Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Kingdom of God and American Life

In 1912, the Rt. Rev. Chauncey Bunce Brewster (1848-1941), fifth Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut, penned a short book entitled The Kingdom of God and American Life. Bp. Brewster’s biographer Fr. William Beardsley describes him as a “soldier and servant” of Christ, a brilliant scholar with an abiding love for those under his care and cure.
Despite personal tragedy with the untimely deaths of his young wife and son, he served his diocese for more than two decades, and even after his retirement he confirmed five thousand five hundred and ninety-nine souls. “[H]e was not afraid of the word ‘Catholic’, and had no thought of surrendering his right to the use of that word.” Given his firm belief in Scripture and the truth of revelation, I do suspect that Bp. Brewster, were he to live in modern times, would be inclined to be labeled a traditional Anglican rather than identify with that denomination that has so enthusiastically rejected those truths.

The Kingdom of God and American Life includes sermons and papers prepared for various occasions. These essays show the author's mind working along the practical lines of “Christian Socialism.” Don't be confused, though. Rather than a manifesto or political polemic, the short work is a call to the Christian life, rather than the Marxist economic and political diatribe we have become accustomed to hearing from “mainstream denominations,” and which Bp. Brewster explicitly disavows. It was the frankly-expressed belief of the Bishop that, “The problem that immediately confronts the Church is not to Christianize Socialism, bat first to socialize Christians, until their ideal principles shall be real and ruling principles.” In this sense, the work is a distinctly Anglican (the bishop wasn't big on "papalism") version of such major Roman Catholic economic and social encyclicals as Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus. It is a social work of lasting importance and timeless issues for the Christian.

The work also is distinctively American in that it addresses the issues unique to our republic (yet faced elsewhere), particularly the Christian’s role in the public square. Here, Bp. Brewster’s writings could have been ripped from any recent news coverage of Tea Party events and other similar reactions to a government grown unresponsive, corrupt and indifferent to the will of the people, and seemingly unmindful of God and His Providence. The bishop noted,
Again, there is the ideal of a courageous citizenship, whether in or out of public office. This is most necessary in a democracy, and is there especially hard to maintain because of peculiar temptations to cowardly compliance and ignoble dependence. We want voters who will shake themselves free from sloth and from servitude. For office we want men who want for themselves nothing but the approval of their own conscience. Let brave independence be more and more valued among us, that we may have officials and lawmakers not wearing the tag and collar of interests that own them, and a body of voters not slaves to party tyranny, that so this may be in very truth a free Republic!
This is hardly the cant of a diffident socialist of one with a lack of belief in the exceptional nature of America and the American project. It is the cry of a churchman against wickedness in high places and a rejection of the poisonous self-interest that corrupts and degrades a Christian nation (a notion believed by Bp. Brewster despite his extensive efforts in the area of ecumenical relations).
In sum, Bp. Brewster believed that, “[w]hat this country needs is the idealism of the Kingdom of God. There is the supreme ideal that includes all others… the dignity of citizenship, a genuine loyalty, the majesty of law, the sacredness of the family, the value of human life, the significance of life.” Surely, these are the ideals for which orthodox Christians should stand in the public realm today, tomorrow and always. And the Church? “The Church is not only to be for any age the prophetic voice of conscience, it is to be moreover a positive force therein.” These are important reminders in troubled times-a simultaneous goad to clergy, lay people and the Church as institution.

So it is that I have undertaken work on an update of The Kingdom of God and American Life. The current project is to make current the historical setting of the work which appeared fifty years after the American Civil War and on the eve of the Great War. Issues such as universal suffrage have long since been resolved, and the events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire have receded into the sepia-colored pages of long-defunct newspapers and “outmoded” history texts. Some elements of Bp. Brewster’s analysis have been overtaken by events, and contemporary examples are being used to illustrate the bishop's points without doing too much violence to the original text. In fairness, I also will note that my own leanings are not as in tune with late 19th-century progressivism as those of Bp. Brewster, but I will try for balance in re-presenting this key work of Anglican social doctrine.

What is very apparent from Bp. Brewster is that the big questions remain for American Christians generally, and those of the traditional Anglican variety specifically. The temptation to withdraw from contact with the world assails the Church itself now as always, particularly among traditional Anglicans where many, having been buffeted by the world, seek simpy a "place apart". (Indeed, this phenomenon is devastating to evangelism, although that is for another day.) But today there is special need for the Church come close with potent touch.
Our age is turning from dialectics to pure rapid, dynamics, although the dialectic approach remains strong in certain quarters. There is need of guidance and inspiration to speak to the pervasive spirit of power. There may well be a question whether, in dealing with matters of practical ethics and social right and wrong, the Church has been sufficiently bold in witness, and we surely have need to pray and strive for the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength. We will need both as well as consuming charity if we are again to venture forth to address the great issues of the day, for the mockers now are in profusion.

The goal, then, is to revise The Kingdom of God and American Life over the next several months, and, once in the publication process to serialize the work on The Continuum. To that end, I have posted this brief article and the Revised Preface from the original work for reader comment and reaction, as well as possible incorporation, with due attribution if you wish. No anonymous "suggestions" will be included, however.


OUR politics the past year are a thing few of us in America can be proud of. While one may still cherish faith in American citizenship, the people have become weary of mere politics and “business as usual”. A quickened conscience among many has recognized that, even under democratic forms and methods, there have somehow arisen conditions that are palpably undemocratic, and is manifesting an unwonted interest in the control of “human well-being”, or at least a particular notion of what may constitute human well-being.

Meanwhile masses of the people are stirring in vague unrest and striving often aimlessly after they know not what. They know only that something is wrong and they are angry. On the other hand, many persons are only bewildered spectators. They need guidance to sharpen intelligent activity and effective Christian service. On all sides it is well to endeavor to mount to a new standpoint and a wider outlook.

It may be worthwhile to suggest the possibility that conflicting elements in our national life might be taken up into the synthesis of a higher unity. It may be worthwhile to inquire whither we may be moving and to consider those signs which point the way to a simpler, and fairer and more ennobling social order.

We are wise to face the fact that the social question is ultimately a moral question. It is time to recognize that its solution lies not in biological analogies, not in the exaltation of the State at the expense of the individual, nor again in the destruction of government, but in that Gospel of the Kingdom of God which means the realization of certain ideals at once through social relations and through the highest and fullest development of personality.

There are here included papers and sermons prepared by Bp. Brewster for different occasions. Under the circumstances there will be some almost inevitable repetitions of thought in these pages. The papers, however, have a common theme and purpose, and there will be found, I trust, a progress in their general argument. They are put forth because of my desire, as a minister of Him whose Gospel is the good news of a Kingdom and as a citizen of this nation, to bear my testimony to the signal destinies awaiting our country if, in the face of any and every doubt, difficulty and discouragement, this people be true to the ideals and purposes of the Kingdom of God.

In Christ,

Fr. Charles H. Nalls
Richmond, Virginia, June 26, 2010.

1 comment:

The Midland Agrarian said...

Fr Nalls,
This was very interesting reading to me and timely. I just finished reading DG Hart's bio of Gresham Machen, which touched as much on the politics of the era as religion. Like Machen, I lean towards Luther's two kingdoms theology. This seems to be in accord with changes to the 39 articles in the first American Prayer book. Is such theology in accord with the mainstream of the American Episcopalian experience? I don't think we were out front on many "Christian" issues like Prohibition. Looking forward to more installments!


Richard G