by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
The words which bind together Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers are also the unofficial motto of Switzerland, and date back at least to Shakespeare. It might well be a Christian motto too, echoing Paul’s reference to Jesus’ cross and resurrection (‘one has died for all’, 2 Corinthians 5.14) and affirming our loyalty to him, and to one another as members of Christ’s body.
But it’s not a motto which the Church is or has been good at living out. The COVID-19 pandemic, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Living in Love and Faith together open a window of opportunity – of necessity – for the Church to do things differently. We are offered the chance to live radically with difference. But will we take it?
In his September 15th blog on Via Media, Charlie Bell highlighted the importance of ‘intersectionality’ and that the Church has largely ignored it. Most people, including many Christians, will be unaware of the word (I had to look it up!). But nearly all of us, whether Christian or not, are caught up in what it refers to. Formally, it means the interconnection of various forms of oppression. That’s often what people experience: for example, an older black trans working-class person living in poverty suffers in themselves the intersection of multiple discriminations and oppression.
But as Charlie Bell noted, this also applies to struggles for justice. Solidarity together by those oppressed in different ways is a powerful response, affirming intersectionality. Think of Desmond Tutu’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ and the welcome given to gay people as well as people of all colours – though this isn’t a welcome affirmed by the whole Church. Which is why the Church is perceived as oppressive: because it divides people and makes different rules to apply to them. On ‘theological’ or ‘practical’ grounds we split up those who are discriminated against – by the Church and by others – into different categories. We encourage them to remain in their boxes as individual problems to be solved, rather than taking the risk of helping them come together to work for shared love and justice for all God’s people, of whatever age, sex, gender, race, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, marital status or belief.
There’s nothing new in this. The New Testament offers the picture of a Church called to live in radical love and justice, preaching the gospel of God’s loving salvation for all equally, living together in mutual love; and at the same time the picture of a Church struggling to make this real in practice. Whether it’s the book of Acts describing Palestinian and Hellenist Jewish believers squabbling over money in Jerusalem, or tensions between Gentiles and Jews in the early churches; or Paul addressing disunity in Corinth and elsewhere; or John writing about God’s love while excluding others from that love – the Church has had to work hard, and often failed, to transcend the social divisions and prejudices of the world around it, and has too often aided and abetted oppression rather than brought justice and love.
Ask black people about the churches’ role in profiting from slavery and its support for the injustices of the British Empire in the past, and their experiences of racism in churches in the present. Ask working-class people of any colour about how welcome they feel their ministry is to the church. Ask women, gay and trans people how they feel about churches continuing to exercise institutional discrimination against them. Ask the survivors of abuse in the churches how they have been treated by the systems meant to protect them.
How do we do it differently and together: ‘One for all and all for one’? The Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process in the Church of England is an opportunity to work in an intersectional way, and open up the conversation to include people of disability, people of non-white colour and non-middle class background, women in ministry and those who don’t believe they should be there – and of course LGBTI+ people who have often felt marginalised and excluded. But that requires local churches to not only own and take part in the LLF process, but to use it to listen and respond positively to all who have experienced structural oppression in church life, and look at how to work for justice not only within the church but also in the structures of society.
In a recent newspaper article the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London wrote of the need for local decision-making, with central authority doing only what it has to do. It was written against the background of disquiet about central Church of England guidance about responding to the coronavirus, to reaffirm the importance of parishes and local Christian communities in living out the Gospel of Christ locally in practical as well as spiritual ways. And if local churches don’t take seriously the issues of oppression and social justice, then whatever archbishops may say, the Church of England as a whole will continue to relinquish its role and mar its commendation of the Christian gospel to the nation.
The point of being local, and maintaining thriving local churches, isn’t to perpetuate the existence of the church; it’s to transform people’s lives and the life of society – to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord. Together. One for all and all for one.