Britain experienced a constitutional crisis earlier this month when Mr. John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, allowed a group of junior lawmakers to propose an amendment that required Prime Minister Theresa May to produce a “Plan B” for Brexit if “Plan A” should be rejected.
The United Kingdom has no written constitution. Instead, its constitution consists of clearly defined expectations of government action, which have developed over the course of many centuries. Prior to Mr. Bercow’s decision, British lawmakers could not legislatively challenge a prime minister, who, while in office, presumably represents the will of the majority.
But all of that shifted, because Mr. Bercow acted differently and got away with it. That’s how constitutional change happens in Britain. In 1642, King Charles I walked into the House of Commons and demanded the arrest of several rebellious members. Previously such a royal command would have been complied with. But this wasn’t. Civil war followed, and no British monarch will ever attempt the same. An unwritten, yet clear, change of constitution had occurred.
On the other hand, in 1936, when King Edward VIII, who was also head of the Church of England, tried to marry an American divorcée and keep the crown, he failed. The constitution didn’t change. It did, however, in 2005, when the heir apparent, Prince Charles, married the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles.
The beauty and strength of the British constitution lies in its medieval origins. The fundamental charge of the monarch was the well-being of the people. Community was paramount. Change was resisted, unless it clearly bettered the commonweal.
For most of the Catholic Church’s history, Scripture suggested community, just as constitution has historically connoted commonweal.
For most of the Catholic Church’s history, Scripture suggested community, just as constitution has historically connoted commonweal. Except for specialists, Scripture was only encountered communally. Indeed, until the printing press, that’s the way the sacred stories of all peoples were experienced.
When Ezra the Scribe read the newly rediscovered Book of the Law in the assembly of the people, there wasn’t a sense that something like a fax, one sent directly from God, had been encountered. Unlike Muslims, the Hebrews never thought of their sacred Scriptures as being the unmediated, direct speech of God. No, the Scriptures were the divinely inspired writings of the community, for the community. As they do in this scene, they keep the community faithful to itself, to its experience of God in its midst.
The Scriptures controlled community life in the same way that the decisions which you made yesterday influence who you are today. They don’t keep you from making new decisions or striking out in new directions. Yet your yesterday didn’t just leave you to wake up in a new world with a blank slate. By way of scriptures and constitutions, communities, like individuals, possess continuity. Without continuity, if your mind never stops changing, we will, quite correctly, judge you to be a lunatic.
During the course of 15 centuries, the church changed just as culture and society evolved, which is to say slowly and with continuity. It was only with the printed Scriptures that individuals suddenly thought that they had direct access to God. And why was that? Because, as we like to say, “It’s all there in the fine print.” The experience of God was soon more than stable. It was fixed.
For the first time, God was no longer the personal mystery who led the people. God was a fixed object, laid out in print, which could be made into an object of human study, human mastery. Wrongly understood, sacred Scripture can become a form of scriptural idolatry. Only the unfathomable, utterly transcendent God is to be worshiped. You worship an idol whenever you try to delimit God, whether by Golden Calf or printed word.
At the foundation of the United States, in a post-Reformation mind-set and with no small measure of hubris, we chose a written constitution, as though the commonweal of the people could be prescribed in print for all time. Ignoring the fact that we have admittedly amended it 27 times, we have also found ourselves compelled to change the Constitution without express acknowledgement, something that we do every time the Supreme Court finds new meanings in old sentences.
There are those who would stop this evolution by preaching the doctrine of “original intent.” But can we, really, re-enter the minds of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton? And to what purpose? What form of idolatry has made these middle-class white men, who fomented revolution for their own economic benefit, the very embodiment of graced wisdom? In their own words, the commonweal they constructed did not extend to blacks, to women or to natives.
Jesus stands up in the synagogue. Where else should the Messiah, God’s anointed king be, than in the assembly of the people? He reads their sacred scriptures to them. They should know that what is about to be revealed in his person stands in real, if divinely ironic, continuity with Israel’s experience of God. And then Jesus says, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
Why? Because Israel’s God, who cannot be reduced to an idol, who cannot be controlled or contained, has nevertheless remained faithful. Christ stands in the midst of the community and says, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah (43:19) and the Book of Revelation (21:5) “Behold I make all things new.” Ancient Scripture and Scripture aborning come together in him because Christ, in his very person, is the revelation of God.
As the Catholic Church has confessed for two millennia, neither the church nor the Scriptures can claim the same. In and of themselves they are not the very revelation of God. They are only the two witnesses who point to the Christ.