Human beings find infinite ways to establish groups within which to feel safe. Anyone who is different from these groups is kept out, called names, bullied, ignored, attacked or even killed. Early in our lives we experience being on the “outside” because we are too slow; unathletic; too tall, too thin, too fat, too short; too smart; have a different accent; wear glasses; have a disability—the list is endless! As we grow into adulthood, we find the world has other ways to exclude based on race, ability or disability, gender, sexual orientation and cultural or linguistic difference. We adjust to some of those exclusions—and rise to challenge others.
One of the most comforting aspects of reading the life of Jesus in the Scriptures is his frequent breaking of such boundaries of exclusion. Jesus does not accept the social norms and speaks to Samaritans, women, Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. He heals the sick and reaches out to the most vulnerable. He challenges attempts to establish status among the disciples (James and John) and reminds them that the first shall be last and the last first. In shaking up expectations and norms, Jesus invites his disciples—and us—to think about building community based on mutual love and respect and the overriding concept of servanthood.
In 1963 an Anglican congress of lay people, clergy and bishops gathered in Toronto. It is remembered in Anglican history for expressing a definition of the Anglican Communion based on “mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.” That was the era when many former colonies were ending their dependence on the U.K. New relationships were emerging, and the foundations for our relationships as churches within the communion were articulated. We are to mutually receive and give, in relationships of learning, sharing and respect. It is a commitment we are still trying to live into fully as a church.
In the midst of COVID-19, we have seen the cracks in our care for one another, where our mutual responsibility and interdependence as communities have broken down. We discovered that long-term care facilities have not been adequately monitored and that our seniors are vulnerable. Migrant workers, who are essential to the production of our food, live in conditions that are problematic for their safety and well-being. We began to see that those most essential to our needs are valued the least in our economy: grocery store workers; cleaners; and personal support workers, to name a few. The often invisible lines of systemic racism revealed themselves as the well-being of many white people was bought with risks required by racialized people who clean and serve and care.
The same is true in the church. We recognized that we have always had shut-ins and those unable to gather with us for worship. Now we have developed ways to connect with them online. Will we continue to stay connected? We have recognized again that racism lives in our society and institutions. Will we look inside the church and be willing to make changes so that our leadership and structures embody the diversity of our whole church?
As our world opens up again, will we simply try to go back to the way things were before the pandemic? Or will we pay attention to what we have seen and commit to new ways of mutual care and responsibility within the church and in the world around us? Will we ensure that the cracks, gaps, exclusions and discrimination are not just papered over with good intentions but are addressed with action?
This will be the critical test of our faithfulness to God’s vision and call. The discomfort of making changes will tempt us to paper over the cracks, or ignore them and seek comfort again in the familiar. Making changes will ask us to remain uncomfortable as we seek different solutions for equity and mutual responsibility. Are we willing to be uncomfortable long enough to be transformed? I pray our answer resounds, “Yes—with God’s help!”