John Mere’s Commemoration Sermon

Tuesday 20th April 2004

An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at St Benet’s Church, Cambridge.

‘We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (II Cor. 10.5)

One of the options afforded to John Mere’s preacher is to teach ‘due obedyence of the subjectes to their princyes and of pupils to their tutours, of servauntes to their maisters, with some Lesson for magistrates maisters and tutours for the well ordering of their subiectes servauntes and pupills.’ Reflection on obedience is likely to be an uncongenial matter these days; but the evident need for endowed sermons on the subject four centuries ago suggests that obedience has never been that popular a requirement. To be told, in any age, that your will must be educated by submission is not a welcome message.

But it is not a message that can be easily or lightly ignored by the Christian. ‘Christ became obedient for us even unto death, death on a cross’: the antiphon for the offices at the end of Holy Week is still echoing in the ears of some of us. Salvation is won by submission, according to the gospel. But before we allow our feelings to be revolted by what so readily seems an assault on our autonomy, we should consider what the New Testament does and doesn’t say about this. Jesus is obedient, and his obedience costs him; it goes against the grain of his natural human resistance to pain and death. Yet it is a conformity not to some alien authority, to a hostile tyrant in the heavens, but to the root of his own life. He is himself the mind and heart of God; as he looks into the mystery of his own origination in the Father, he acts out who and what he is – the embodiment of the Father’s will for the healing of creation.

To imitate Christ in his submission is therefore not to do violence to your own proper reality, but to discover yourself as a created being – as a being whose life is grounded in the loving gift of God and nothing else. God’s will is that you live; to seek obedience to him is to seek life, as in the great exhortation in Deuteronomy to ‘choose life’ by receiving and obeying the Law of Moses. And this too is why the apostles can say that their obedience is owed to God rather than to human authority when they are ordered to give up what flows from their life in Christ. To submit to God is to be most directly in touch with what is most real. To refuse that submission is not to be free of an alien violence but to become an alien to yourself.

And when St Paul tells his converts to imitate him as he imitates Christ, he sets out what is the most basic form of Christian obedience. Watch me struggling to watch Christ, he says; see what it means to try and allow the ground of your very existence to come to the surface and find expression in your acts – to make every thought obedient to the incarnate mind of God. It is a struggle because we have become such strangers to our own nature as God’s loved creation. But in Christ we see how a created mind, a human self like ourselves, can perfectly become transparent to God’s gift, so as to be indistinguishable from the mind of God the Father. By the gift of his life in the Spirit, we can begin to ‘immerse’ our lives in his. And we learn – as in so much of our human experience – by watching those who have got used to the work: watching those who watch Christ.

The way of the world is to learn from each other those habits of acquisitive rivalry that dominate our relations and breed our conflicts. As Rene Girard has reminded us, we learn from each other to want what the other wants, and so to compete with the other for its possession. But in relation to Christ, to want what the other wants is to want the Father’s will – that is, to want the Father’s desire for mercy and joy in all beings. We cannot turn this into a matter for competition. Our Christian obedience becomes the foundation for a radically fresh vision of one another. By looking to each other to learn Christ, by looking at another’s looking towards Jesus, our desires are re-formed and liberated for life in communion.

But what has this to do with the obedience that John Mere wanted expounded for subjects and pupils and servants? Simply this: Christian obedience in its biblical sense can never be just a passive conformity to commands in the hope that this will somehow ensure a reward for us. It is properly an obedience given where we see authority engaged with a truth beyond its own interest and horizon – ultimately with the truth of Christ. The obedience of the pupil, at any educational level, is rightly and credibly demanded when the very shape of the intellectual exercise is visibly to do with a mind being pressed and moulded into truthfulness by a reality that has nothing to do with the petty power games that intellectual life can sometimes produce. The best teacher, the one who has most claim on obedience, may be the one who is at times least fluent and confident, most puzzled and engaged and troubled by the truth. The best master is the one who is most visibly mastered by demands and standards that have nothing to do with the serving of his own personal interests. If obedience is a form of attention, the attentive person is the one who should command obedience.

And this is why political obedience in our age has become so problematic. Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century was able to commend the authority of the emperor Constantine on the grounds that he was constantly engaged in contemplating the heavenly Logos. It was not even at the time a very plausible case; but he had at least noticed that any Christian justification for obedience to rulers must build in some reference to their capacity to absorb truth that is not determined by their interests.

Now we do not usually look in our rulers for signs of advanced contemplative practice; nor do we say, even as Christians, that no obedience is due to unbelieving governments. But we do say that credible claims on our political loyalty have something to do with a demonstrable attention to truth, even unwelcome truth. A government that habitually ignored expert advice, habitually pressed its interests abroad in ways that ignored manifest needs and priorities in the wider human and non-human environment, habitually repressed criticism or manipulated public media – such a regime would, to say the least, jeopardise its claim to obedience because it was refusing attention. Its policies and its rhetoric would not be designed to secure for its citizens an appropriate position in the world, a position that allowed the best kind of freedom because it did not deceive or encourage deception about the way the world is. It would be concerned finally about control and no more; and so would be a threat to its citizens and others.

Christianity does not have a general prescription about the best form of government. It is not (with due respect to Tolstoy) intrinsically anarchist, nor (with due respect to Cranmer) intrinsically monarchist. It does not commend uncritical obedience. Even in the days when Anglican political thinkers argued for ‘passive obedience’ to hostile government (i.e. suffering the consequences of non-co-operation rather than violently resisting), there was no sanctioning of active compliance with unjust law. But equally Christianity does not commend systematic revolution. It has been realistic about the human costs of violent upheaval and suspicious of any claims to provide an entirely new starting point for political life. What it does propose is a set of questions about political authority which direct our attention to what government attends to, and to the degree to which government is capable of acting at least sometimes beyond regard for its own controlling power (examples could be multiplied, but the willingness of the UK government to remit certain cases of international debt is a case in point of this wider attention). And in the light of the basic injunction of Christian faith to be attentive to the will of God as the most true and real element in our environment, paying attention to the way in which a government pays attention becomes a proper expression of obedience.

The argument is regularly heard in discussions of contested matters of policy, especially foreign policy, that independent observers (church leaders and the like) have no God-given expertise in strategy or economics that could outweigh government’s resources of information. And the point is further made that we elect governments to defend our corporate interests, not to be global statesmen and stateswomen. Both observations – while they represent an understandable impatience with ecclesiastical generalisations – are misplaced. Government will always know some things that citizens don’t and probably shouldn’t; but this is not an argument for civic quiescence. Some citizens also know things that governments don’t know and probably should; NGO’s, churches, educators and health workers may know what neither diplomacy nor intelligence are aware of; and the demand that government attend to such informal but extensive knowledge is a fair condition for recognising a governmental claim on our attention as citizens. And while it is true that we do not first expect our leaders to be world leaders, a government that ignored the concerns of other peoples in our ever more tightly interlocking global economy would be culpably failing in attention. Our national interest is never merely national in the present context.

Christian political obedience these days, then, ‘due obedyence’ rather than just conformity, must rest on confidence in a government’s capacity for attention; it merits our attentive loyalty in very much the same way as the tutor merits that of the student – in openness to a truth that goes beyond power and interest. This is not to expect of government an impossible standard of corporate selflessness and generosity; governments have popular mandates to fulfil, not simply programmes of benevolence and justice to implement. But part of the continuing damage to our political health in this country has to do with a sense of the events of the last year on the international scene being driven by something other than attention. There were things government believed it knew and claimed to know on a privileged basis which, it emerged, were anything but certain; there were things which regional experts and others knew which seemed not to have received attention. Forgetting the melodramatic language of public deception, which is often just another means of not attending to what is difficult and takes time to fathom, the evidence suggests to many that obedience to a complex truth suffered from a sense of urgency that made attention harder. Government of whatever kind restores lost trust above all by its willingness to attend to what lies beyond the urgency of asserting control and retaining visible and simple initiative; by patient accountability and the freedom to think again, even to admit error or miscalculation. Happy the person or the government that can simply find the right, the inevitable gesture that fully fits the truth of circumstances as gracefully as the scoring of a goal.

Christian obedience is intelligent obedience, a careful questioning, a reflective and sometimes challenging loyalty. Obedience has earned a bad name because of its use as an alibi for responsibility (‘only obeying orders’, a phrase with nightmare resonances after the last century); but if we begin with our central paradigm for obedience we shall see that it has to do above all with the labour of discovering what truth requires of us – the truth of who we are and where we are. Whatever may have been the theology of obedience in past ages, we cannot now ignore the democratisation of knowledge and the deepened awareness of how ideological distortions may be sustained in public life. If obedience is essentially attention, a kind of looking in order to learn how to act truthfully, it is right that claims to be obeyed be tested accordingly, tested fairly and thoughtfully, not out of a corrosive cynicism about power. This is what happens in the life of intellectual institutions; it is right that it happens in the social order. It is not that we need to claim the right to remake for ourselves every decision government makes for us; that is a trivialising of democratic government, though one that is very typical of our current scene. It is possible to accept a governmental decision as lawful and proper even when I disagree, because I recognise that a process has been undertaken that has some right to be called attentive. The individual citizen may be wrong; and in any case, has a vote at the next election. But without these processes being robust and visible and involving more than just simple governmental interest at any time, the authority of government suffers. It is not that we face regular campaigns of huge public disobedience; there may be a time for these, as in the Civil Rights struggles of sixties America, but they are rightly rare, confined to cases where government’s inattention has become a matter of serious and lasting injustice. It is more that we face a general weakening of trust in the political system of our nation.

To be properly and critically involved in such a system is one of the forms of political obedience: it is to put the fruits of your attention at the service of government in order to stir their attention. It is, it could be said, the attempt to make political thoughts also obedient to Christ, implicitly if not explicitly. Today we should need persuading that we are in need of exhortations to obedience in the older sense. But we should not delude ourselves that the education of the will by submission to truth is any easier or any less important (the contrary, if anything). And it is incumbent on believers to argue for and to exemplify obedient attention for the sake of Christ and in the name of Christ in all places where it is threatened by haste and self-interest – beginning (need it be said?) in the idle and selfish hearts of those who so readily talk about it and are so slow to bring their own thoughts under obedience to Christ.