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The Parish and Justice

From-- Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, R. Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008


Justice and the Daily Office


I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it. As Judy and I said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints"--of the beloved community in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around a near-distant throne in heaven--who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and "ends" all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.  - Jonathan Daniels on the Daily Office

...a way by which we keep ourselves in constant awareness of the divine order; an order of love and justice which embraces and underlies all order ... The cantus firmus is the recurring rhythmic pattern which serves as the basis for the music, giving it a unity and consistency. ...It is the recurring cycle of prayer and communing with God which gives, as it were, the dominant set to life. But over that cantus firmus all kinds of distinct melodies may be heard interweaving in a complex texture ... the offices keep us in touch with the whole church. They do not impede the individual's spiritual growth, but both nourish it and supply a standard by which it is to be judged ...we need immersion too in Christian truth if we are rightly to interpret life and culture -John MacQuarrie , Paths in Spirituality




The Church’s Influence in Society

This book focuses on the dynamics and vocation of the parish church. Within that arena the primary way in which the church influences society is through the lives of the baptized as they play their roles in families, with friends, in the workplace and in civic life. To a lesser extent a parish may also have an impact as an institution by how it invests its funds, uses its purchasing power, and educates its members, and engages in corporate ministries of service. The wider church, in convention, frequently takes positions on issues facing the region and nation and may form vehicles to act in support of those positions. What are some of the principles upon which the church might base those statements as it attempts to influence government and other institutions? Here's a sampling from a few Anglican thinkers.


In Christianity and Social Order, in 1942 William Temple wrote that what he was offering were not “an expression of a purely personal point of view but represent the main trend of Christian social teaching.” He suggested considerations such as these:

  • The world...results from His love; creation is a kind of overflow of the divine love.”
  • “The aim of a Christian social order is the fullest possible development of individual personality in the widest and deepest possible fellowship.”
  • In a chapter on “How Should the Church Interfere?” he began with an affirmation of the lay apostolate. “Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of he official system of the Church at all.”  In a later work, Temple wrote of the organic reality of the Body, “the stream of redemptive power flows out from the church through the lives of its members into the society which they influence.” (What Christians Stand for in the Secular World)
  • “It is of crucial importance that the Church acting corporately should not commit itself to any particular policy. A policy always depends on technical decisions concerning the actual relations of cause and effect in the political and economic world; about these the Christian has no more reliable judgment than an atheist…”
  • His answer to how the church should interfere had three parts: 1) through its members fulfilling “their moral responsibilities and functions in a Christian spirit;” 2) its members exercising their civic rights in a Christian spirit; and 3) offering its members “a systematic statement of principles” to guide the first two.
  • Cautious about utopian approaches. “...no one really wants to live in the ideal state as depicted by anyone else.”
  • “The art of government in fact is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands.”
  • Every child should “find itself a member of a family housed with decency and dignity” without having to face lack of food or conditions that are overcrowded, dirty or drab, and “have the opportunity of an education…as to allow for his peculiar aptitudes and make possible their full development.” Every citizen should have an income to “enable him to maintain a home and bring up children,” “have a voice in the conduct of the business or industry which is carried on by means of his labor,”  “have sufficient daily leisure with two days rest in seven,”  “have assured liberty in the forms of freedom of worship, of speech, of assembly.” “The resources of the earth should be used as God’s gifts to the whole human race, and used with due consideration for the needs of the present and future generations.”


In The Christian Moral Vision (1979), Earl Brill offered these comments on influencing public policy 

  • “It is difficult to talk about ‘Christian’ public policy because there is no one Christian way to run a country. There is no political program which all the faithful ought to support.”
  • “There are, however, some Christian presumptions concerning public policy. They would include a concern for social justice; a bias in favor of the poor, the oppressed, the outsider; a commitment to the solidarity of the whole human family; an investment in the freedom of individuals to develop their own gifts and interests; and a commitment to equal treatment under the law.”
  • On work – “.. all God’s children should have  a chance to work … society itself has an obligation to provide work for everyone.”. Work can be seen as vocation with its opportunities to serve others and “ can enable us to express that creative urge within ourselves that is the image of God.” Leisure – “… leisure is also good. It also affords an opportunity to express our creativity. In leisure we also imitate God, who, after he had created the `world, rested on the seventh day.” Labor unions – “represent legitimate expressions of the corporate concerns of American workers. … They have conferred a measure of dignity upon the worker who can assert, through the union, the right to bargain on equal terms with the employer.”


In the Christian Social Witness (2001) by Harold Lewis

  • “Does not God want us to show the same love and compassion for others that he has shown to us? … The concept that we call ‘human rights’ is basically grounded in our belief that God places value on each person. The recognition of one another’s human rights is the cornerstone of justice, which in turn is grounded in love. We are, therefore, called upon to as Christians to uphold and execute justice as an expression of the love that God holds for all of us.”
  • He raises a concern about a dynamic within the Episcopal Church that seems to undermine our social witness. “A glance at General Convention resolutions over the past two or three decades revels that the church has flitted from one concern to another.”
  • A commitment to social justice has always been a hallmark of Anglicanism. . ." (p. 33).


Four Cardinal Virtues

 The four are interdependent; if you don’t adequately possess one of them, the others are distorted in some fashion.


Prudence.  In the most down-to-earth meaning we are speaking of having good sense; the capacity for practical judgment. The virtue of it is in being grounded in reality and directed toward what is good. It assumes openness to reality. This is not the same thing as excess caution and a withholding spirit.


Justice.  The virtue is rooted in the assumption that we live with one another. That then presents us with several issues to address, including -- what we as individuals owe society; what we own other individuals; what society owns individuals.


Fortitude.  This is about removing barriers to justice. A central element is perseverance. Justice is only possible when we stay with the work before us. It is not the same as stubbornness.


Temperance.  Self-awareness and self-control are needed if we are to enjoy life and at the same time be good people. The work that has been done in recent decades on emotional and social intelligence is a resource.


The Organic Nature of Christian Action

Christian action is something that flows organically from the inner life of the parish. In the celebration of the Eucharist, and in the exchanges of the eucharistic community, we are taken, blessed, broken and shared. To the extent we have taken into ourselves something of the mind and heart of Christ we will show that in daily life.



It may be useful to think of our advocacy for justice as flowing from the organic connections formed in stewardship, service and evangelization. Each element will bring you to the claims of justice. Our stewardship of creation and institutions, our evangelization of those we are in relationship with, the evangelical call for all powers to genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and his justice, and the mandate to serve the least of these—each lays a claim of holy teaching.  Each is lived in jobs and families.  Each is touched by parish churches.  At the offertory of the Eucharist we place it all upon the altar to be transformed. The process is from doctrine though prayer to action. Faithful action flows from life in the community of the Blessed Trinity and the saints.

If a justice ministry comes out of this organic process I think we will see both joy and sustainability. We also want it to be truly useful and at least in some limited manner, effective.

Here are a few examples of sustainable and useful justice-related activities in parishes. 

A Compassion & Justice Award. The parish gives a yearly award to a person or group in the region that has done outstanding work for compassion and/or justice in the past year. This allows the parish to point to, and affirm, the efforts already going on in the community. The award might include three elements: 1) A print done by a local artist that expresses the theme and has a small plaque on the frame noting the award and date.  One urban parish made use of Alan Crite’s work. The Boston African-American artist was known for creating drawings of a Risen Christ among the people of the city. Often he would include a small image of the parish.  2) A financial award of a couple of thousand dollars, enough to be meaningful and within the means of most parishes. The check is given to the person or group to be used in any way they think best. 3) Arranging for a newspaper article about the award. The news release and “pitch” to the reporter would focus on the work of the award recipient rather than the parish.

Community Organizing. The best community organizing efforts are about helping communities develop the capacity to advance their own interests. This usually involves working with a professional organizer who knows how to train local leaders. A parish can work ecumenically with other churches in establishing such an effort. This might involve an Alinsky – IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation)-type effort that is about creating an organization of organizations that takes on a variety of issues over the years. When I lived in Philadelphia there were two efforts like this. One was metropolitan-wide, focusing on the needs of “senior citizens,” and another was more focused on the needs of city neighborhoods. Or, it could be something that develops to deal with a specific issue the community faces at the moment. For example, a Seattle Presbyterian Church has played a catalytic and supportive role in an effort to get a community voice activated and involved in plans for the development of the neighborhood.

Community of Interest.  The parish could make space for one or more communities of interest in which a small group works on some matter related to justice. This could be a group that writes letters in cooperation with Amnesty International, environmental efforts, or an anti-racism group. The group uses parish facilities and is included in those whose work we hold in prayer. Beyond that the group exists based on the energy within itself. The parish doesn’t pay any of its costs or recruit on its behalf.

Economic Development.  Invest some of the parish’s funds in economic development efforts that benefit the poor and those more marginalized in society. Investigate opportunities in community loan funds, affordable housing efforts and programs that begin business in poorer areas. Provide a way in which parishioners can participate.

Opportunities.  Every couple of years gather information on opportunities for compassion and justice. Have a coffee hour with displays and handouts. The exhibit might include information on ways to integrate just habits in our family life and about groups outside the parish that people could join. 

The Church's Position on Social Issues. Provide occasions and materials that help members be aware of the formal positions of the Episcopal Church as stated by General Convention, the House of Bishops, or your diocese. Probably more important than taking note of the church’s official thinking about issues is reading and listening to the thinking of Christian thinkers with a range of views. We can be surprised and challenged in that process.

Let Those with the Vocation Act.  A useful rule of thumb is to encourage those who feel called to act for justice to act. If a small group of people in the parish want to take responsibility for one day a month at the local soup kitchen, encourage them to do that. If several people want to engage in support activities for workers on strike, support their witness. It’s also important that members who do not experience a calling to such activities not feel coerced into participating.

Seize the Moment.  Look for the opportunities to have an impact on public policy.

Frequently that will require timely and bold action. Parish leaders will only meet the occasion if they are aware of the events and issues of their community, have the imagination and flexibility to act when the time is right, and are sensitive to what has to happen within the parish to build whatever political support is necessary. One parish in a small east coast city influenced the city over a swimming pool. The swimming pool in the neighborhood was not going to be opened that year because vandalism had created $3,000 to $4,000 worth of damage. City officials didn’t want to spend the money and were publicly blaming the whole neighborhood. “If they want nice things they’re going to have to protect them.” In a news conference the local parish challenged the city by collecting $3,000 from several Episcopal parishes and offering the funds to the city to help make the repairs. The next day saw a furious mayor calling the priest and yelling about being put on the spot. After a bit of negotiating, and mention of the local newspaper, the mayor decided that opening the pool was a grand idea.

The city started an effort to work with residents to keep the park and pool well-maintained year round. Two local community organizations joined forces to get the park into shape. The city official who had earlier blamed the community now said, “This is what I was saying was needed. We need people in the neighborhood to get involved.” All this was followed by a news conference and photo opportunity at the pool that included the mayor, leaders of the community organizations, the parish clergy, and lots of children. The whole process took one week from the news article about closing the pool to the news article announcing a cooperative effort to open the pool.

The starting place is to trust the organic working of the Body of Christ. 


As Light Must Shine


The organic relationship of holiness and Christian action was expressed by James Huntington,

OHC.  “Holiness is the brightness of divine love, and love is never idle; it must accomplish great things. Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.”

Our parishes are not social work agencies. Our task is different. We are a local expression of the Holy Church, a holy people. In the Eucharist, education and the routine interactions of life in community, that holiness is expressed and formed. At the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

The acclamation after the breaking of the bread and before communion is often this:

Priest: Behold what you are. 

People: May we become what we receive. 


The cycle of renewal in baptismal identity and purpose, and our apostolate in workplace, civic life and family, is the primary organic cycle. In the dismissal the deacon sends people back to their work, families and civic life. Of course, they would go there anyway. It’s an organic rhythm of the Eucharistic people. 

We gather and we scatter. To the extent we have been restored in our baptismal life, have renewed “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works” – to the extent all that is restored, we carry it into our daily lives. 

This organic life of the Body can have more play in our institutional life as we contemplate what is already present in our life as a parish. Seek within the commitments and decisions of regular parish life opportunities for compassion and justice. This may allow us to see the lonely, grieving, and overburdened among us. It may help us give attention to the day-by-day decisions that relate to compassion and justice. We can use union contractors and union businesses, provide meeting space for groups working for compassion and justice, and be more environmentally responsible.

We need to stop obsessing about having a parish program that makes us feel better. There are a few parishes that have had the gifts and opportunity to do something large that attracts public praise and attention. However, many parishes have the capacity to do something that has a significant impact on the life of a few people. 

To measure ourselves by these large programs is a sign of pride rather than humility. Send money to those doing the truly remarkable work and provide the limited help you can to a local feeding program.  Rather than looking to create a program out of a planning process we might slow down, sit in silence, and focus our attention on what is present in the parish’s life now. Our attempts to create that great service ministry may in some cases actually cause us to miss what God has placed within our life.