William Johnson Everett is director of advanced studies and associate professor of ecclesiology at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of God’s Federal Republic: Reconstructing Our Government Symbol (Paulist Press, 1988).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 10, 1989, p. 503. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
If we are to be faithful to a biblical perspective, we need to re-examine the language of worship when it no longer speaks the language of governance by which we live.
On Sunday morning Christians across America sing praises to their ‘king," ascribe all glory and power to Him, pray for His "enthronement" and speak of a God whose Son has inherited the divine "kingdom." During the week, however, they engage in political campaigns, vote in elections, decry the emergence of hereditary dynasties and resist the centralization of power. They are monarchists in worship and democratic republicans in daily life.
I used to find this incongruous. Now I find it painful and even dangerous. How can we celebrate kingship in church and still function as committed citizens in a republic? There are very few genuine monarchies left, but there are federal republics, democratic republics and socialist republics. How has this fervent Christian anomaly survived two centuries of republican and democratic development? Isn’t it past time that we reconstructed our Christian thought and worship in order to engage the world in which we actually live? Though the visions of worship cannot coincide with the patterns of politics, we need to worship and live in some kind of common language if we are to shape a coherent life of faith.
We can’t set aside the language of monarchy without replacing it, however, for governance language is intrinsic to Hebrew and Christian faith. It affirms that we are struggling toward God’s perfect order where we will be related to each other in justice. But if we are to be faithful to a biblical perspective, we need to re-examine the language of worship when it no longer speaks our language of governance. Moreover, we need to critique models of governance in the light of Jesus’ ministry and the work of the Holy Spirit. The question of governance language is one of authenticity as well as relevance.
Feminists have begun to dismantle the exclusively male language of worship. Their effort to show how our religious language can reinforce injustice has led to far-ranging changes in music, prayer and Scripture reading. However, the move to inclusive language can merely reinforce the domestic language of mother and father, householder and parent, sister and brother. If we simply eliminate governance language, we may reinforce the restriction of religion to the private sphere where women have been confined in the past. Inclusive language doesn’t help us negotiate the second step: reconstructing the language of political governance itself. The issue here is not maleness but monarchy.
We face the challenge of being not only an inclusive church but also a public church -- a church that is a public, an ecclesia, a genuine republic of Christ. I call this the task of covenant publicity, for which we can draw on the ancient traditions of covenant that underlie modern federalism as well as on the ideas of council, republic and ecclesia.
Israel itself was not always a kingdom, and it struggled mightily with the introduction of kingship. As a confederation of tribes living under the law, it governed through assemblies rather than monarchs. Covenant meant first of all banding together under God’s published orders, the Torah. With David and his court singers, worship as kingship adoration arose. Covenant and worship focused no longer on the tribal assembly but on God’s relationship with the king. By painting God as a great king, the Psalms provided Israel’s monarch with a crucial though subordinate legitimation. Conversely, the language of earthly rule became the language of divine governance.
The kingship tradition persisted, intertwined with the confederal traditions of ancient Israel, through the rest of Israel’s history. And while the echoes of confederation, covenant and council can be heard in the background of the Gospels, it is the fanfare of Davidic monarchy that greeted Jesus. He was received as king rather than as prophet, priest, elder or president. Though the church drew its primary name from the ecclesia of Greek public assemblies, this theme was gradually submerged under the monarchy of Christ, of the Father, of the bishop and later of the pope.
When this close alliance of throne and altar was broken in the revolutions of the modern world, the churches generally held onto their kingship forms by taking them into the home, safe from the emergent public square. The churches could survive the revolution from monarchical to republican government if they kept their worship private. The monarchy of Christ invoked in Christian liturgies retreated from the governmental sphere to the heart and hearth. Thus emerging republics were spared the conflicts of old religious differences while the church was spared the loss of its monarchical worship forms.
Similarly, the ideal 19th-century Christian home was a castle where the man was king, the woman queen, and the children silent subjects. Gothic homes and Gothic churches joined to praise a divine monarchy of the heart. The feudal kingdom was translated into the hierarchy of marriage and parenthood, where women and children were subject to the domestic king. The ensemble of marriage, family, home and church preserved Christian kingship in a world of democratic republics.
This relocation of kingship is nowhere more evident than in the monarchical language of Christmas. At Christmas we turn Matthew’s wise men into kings and celebrate the birth of Jesus as the only begotten heir of David’s throne -- a throne residing solely in our hearts. Later in the church year, on Christ the King Sunday, we pray that Christ will reign as king in our hearts -- since we can hardly pray for a return to monarchy in our republic. The struggle over public order is reduced to a struggle over the inner conflicts of the heart. Only a divine monarchy in our psyches can ultimately create peace for the world. In fact, Sigmund Freud developed a similar analysis of a little kingdom of superego, ego and id warring for possession of our psychic throne.
Yet a proposal to reconstruct worship practices raises two critical questions. First, doesn’t kingship symbolism attest to God’s transcendence over any and all forms of government? Isn’t God’s sovereignty actually enhanced if we speak of it in a language no longer spoken by the people of our world?
To respond to these questions, we must first distinguish transcendence from irrelevance. The issue is not mere transcendence but critical engagement. Our task is not only to relativize the powers of this world but to transform them in accord with a faithful vision. it is not enough to overthrow an oppressive monarchy if we do not revolutionize the images of governance that legitimated it. We must choose the gods that will illumine our conceptions of right order.
The language of biblical worship must be both incarnational and transcendent. Just as kingship symbolism functioned for 1,500 years both as a language of cultural engagement and as a critical tool against all earthly kings, so republican symbolism can provide us with a language of transcendence as well as immanence for our own time. Not only does it pick up our actual memories of public testimony, election, and governance by law, but it draws us toward the perfection of our governance, helping us judge our present efforts. Jesus’ exercise of his presidency through persuasion and open argument can be a plumbline for judging all presidents, and God’s republic can be the ideal for our efforts at participation and public debate.
Symbols of monarchy make the church a nursery of reaction to republican life altogether. Monarchical kingship treats us like members of a household represented solely by its head, while republican order assumes the equal head-ship of all, each professing her or his own conviction about the common good in an arena of debate. That is, our new life in Christ is a longing for "publicity" in our lives, not for the comforting subordination of children. Moreover, we are searching for a "covenant publicity," one which prompts us to listen to others and enter into new bonds of relationships with them. We are drawn to form covenants that go beyond conditions of our birth, gender, race or nationality to a wider republic of justice.
We still face another key question. Doesn’t real worship have to be embedded in archaic memories and language? Isn’t worship essentially born of tradition and required to carry it on? Isn’t it an illusion to think we can make radical changes in it? Won’t the dew of mystery dissipate under the hot glare of analysis and manipulation?
Christian worship must honor not only our memories but our anticipation, the work of the Spirit as well as the divine founder of creation and the church.
Moreover, kingship is only one tradition in the history of Israel and the church. Even more archaic is that of covenant, torah, council and ecclesia. These traditions actually claim our fullest loyalties. They reflect increasing numbers of people -- in the U.S., the Soviet Union, India or South Africa -- who long for a more perfect republic of participation and genuine debate. The language of election, federation, congress and council has also become the language of our operative faith. This is now the nature which needs perfection by God’s grace. This is the nature to be purified in the worship where Christ presides.
What might this new language look like in worship? Our first challenge is to become more aware of the way our present worship is shaped by kingship symbolism. King, lord, son, throne, kingdom, court, crown and glory only begin the list of terms we need to reconsider. We need to see the way the patriarchal formula for the Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Ghost -- was rooted in the transfer of royal rule through household inheritance. We also need to see how the architecture of sanctuary and church shapes our images of divine governance. Do we worship in a throne room of the king or in an assembly of the people? In prayer and communion do we kneel before a feudal lord or do we share as equals around the table of Christ?
Second, we need to become conscious of the themes, language and gestures of governance that have emerged in the past 200 years in the savagery of extinguished publics and broken covenants, whether in Nazi Germany, Chile, Czechoslovakia or the Trail of Tears. We can also explore stories of personal efforts to find a more expansive covenant with others, such as in biographies of alcoholics, homosexuals, divorcees or victims of abuse. In short, we need to lift up our public and private stories of longing for covenant publicity, for a transformed life in God’s republic.
We then must reclaim the biblical narratives that can shape these memories into a language of devotion articulated in the light of Jesus, whose presidency was powered by listening, whose republic was founded in covenant bonding, and whose election was rooted in self-sacrifice. The giving of Torah to Israel can reshape our grasp of constitutions. The theme of the wanderer or exile so central to the biblical story can amplify the cry for global citizenship by today’s refugee. The demand to preach the gospel under any regime can sharpen our support of publicity for all peoples. Synagogue and ecclesia can become places where the rehearsal of covenant-making and public witness prepares us to confront a world of secrecy, lies and coercion.
More practically, this transformation of worship will require changes in architecture, music, ritual movement, dress, language and the shape of the church year. For instance, many churches have already moved the focus of attention away from throne, pulpit and altar to the people assembled in response to God. Rather than subjecting people to the tyranny of one voice, every voice in worship could be amplified by the microphone. Many of our hymns are still deeply infused with the monarchical language of King George’s England. The best of them need adaptation, the worst must be replaced.
Similarly, we need to assess the costumes of our worship leaders. Do they create a separate world of mysterious nostalgia or do they orient us to a new engagement with ‘the powers and authorities of our world? Perhaps it is time to reassess the role of the business suit as an appropriate symbol for presidency in worship.
Even the language of the church year must be re-examined. Christ the King Sunday is an obvious relic of monarchy. Should it be lifted higher than an annual recognition of Human Rights or of the United Nations? Should the language of ascension be used after Easter? Or should we speak the language of inauguration, with our own covenantal swearing in to God’s emerging republic?
These questions are only preludes to creating a worship that reformulates the way we address God, ally ourselves with Jesus and invoke the Holy Spirit -- not merely for the sake of being good citizens, but because of our responses to the nature of a divinely inspired assembly. This reconstruction is a matter not only of the integrity of our faith, but of our action in and toward God’s world.