This weekend I sent a message to all our clergy and wardens asking them to abide by our governor’s decision to restore restrictions on a number of business and social activities in counties in Ohio that have been experiencing sharper increases in COVID-19 cases. I trust that this decision has been conveyed to you by your clergy and lay leadership. And although I continue to call for and respect the judgment of our clergy and lay leaders, my recommendation is to respect our governor’s executive orders, not only as they pertain to counties at risk but as they pertain to all of us. It does not matter whether we should or should not be exempt as religious organizations from state directives. Precisely because we are religious organizations, we should support these directives if they fairly and transparently promote the good of all.
I would like to say a few words about why I take Governor DeWine’s actions so seriously. The Episcopal Church has always been committed to the just claims of government. Therefore we don’t ignore the lawful directives of our elected leaders — even when we are exempted from them as religious institutions.
There is a long history of Christian reflection on church and state, beginning in the New Testament and continuing into our own day. St. Paul calls for respect for government as an imperfect gift to protect the innocent from wrongdoers. Jesus tells the religious leaders of his day to give the government its due. At the same time, the book of Revelation is a diatribe against empire and its dependence on accumulated wealth and slavery. Most of us are aware that for its first three centuries the church constituted a loyal but pacifist opposition to state-condoned violence. After becoming legal, Christianity continued to demand that government demonstrate restraint and humility in the exercise of its pursuit of order.
From then until now, an uneasy peace has marked the church’s relation to the state. Some strains of Christianity have rejected the authority of government altogether. But most have taught respect for government as an instrument for good. In modern times, Christians in democratic countries have consistently honored the authority of leaders elected to serve the common good. This has not precluded sharp criticism of the state. But such criticism, across the ecumenical spectrum, has been driven by the conviction that duly constituted government has a legitimate role to play in the just and fair balancing of public safety and private freedom.
When we are truest to what is best in our tradition, we Episcopalians are about honoring the state, even as we hold it to account. We have the opportunity to demonstrate this by supporting our governor in his efforts to help Ohio get the better of COVID-19. I thank all our congregations for your diligence, discipline and patience as we move through this time.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the ninth and current bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.