Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 5, 2010
Church's appalling silence on social justice
Various Canadian churches cut back on crucial social ministries
Journey to Justice
Hasn't the silence been deafening? What have you heard your Church saying about the tremendous recession that has left 1.5 million Canadians unemployed?
A month ago I contacted the social ministry offices of Canada's nine largest Christian churches and eight of the nine were more than pleased to answer a few questions about their social ministries: Only the Catholic bishops' office didn't respond.
I received helpful replies from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Religious Conference and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).
Over two-thirds of these Church groupings have fewer staff resources today as compared with five years ago. One respondent expressed disappointment that there were "few, if any" justice educational resources for Church use in congregations, and expressed disappointment that there is "no capacity to draft briefs or make presentations to government committees."
When asked what had happened to budgets for this work of social ministry over the past five years, five groups reported that they had suffered decreases (some of even up to half), and two had no increase. One Church office recently gave staff a week off without pay as a cost saving measure.
Finally, I asked the most difficult question, "Do you feel that your Church office has increased, decreased or enhanced effectiveness in social justice ministries over the past five years?"
ABANDONED SOCIAL JUSTICE
Three churches mentioned greatly decreased effectiveness, while two said things remained about the same. One respondent felt his Church had "in practice, essentially abandoned its work on social justice," spending most of its time on internal issues and sexuality.
This person added, "I suspect those who are passionate are working outside the formal Church structures."
Another revealing comment was that, "With the sequential decimations of Church office staff in all the important member churches of the CCC, there is nothing like the capacity there used to be to undertake substantial joint work compared to five years ago.
"We continue to rely on sister organizations for substantial policy work: Project Ploughshares, Citizens for Public Justice, KAIROS." But, "Unfortunately, those partners are also vulnerable."
Citizens for Public Justice believes that asking a person of faith to leave their beliefs behind as soon as a political discussion begins is like asking a lung to refuse to breathe in air. The real issue is how people of faith can contribute to a "hopeful citizenship."
Public dialogue and political advocacy for social and ecological justice are still constitutive elements of what it means to be a person of faith. They are avenues towards personal holiness and institutional renewal. But it seems clear that this ministry must now be done differently than in the past.
Here are five suggestions:
There is still a role to play in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the churches. But we cannot spend all our strength in maintenance of Church structures if we are then less free to address the real social and ecological challenges of the day.
Lay people have to lead ecumenical social justice ministry in the Canadian churches, and even start new movements. We should get over any assumption that the churches' social witness has to be further clericalized in order to be valid. Churches now have people as well-educated (and as saintly) sitting in the pews as standing in the pulpits. Laypeople of all sexes should reclaim their social mission to lead the emerging non-white Church's more inclusive voice.
The process of preparing and delivering Church statements must change. If we don't involve more people in these processes, how could they accept any eventual stances as their own?
We need to walk the talk before we squawk. Otherwise, the message will lack authenticity and credibility.
Any pronouncement has to be delivered with appropriate humility. Polls tell us that Christianity is the affiliation of 77 per cent of Canadians, but only 17 per cent attended a place of worship in the previous week. Some say, "Canada is a nation of believers, but not belongers."
A Christendom view of the world is no longer prevalent. A whole new role for organized Christian religions is emerging.
Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that large, unwieldy institutions don't always have the genetic make-up to be prophetic. The cutting edge seems to flourish more easily on the margins, in smaller groupings that are more nimble, responsive and enjoy fewer organizational constraints. Perhaps the Christian voice in public affairs today should best be presented in new tones - but not accepting to be muted.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, http://www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.).
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.