Who Speaks for the Church?

The drums of war are beating, the President has asked Congress for support of military action, the Congress is debating. It is 1990, it is 2003, it is 2013. The President is Republican, the President is Democrat. The story in one form or another goes back decades, sometimes with congressional votes involved and sometimes without (e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when I was in high school). Every President I can remember has been involved in such conflicts, overtly or covertly. We in this USA are a non-partisan warring nation. In these crises and conflicts the President speaks, the Congress speaks, various lobby groups speak, and to some degree the public speaks (if they bother to contact with Senator or Representative), but who speaks for the Church? Who speaks from the perspective of the King of Kings?

Now all of our recent Presidents have been Christians and have had religious advisors. I could give names of some whom I know advised Presidents Clinton and Obama. Presumably George H. W. Bush was advised by his rector (as a life-long Episcopalian) and George W. Bush by a Methodist pastor (both he and his Vice President were Methodists). Presumably each has had a devotional life of some type. President Obama has had daily Bible readings and devotional materials prepared for him. But in each case we are talking about a segment of the Church (Baptist in the case of Jimmy Carter, independent evangelicals in the case of Clinton’s advisors of whom I know), not the Church, and in each case we are talking about citizens of the USA speaking to a citizen of the USA, not something wider.

Some have referred to the President as the “pastor-in-chief,” but that hardly means that he has any more education in moral theology and social ethics than the Queen of England does, who is officially the head of the Church of England. In the Church of England one could go to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who does have influence, but the Church of England is a national church, even if the Anglican Communion is trans-national.

Indeed, the Church of England is far from being the largest group in the Anglican Communion. It is in this context that my ears perked up when my inbox was flooded with references to Pope Francis’ call for a day of prayer and fasting, which took place last Saturday. I was not surprised when the Brothers and Sisters of Charity (which is Catholic based, but includes non-Catholics) forwarded this call, but I was a bit more surprised when then Word Community for Christian Meditation called for noontime Christian meditation as part of this day of prayer (its leader is an English Benedictine, but most members I know in Houston, even the oblates, are from a wide range of denominations). I heard echoes of the same call from various Protestant sources. And when it comes to the Pope himself, a local Lutheran pastor insisted to a Catholic leader I know, “He is my Pope too,” while the evangelical magazine Sojourners (which started in the seminary I attended, although the year after I left – I was later a contributing editor for a number of years) published an article “Pastor, Prophet, Pope.” Given that Pope Francis is himself in a sense multinational, living in an enclave that is in a sense its own nation, heading a billion faithful worldwide, and advised by a multinational group of fellow-Catholics, could this be as close as we can get to someone speaking for the Church?

What is clear is that he has spoken. He did send a letter to the leaders of the G20 group of nations that outlined the principles of peace he thought were important. He has spoken out for the Christian minorities in Syria and Egypt, among other places, whether or not they are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. And he has been active behind the scenes in numerous ways that are less publicized.

We have yet to see how this most recent bout of saber rattling will turn out, whether Congress will approve of the President’s limited strike and if so whether it will have any positive effect, whether any world leaders will listen to the advice of any Christian leaders, and if so, to whom they will listen. But whatever the outcome, such a crisis does raise the question of who can speak for the Church? Who represents the interests of the King of Kings? Is it self-proclaimed Christian prophets? Is it national denominational leaders? Is it prominent leaders in the Evangelical or Mainline segments of the Christian world (although even saying that means that one is talking about the USA where that division is meaningful)? Is it a national religious body, such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, or is it some nation independent figure? Could it even be the Pope?

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