel reading from Mark today seems to be a discussion about the observance of dietary laws. But the last sentence shows that for Jesus, the topic at hand is much more sweeping than that. The real topic is rules — it’s about who makes them — and it’s about who gets to break them — and most importantly, when and why? Why do some people get to not only make the rules but then to ignore them for themselves, or even worse, use them to mistreat and oppress others?
What is it about power structures that we humans can’t resist abusing them?
We all know that rules, norms, and boundaries are important. We do need them. That’s not what is at issue in this passage. Mark tells us that what troubled Jesus was not the rules themselves but instead, when the very restrictions that are made to help us live our lives equitably and justly are instead misused. Misused not only to harm others, but also to cling to power and power structures that perpetuate that abuse.
Ironically, one example of this kind of misuse happens all too frequently with this very kind of gospel passage. In the hands of some preachers, this would be the perfect vehicle with which to demonize another faith tradition — Judaism — for being “all about rules and regulations and not really about God.” Mark’s long digression about washing pots and cups and bronze kettles is ripe for such misinterpretation. Who among us has not heard Judaism described as too legalistic and not spiritual enough? Not only is that an egregious misrepresentation of Jewish practice, it’s also dangerous. Dangerous because it’s a short step from that kind of thinking to the line of reasoning that says, “You know, it’s because of those rules and regulations that the Jews killed Jesus. He was breaking their rules, so they killed him.” Now, first of all, historically, the Judean people did not kill Jesus, the Roman government did. But we all know that in our faith tradition, that antisemitic slander has been perpetuated way too often, and far too many Jewish people have been killed because of it, including 6 million in the Holocaust.
But if we read the passage carefully, and keep it in the context of the rest of the gospel, Mark’s story IS NOT telling us that the traditions of the Judean people at that time were too legalistic and unnecessary. The Jesus Mark writes about IS NOT challenging the authority of the Torah. Indeed, Jesus, in all four gospel accounts, is recorded as a devout worshiper of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob throughout his life. Jesus did NOT think of himself as inventing a new religion. Instead, in the passage, Mark aims his critique at any and all religious people and traditions that become more fixated on retaining their own power than in serving God.
Even Jesus, let’s not forget, sometimes had to be reminded that too strict an adherence to rules can be deadly. The story that comes right after this passage describes his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. You remember her, I’m sure, the woman who persists, and calls out Jesus for gatekeeping when he initially reserves his healing ability only for those of his own “in group”? Well, well.
The excessive emphasis on obeying rules is a kind of idolatry. An idolatry that comes in all shapes and sizes and in every religious tradition that has ever been. And it doesn’t matter if the idolatrous ones are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain, they are treading a dangerous path. Because once humans engage in gatekeeping, in excluding — odds are, someone will get hurt. “Nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” Mark writes, “but the things that come out are what defile.” Fanaticism of any type is anathema to God — anethema to the sacred ground of being that truly sustains and supports us. The Spirit knows that rules are human constructs and that humans too often enforce them chiefly in service of their own self interest, not in service to the common good.
William Faithorne, the artist who made the illustrations I studied was certainly thinking about those questions and the fanaticism he encountered back in 1653. He thought about them when he was exiled from England for several years for being a Royalist during the Commonwealth era. What struck me most when I was working with his illustrated BCP was the discovery of one illustration that made his understanding of the perversion of power terribly clear.
There are 28 large illustrations in Faithorne’s volume, and twenty seven of them are full size, occupying the entire page, drawn in portrait orientation. Only one of the 28 illustrations is done in landscape mode — and as such, is rendered as a double page work — folded, so the reader has to open the page in order to see the piece.
The subject? Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents.
Faithorne was an artist who had been exiled for his faith — and who now risked his very life to create these drawings. Faithorne chose to illustrate Herod’s murder of the innocents just differently enough from the rest of the volume so that it would grab our attention. We have to open the page, we have to use our bodies to walk into the picture, in order to see it. That very action — the performative nature of unfolding in order to observe — serves as a metaphor for the kind of worship William Laud’s contingent was seeking to restore: embodied worship, worship that acknowledges the beauty that surrounds us, worship that recognizes the inherent sacramental nature of all of creation. It is when we open our hearts to the recognition of the sacredness of all that is, the fragility and uniqueness of every single aspect of our existence, that we can begin to see the world from God’s point of view. To cherish ourselves and others as God cherishes each of us.
When should the rules be broken?
This is the answer to that question: The rules should be broken whenever they are getting in the way of coming down on the side of love.
I’ll finish with the wonderful petition in the Rite I Prayers of the People that expresses this concept beautifully:
Open O Lord, the eyes of all people to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works, that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, they may honor thee with their substance, and be faithful stewards of thy bounty. Grant these our prayers, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate.