Most Christians would agree that we are called to care for the vulnerable in our midst. Whether directly through food banks, Out of the Cold, refugee sponsorship and the like, or indirectly through donations to FaithWorks, almost every parish in our diocese is engaged at some level in meeting basic human needs. We understand that when we serve “the least of these,” we are serving Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31).
But the Bible not only calls us to serve the vulnerable directly; it calls us to speak up on their behalf. Examples of this kind of advocacy include Moses and Esther, who risked their lives to bring the plight of the Jewish people before Pharaoh and the King of Persia. Again and again, the prophets call God’s people to establish justice (Amos 5:15, Micah 6:8) and to speak out for those at the margins (Proverbs 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:17). Even in exile, they are to seek the welfare of the whole city to which God has sent them, not just their own community (Jeremiah 29:7). That advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable is part of the mission of the church is made explicit in our baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and in the marks of mission of the Anglican Communion.
Throughout the history of this diocese, bishops and other church leaders have spoken out on social issues affecting our communities. Diocesan and area bishops regularly communicate with government through letters and meetings, and they are invited to comment on budgets and new legislation. Recognizing the importance of charitable organizations’ public witness on the impact of government policies, Canadian law considers these communications aspects of the church’s charitable purpose.
Over the past decade or more, the Social Justice and Advocacy Committee has drafted annual vestry motions on concerns with which our diocese is connected: poverty reduction, affordable housing, care for the environment, welcoming refugees and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. These motions are non-partisan, and the diocesan College of Bishops must approve their final wording before commending them to parishes for consideration. When parishes across the diocese support these motions, it strengthens the bishops’ voices in their advocacy with government. For example, Archbishop Johnson’s response to the recent provincial budget and proposed labour legislation drew on parishes’ support for the 2014 vestry motion in support of raising the minimum wage.
The motions also serve to inform parishes about diocesan social justice concerns. Some Anglicans have first-hand knowledge of the impacts of poverty, lack of housing, environmental damage or unjust policies, but many others do not. The vestry motion campaign is an opportunity to learn more from those who do experience these impacts so we can add our voices in support of theirs. Each year, the Social Justice and Advocacy Committee prepares a brief “backgrounder” on the issue at hand, which can be used as a bulletin insert. Lately, we have also offered workshops in each episcopal area for Anglicans to learn more about the issue before vestry, as well as providing resources for further learning. The past two vestry motions around reconciliation with Indigenous peoples have motivated many parishes to learn more about the impact of colonialism and residential schools on First Nations, a welcome development.
More and more parishes, recognizing the need for education around the issues addressed in the social justice vestry motion, have asked us to make the motion and supporting resources available earlier in the year. To encourage parishes to take these opportunities for learning, we announced the subject of the 2018 motion in May, posted resources on the diocese’s website over the summer, and presented the wording of the motion to the bishops for approval in September. All these materials are available on the diocesan website at www.toronto.anglican.ca/socialjustice.
Some parishes shy away from presenting a social justice motion at vestry, seeking to avoid conflict. This is understandable, particularly in certain situations, and no parish is required to present the motion. However, the Anglican Church cannot be insulated from issues that affect the world God loves. Learning about and speaking out on these matters – even learning to disagree well together – is part of the witness we bear to Christ, who makes all things new.