Interestingly, I had two elections to require my attention, both coincidentally in the same week. We had in my diocese the election of our next bishop. That election, with its relatively minute electorate, took hours longer than my civic participation.
We have complained early and often that siblings in other Anglican churches “don’t get” our processes for making decisions, whether electing bishops or changing our canons. We vote. That’s not to say that nothing is ever done by a small group in the background. However, sooner or later things come out into a very public light for resolution – well, most things, anyway.
I remember well when I first really thought about voting in the church. It wasn’t that I hadn’t always seen it, but since it was “what we do,” I hadn’t much thought about it. However, in 1976 I went to be a Visitor at the General Convention in Minneapolis. (Yes, at General Convention Visitor is a particular status, and if you haven’t any other reason to attend, I encourage you to go as a Visitor.) As a part of my preparation, I read a book on the General Convention (a title that, sadly, has been lost over the years). It described the process as we carry it out, and the structure within which we do it. Something that stood out to me, though, was the theological reflection on why we do things by vote.
The author’s point was new to me in 1976, but would now be familiar to many of us. Each of us participates in the life of the Spirit through baptism; and through baptism the Spirit participates in the life of each of us. Each of us has some awareness, some insight to contribute about how the Spirit is moving and calling in each of us. So, the more of us involved in the conversation, the better we believe we understand how the Spirit is moving and calling us as a body. This is not to ignore or deny Scripture and Tradition. Rather, it is to trust both that Scripture and Tradition reflect how the Spirit has moved and called us in the past, and also that it is in and through the Spirit that we understand what Scripture and Tradition are saying to us today. It is, though, to maintain that the Spirit of Christ is alive and active in our midst, if only we will listen. It is also to maintain that the Spirit calls each of us equally – equal at least in that the Spirit calls us each as much as the Spirit can; and that differences are matters of our preparation, our willingness, and our capacity to listen, and not of the Spirit valuing some of us more than others.
When we vote, to the extent we are intentional and prayerful we are making that action of the Spirit incarnate and sacramental. It is incarnate because we give it substance. It is sacramental because our intent is to make outward and visible what we feel is inward and spiritual. Sure, voting is not a perfect system for that, and consensus (when we can seek it, much less achieve it) might seem clearer evidence of the unity of the Spirit’s purpose; but we do it as the best we can in most instances, acknowledging those differences of preparation, willingness, and capacity. So, we don’t vote simply because it’s “the American way.” We vote with the intent of expressing each individual’s sense of the Spirit’s leading and of seeking to be guided by the greatest number of those individual expressions.
Which leads me to wonder what it might mean to assert that same principle in voting in our civic life. I remember a wonderful, intense conversation with a colleague, a parish priest in my diocese. He was an economic conservative, and I was, as I continue to say, “somewhere to the left of Jesus.” What made that conversation not only possible but meaningful was that we agreed on the ends we wanted to see. We each wanted our society to reflect in some sense respecting the dignity of every human being and doing for others what we would want for ourselves. Our differences were not about ends but about means; and so our conversation was respectful even as our positions were different.
I wonder what it would mean for us to bring that same sensibility to our civic voting. Oh, I’m sure we’ve done that to some extent. We are encouraged to vote according to “what will be good for the children,” or “for the common good” (although like many I seem to hear fewer and fewer voices with any sense that there a “common good” to talk about). What would it suggest to step a bit beyond that and to see the act of voting in civil elections as sacramental and incarnational? Granted, perhaps that’s not something we might bring to civil discourse; but surely we could consider that in our own thoughts and in our own circles.
To do that, though, we might need to take a stand about what are indeed appropriate ends. We have many issues, in the church and out, for which we come back again and again to say that “reasonable persons may disagree.” If we are to say, as I did in that conversation long ago, that reasonable persons may disagree about the means as long as we agree on the ends, then we have to say that some ends are appropriate and some are not. More to the point, we have to say that the Spirit is calling us to some ends and not to others.
For some time now whenever I have found myself in a conversation about ours as a “Christian nation,” I have had to say that I cannot say that. Certainly, I am aware that most of our first national leaders were Deists, and not Evangelical Christians in our contemporary mold; but that isn’t my primary complaint. Instead, I feel that we cannot speak of the United States as a “Christian nation” unless and until we are prepared to incorporate the standards of the latter verses of Matthew 25, the first chapters of Acts, and the first chapter of James. To me, those are ends to stand with, even if we find ourselves arguing about the means.
It seems to me, too, that these ends – serving the widows and orphans and the least among us, and making sure that all have enough – don’t have to be described as explicitly Christian. To act justly and to love neighbor as self are principles we learned from our Jewish forebears. Indeed, care for the poor, a commitment to justice, and doing to and for others as we would wish for ourselves are reflected in every religion I know. Contemporary atheist and agnostic writers are happy to assert their own arguments for these principles.
But I’m a Christian speaking to other Christians, and particularly an Episcopalian speaking to Episcopalians. We share a common language, centered in life in Christ described in the Creeds and the Baptismal Covenant. I feel strongly that we can say that these are appropriate goals for us. More, I feel we can indeed consider that these are the goals to which the Spirit calls us, not only in the Church but in society at large.
So, I joined with my neighbors to vote in civil elections, and with my diocesan siblings to vote for our next bishop. While, that’s done, other civic elections will come – for me, as soon as local elections next spring. We won’t all agree on who to vote for, or what programs or policies to support. However, I will pray we can agree on this: that we are called to make our vote, like the rest of our lives, sacramental, to make manifest in the world the inward call of the Spirit. No, I don’t really expect it will work out that way. Still, I can hope and pray.