During my graduate school years, “Constantinian Christianity” was the major bugbear. Under the enormous influence of William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, students were pummeled with the idea that starting in the fourth century, the incorporation of Christianity into the state by Emperor Constantine (and his successors until this day) has been a long defeat for vital Christian faith. Instead, Christians ought to seek to be a “peculiar people,” separate from the world, abiding by the particular rules of the kingdom of heaven. In this upside-down realm, the first are last, the weak are cared for and those in authority serve the meek — not the other way around.
Thus, those of us (and I include myself) who were affected by Willimon’s and Hauerwas’s ideas are highly suspicious of state religion and of Christian nationalism. Nationalism eviscerates true faith, we think. The state will always celebrate power, not humility. It will lift up the strong, not undergird the weak. Under the influence of the state, true Christianity must inevitably be hollowed out. Because power corrupts everything it touches.
Our true nation, Hauerwasians believe, is the Kingdom of God throughout the world. Our brothers and sisters are the humble poor in every land. If we are faithful, our patriotism will be gutted by our much more important bonds with God’s people everywhere.
So a state funeral such as Queen Elizabeth II’s ought, I suppose, to be anathema to me. After all, the event was explicitly a trinitarian Christian worship service and the trappings of state power were present everywhere — the soldiers and sailors in uniform, the kings of the earth assembled in homage, the priceless jeweled symbols of worldly authority on display. Save for tax collectors, the people who surrounded Jesus – the poor, the prostitutes, the outcast – were absent.
And yet, and yet. And yet.
It will surprise no one that I found Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral rites to be enormously appealing — not just because of the coordinated military pageantry, not just because of the assembled worthies, not just because of the surpassing beauty of the music provided by hundreds of musicians who rehearse in obscurity year-in and year-out and are on the world stage for a few moments. But also because the service is, at its core, the same Christian funeral that I could have at my local parish church. The words are the same, the prayers, the psalms, and even some of the music. So there’s a familiarity. And the reason that it’s familiar is that I’ve been part of a lot of Anglican funerals as a lay leader at my parish. I’ve swung a thurible full of burning incense as a family that I did not know wept for a daughter who died too young. I’ve borne a processional cross in front of a stranger’s casket as the familiar refrain of the burial liturgy comforted people who had no words to describe their own suffering.
But I wonder — I really wonder: (1) What do non-Christians think of this funeral? (2) What do non-Anglican Christians think of it? (3) What do Hauerwasians think? I suspect that all three groups might, possibly, object to it. More likely they don’t care that much. Or perhaps they think that all the ceremony is wonderful because it’s so aesthetically pleasing — so beautiful, majestic, awe-inspiring. It is what Victorians might have called sublime.
I think sublimity is a real and powerful thing — each of us has certain experiences that take us out of ourselves, that send us over the edge. Christians usually think of these as giving us a foretaste of heaven. But I’ve known a lot of different Christians, and people of other faiths and none, and I’ve come to realize that one person’s sublime is the next person’s mundane. And one person’s glorious is the next person’s boring. And one person’s divine is the next person’s demonic. How we experience things depends entirely on our own context.
As most people know, there is no separation of church and state in the United Kingdom, nor indeed in many countries around the world. In the U.K., bishops are appointed by parliament and clergy are paid (mostly) by what North Americans would call endowment funds. (Local parishes do raise their own funds for programs and church improvements, and, as in the United States, voluntary societies do all kinds of religious and social service work as well.) A nation that has a church sanctioned by the state is going to look very different from a nation with a long tradition of “free churches” with no state sanction or support. But it’s not actually clear to me which is better.
I have a guess at what Hauerwas and Willimon would say: A state church is inherently compromised. But frankly, I think it’s an open question. Religious faith in the United States is toxic in so many ways. I am profoundly discouraged by the way that Christianity has evolved in this country over the course of my lifetime.
And yet, and yet. And yet.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. And I am called again and again to his altar to partake of his holy sacraments. Whether God’s people are faithful or not, I believe that God’s faithfulness endures. Amen.