Present in the Polis: Toward an Anglican Political Theology

Last week we published an article by the Rev. Heather Ghormley called Bringing Shalom: How the Church Can Respond to DACA. Her exploration of Kingdom citizenship reminded us that political theology is inherent in everything we do. Going one step further, we asked the Rev. Seth Richardson, Rector of Christ the King Fayetteville, to explore what it means to shape a distinct political theology that characterizes the Anglican missiology we seek.

By the Rev. Seth Richardson

Many of us would prefer not to get political. Bad things happen when the church meddles in politics, we believe. In fact, many of us have found relief in Anglican spirituality after leaving (or avoiding) denominations where following Jesus was synonymous with identifying with the Right or Left. Many of us are glad not to be endorsing candidates and singing Battle Hymn of the Republic in our worship services.

In a world where prominent pastors “get political” by offering presidents God’s blessing for nuclear war, doesn’t faithful witness to the Gospel require severing the theological from the political?

The good news is that the theological need not be severed from the political. There is another way of being political as the church. Political theology need not be collapsed into partisan politics or nationalism. That is not political theology at its best.

And political theology at its best is worth recovering, precisely for the purpose of being faithful witnesses to the Gospel.

Political theology at its best is bound up in the affirmation that God has and is acting in Christ by the Spirit in history, and God’s divine action shapes how God’s people live concretely and publicly, in particular times and places. Political theology at its best cultivates imagination for how the Body of Christ, the church, can be distinctly and peculiarly present in the polis for the sake of others. 

Political theology at its best cultivates imagination for how the church can be distinctly present in the polis...

This is why claims about the church’s politics were already percolating implicitly in our dialogue at the 2017 Intersection Conference.

Framing the focus of the Telos Collective, Bishop Todd Hunter suggested that discipleship, mission, and church renewal is properly grounded in a vision for how Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom, his reign over all things. Participation in God’s Kingdom in Christ is the church’s “highest priority,” Bishop Todd affirmed. This vision functions as the church’s telos: the goal to which the church’s life is tethered so that all of the church’s actions align with Kingdom ends.

To raise the question about what it means for the church to be witnesses of God’s kingdom – to live in light of Jesus’ lordship and shape our lives as his kingdom subjects – to publically declare and embody God’s reign as the one Reality that trumps other pseudo and penultimate ends – is to begin to make political theological claims.

Moreover, the proposal put forward by David Fitch (plenary speaker at the 2017 Intersection Conference) about God’s “faithful presence” is fundamentally a proposal about the church’s politic. God’s presence (his kingdom), Fitch asserts, is neither domesticated “in here” within the church or dispersed “out there” in the world (a discussion at home in political theology), but rather God’s presence is “on the move.” And thus the church’s “body politic” (expressed in her practices or habitus) properly takes shape around how and where God is present and active.

Fitch (an Anabaptist) is helping us (Anglicans) answer the question that lies at the heart of formulating a robust political theology: how is God working in the world and, derivatively, what is the shape of the church’s public witness and embodiment of God’s action?

Examples from our dialogue at the 2017 Intersection Conference that point toward political theology could be multiplied. The point is that the ubiquity of all this implicit political talk suggests just how important a robust political theology is for answering the questions we’re asking about Gospel faithfulness in this cultural landscape.

Part of the reason it is necessary to name these things “out loud” is that it’s impossible to completely avoid a political posture. Whether we realize it or not, we operate on political assumptions that inform how we understand and engage God’s mission.

Without clarifying our assumptions about political theology, we run the risk of endorsing missional means that do not align with the Gospel ends we have already articulated. Our vision might be misaligned with our concrete practices.

We will struggle to consistently and robustly answer the kind of core missional question Fitch posed to the Collective: “Where is space opening in the culture and how do we enter that space and proclaim the Gospel?”

So, here’s the big question: We already affirm that Anglicans bring a unique voice to re-engaging the church’s mission in 21st century North America. Does it follow that there is also a distinct political theology that characterizes the Anglican missiology we seek?

My sense is that the answer is “yes,” and also that the way we imagine the shape of our body politic will directly influence how we understand and engage God’s mission. The answer will shape both the concrete structures/habits of our churches and the way we relate to the State.

Formulating an Anglican, missional political theology is a creative and dynamic task because, put simply, we cannot go back. Although we always seek first to be receivers of what has been handed down to us, the history of Anglican Political Theology (APT) does not give a straightforward or helpful model for our missional task. In fact, we have a bit of a sordid history.

Anglicanism in North America categorically cannot be grounded in the political theology of its birth in 16th century in England, not least because it cannot share the same relationship with the State. Moreover, the modus operandi for mission that characterized early APT was colonialism (in varying forms), and aren’t we seeking a fundamentally different mode of Gospel witness?

That reality may be painfully obvious to us all, but it’s worth exploring the extent to which we still bear in our body the “political habits” of that irrecoverable history, especially in our propensity toward partisan political involvement, and especially in our relationship toward power.

Do we have an imagination for what it means to become faithful witnesses without being in charge? 

Do we have an imagination for what it means to become faithful witnesses without being in charge?

In fact, if we are going to seek clarity on our vision for political theology, I propose that the last point is the most important.

  • How do we engage in God’s mission as those who no longer possess socio-cultural privilege and power or seek to acquire it?
  •  How do we see the loss of that kind of authority not as something to be recovered but as the very opportunity for learning what it means to become a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s redemption of all things?

Seth Richardson and his family live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Seth is Rector of Christ the King Anglican Church. He most often thinks and writes about spiritual formation, sacramental theology, and place. He probably drinks too much coffee.


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