Is it time to speak in ways we have not yet spoken?

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on November 1, 2021

We, who are many, are one body.”

This should be – this could be – one of the most important sentences our tradition has to offer; a statement of interdependence so deep it embraces our breath and blood, of the interconnectedness of creation, the Church’s equivalent of the Indigenous expression “all my relations.” And in the earliest months of the pandemic, we were given a swift and sometimes frightening illustration of its almost literal truth, when the virus multiplied around the world as it multiplies in individual bodies. For a short time, it seemed like we might respond with an understanding equal to the moment, might finally think and behave as if the interests of the whole body mattered.

But nearly two years into this, we are seeing, in most places, something quite different, an exhausted and fractious breakdown in social cohesion, in any sense of social solidarity; an elevation of the interests and specious freedoms of the individual. At the extreme, groups with ties to white supremacy and the extreme right are storming shopping malls, blocking ambulances, harassing health care workers and hurling death threats at journalists. And those waves of hatred and anger burn through our society, make us all more angry and more afraid, and more inclined than ever to judge everything from the standpoint of our single individual selves, our desires and needs, as if all the rest of creation existed to compete with us.

The Church should be able to offer a powerful counter-narrative, a story of personal sacrifice and corporate love. And in practice, many people in Anglican parishes have done so, have acted as if the interests of the body as a whole were primary, have taken precautions not for their own sakes but the sake of their neighbours, have served the community in a difficult time and at sometimes great cost to themselves. These are realities that should not be underestimated. But we also have to ask if we are obliged to speak in ways we have not yet spoken – and if we truly own and understand our own stories.

The Church has, for some centuries now, largely surrendered to the individualism upon which modern societies are built, and has seen its role as promoting personal salvation (for relatively conservative churches), or personal health and development (for relatively liberal ones). There have been some good consequences of this – for some, it has been deeply life-giving and liberating. But it has left us a diminished language, has lacked a story of communal liberation. Only in scattered places can we hear voices saying that our individual interests are not, in fact, sovereign, that we are baptized into a body, and that our connection with all the other members of that body, with all of the creation breathed into being by the divine word, requires us to submit our personal freedoms and preferences to the health of the whole; and that, if we fail to do so, the entire body will be damaged. The climate emergency, the housing crisis, the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the crisis of living conditions in Indigenous communities, all are signs pointing us towards that truth.

It has many names, this understanding, and some of them are deeply rooted in our own traditions. Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the pleroma, the mass of all human bodies that have ever been or ever will be, which makes up the fullness of the body of Christ; and because of this theology, he became the only known voice in the ancient world to oppose slavery as a concept. Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the language of ubuntu – “you can’t be human all by yourself” – and used it to guide his creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the Indigenous Church now is calling us back to a new vision of relationality, of life in community.

As I said above, during the pandemic many Anglicans have lived out of these values instinctively. But perhaps, though our denomination has always and often wisely preferred doing to saying, we also need now to think and to speak. We need to learn again our deepest metaphors, live into them until we can speak them once more. To be visible, audible, the bodies performing a narrative of bodies in community, and also the voices telling the story, a story that says that we are one body of diverse parts, that each of us is only well when all are well, that my salvation is bound up with yours. That we are all unavoidably, inevitably, even painfully, knit together. That we all go down into the water together, and together we must rise.


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