Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Praise and Politics:
Lancelot Andrewes and the Gunpowder Plot Sermons

Two days ago, sneaked between streams of election-oriented Facebook posts, a second, much smaller, stream curiously began to trend: "Remember, remember the fifth of November..." I stared blankly at the screen. I confess that I had not remembered (either the date or the particulars of its significance) and required a quick wiki refresher course on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (November 5th, of course) in which Guy Fawkes was caught underneath the British Parliament with three-dozen barrels of gunpowder and a set of matches. (Oops.) Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were promptly hung, drawn, and quartered.

[Parenthetically, I was curious: why did this date, which I had forgotten, come so easily for so many of my Facebook friends? I mean, we're talking about a relatively minor event most famous for not happening. St Francis House students have subsequently informed me that Guy Fawkes and the historical non-incident were central to the plot and understanding of the futurist, anarchistic, film V for Vendetta. It's supposed to be really good. Ah.]

Apart from being a significant part of Anglican history (Fawkes and his fellows were conspirators from the Catholic minority), the juxtaposition of November 5th and November 6th (Election Day) both seriously and somewhat humorously named the tension between government and Christian discipleship. Leading up to Election Day, I was struggling to discern a faithful Christian response (see Why Do Christians Vote - and should we?) to the election. I was taking seriously a friend who doesn't vote. Some Americans will tell you that to not vote, while not an act of treason, is not an American thing to do.

The most interesting challenge, I think, of the Guy Fawkes story comes in the epilogue. In 1606 (one year later), Lancelot Andrewes, bishop and scholar in the Church of the England, was commissioned by the state to preach the first of what were later called the "Gunpowder Plot sermons." The aim of the commission was to hold the attempted treason (and the fate of those who tried it) in the collective memory of the people and so discourage future treason.

Where I was wondering if voting represented a compromise of faith, Lancelot Andrewes was asked to preach a sermon for the state to protect its sovereignty. If the American political process can become idolatrous (and it can), so too can the Christian's spiritual wrangling over what to do next. Lancelot's challenge so dwarfed my own that it gave me some humility and perspective. What's a good bishop to do?

And he was a good bishop; this was no Constantinian puppet. Still, he preached the sermon for the state. You can read the sermon here.

Neil Barclay Johnston, in the abstract to an article for which I don't have access, writes that Andrewes' state-commissioned works were distinctive for
what is lacking in the sermons themselves: historical antecedents for the apparent exaltation of the king and the state ground these expressions in gratitude and obedience to God. Moreover, as is seen from the shift in emphasis that Andrewes’ rhetoric takes in these ten sermons, they are much more than anti-Catholic and pro-English propaganda. They are, in fact, sacred epideictic efforts that use the politically ordained occasion for spiritual ends: to give praise to God for the Gunpowder Plot deliverance, to rebuke the treasonous act and the traitors who plotted it, and to issue a renewed call to obedience.
Here is a remarkable thing: in a sermon commissioned to counter national treason, Andrewes exhorts his hearers to praise in ways that repeatedly subordinate the same state who commissioned the sermon under God.

Andrewes' did not refuse the commission. Still, his imagination for faithful engagement with the powers was deep and broad, and he praised his King at the invitation of another king. In Sam Wells' language, he over-accepted the opportunity, with its challenges, and proffered an invitation to praise. That he could do so is surely only possible because he lived the life of praise. I want instincts like that. May we become people capable of over-accepting the powers because our lives have become living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God.

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