Sunday, October 2, 2011

Preacherman Uncensored?

As we've been setting in here in the Richmond area, we have been making visits to a handful of churches in the area.  Some are well into town, requiring a substantial trip and paying tolls and such; a couple are less distant.  As an inquirer in ministry under care of the Presbytery of Northern Kansas, I'm in the funny place of not really looking to "join" a church, as my membership and oversight technically remains back there among the sunflowers and such.  Still, having a church home, or at least a church home-away-from-home, remains desirable, and so we keep looking.

Today we made a visit to a church we had visited a couple of times before, but not in several weeks.  (One thing we've discovered in this process is that it's almost pointless to visit a church around here during the summer, as they virtually all seem to shut down to an amazing degree -- no choirs, reduced or altered hours of services, etc.; any picture you get from doing so will only be upended around Labor Day.)  It was a bit of an odd Sunday, perhaps best characterized as too many things going on.  Clearly we showed up in the middle of a sermon series (not my favorite thing, but to each his or her own).  A large flute choir had come in to provide several musical elements of the service.  Being the first Sunday of the month communion was being observed; not in an ordinary way, but at least nominally as part of World Communion Sunday, an event observed the first Sunday of October in a goodly number of mainline and maybe some other traditions, forwarding the notion that the Lord's table exists not only in this one particular church but in churches all around the globe, anywhere the body of Christ comes together whether two or three or by the thousands, all partaking of the same holy food and drink.  (Yes, I'm oversimplifying.)

The result in this particular case was a bit of a jumble.  All of the elements of this particular service seemed to trip over one another rather than flow together.  The mechanics of getting from one part of the service to another were complicated a bit by the flute choir, directed by the church's organist who sometimes had to cross from one side of the sanctuary to the other, leaving a bit of a gap.  The "World" part of World Communion Sunday got lost in the shuffle a bit, as only a couple of African-derived responses by the choir and the stoles being worn by the two ministers tipped off this aspect of the observance (frequently I've seen use of more music, including non-Western hymns, and more visual elements in the sanctuary).  The sermon got shuffled a bit to be directly leading into communion, and billed as a "communion meditation," despite not being particularly communion-themed at all.  It happens, sometimes; in the welter of extra things get out of whack.

In all of that, though, nobody told me who to vote for.  Hmm.

For those who may have missed it, today was in some circles designated as "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," in which a number of pastors were pledged or maybe recruited to use this morning's sermon time to engage in direct endorsement of candidates for office or whatever other official voting matters might be forthcoming, the premise being that the whole fussy business of separating state and church in this country is a demonic infringement on The Pastor's divine right to say whatever he wants to say from the pulpit (the absence of "he or she" there is in this case deliberate, as I don't see a lot of evidence that any female preachers were involved; if any were, I apologize.)  The New York Times included an article on the event, which apparently even involved recording the sermon and taunting the Internal Revenue Service with it; read it here if you like.

Now, I'm going to guess that there weren't many churches where "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" and "World Communion Sunday" were both being observed today.  Maybe I'm just not doing the right mental gymnastics, but the two impulses don't seem to have a lot of overlap; "I have the absolute right to preach whatever I wanna preach" doesn't seem to fit easily with the notion that, say, the communion table is not restricted to any one church or denomination or what have you.  In that sense the irony lover in me can't help but find that juxtaposition rather fascinating itself.

But my main point is the whole business about what a preacher can or cannot say from the pulpit.  To cite a specific sentence, from some guy named James Garlow, "The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what the want to say."

Let that one roll around in your brain for a minute.

I was under this confused notion that the First Amendment said, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."  The notion of pastoral authority seems strangely absent.

Of course, Mr. Garlow and his cohort are not truly claiming that they're going to be hauled off to jail for making political endorsements from the pulpit.  Apparently what they are targeting is something far more heinous; taxes.  Use of a church or a pulpit for political gain could of course be regarded as a violation of the institution's tax-exempt status, and apparently paying taxes is a far worse fate than going to jail or being executed.  It seems odd to me, though, that the threat of paying taxes is somehow regarded as a threat to freedom of speech or religion.  We ordinary folk out here pay taxes to various degrees, and go on functionally worshiping according to the dictates of each individual conscience and speaking as freely as we choose.  I suppose if you've built up a big ol' pleasure palace as Mr. Garlow's church seems to have done, then loss of tax-exempt status is a fearful prospect indeed.  But still, the degree to which that threat should be regarded as an impingement on either of those freedoms is pretty dubious to me.

And the bigger problem is this: if Mr. Garlow or his ilk truly is the servant of God he or they claim to be, then his freedom to say whatever he wants to say from the pulpit is already severely curtailed, and by a far more fearful entity than the Internal Revenue Service.

I'm admittedly new at this seminary business, but so far I can't find anything in Scripture, the tradition of the church, the teachings or writings of this or that theologian, the guidelines of my denomination or any other, or frankly anywhere that endorses the notion that having a pulpit from which to preach means having the freedom to say whatever I want to say.  I am free to preach the Gospel, as far as I can see.  The Good News.  The message of Jesus.  The Word of God.  And I'm having real trouble finding "whatever I want to say" in any of that language.

Paul spends a good chunk of his first letter to Corinth elucidating how many ways he has curtailed his own freedom as a proclaimer of the Gospel ("though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them" in I Corinthians 9:19 would be one example).  His own freedom, and his right to indulge in that freedom, is not even secondary, but so far down the list as to be irrelevant to the calling he followed under God's claim.  The only thing Mr. Garlow seems to be enslaved to is a particular political party.  I'm fairly sure, even though I haven't had New Testament II yet, that Paul didn't particularly mean that when he spoke of being "a slave to all."

I've had the experience of many thoughtful, skilled and inspired pastors who (though I didn't know it at the time) provided me with good models of how to speak the Gospel to issues in society, to the injustices which rule around so many corners, and to those who profit from such injustices, without bounding over the line of political endorsement or enslavement.  (I will be so bold as to cite Rev. Brant Copeland, of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida, for being a model of this form of preacherly engagement in particular, and will hope he forgives me.)  Speaking the Gospel will inevitably require a preacher to speak against injustice and its purveyors in our world.  That category -- "injustice and its purveyors in our world" -- will sadly include the vast, overwhelming majority of politicians and candidates for office.  Endorsing a candidate?  Extremely unlikely, when one is enslaved only to the Gospel.

No, I don't hold with any notion that Mr. Garlow made any kind of slip of the tongue in using that phrase, unless you're regarding it as one of the greatest Freudian slips of all time.  He was, in fact, saying exactly what he wanted to say.  If that's his great mission in life, he should of course feel free to pursue it.  And I'm sure that church can find another pastor.

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