Committee considers social justice theology proposals

July 6, 2018

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] How does social justice fit into the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church? This the question a proposed resolution presented during the 79thGeneral Convention would seek to understand.

Resolution A056 asks that the General Convention direct the presiding officers of the Episcopal Church to appoint a Task Force on the Theology of Social Justice Advocacy as Christian Justice. If approved and implemented, over the next triennium, the task force would consider scripture, approved liturgical resources, other theological texts and previous actions of General Convention to summarize ways the church understands social justice as an essential mission and ministry.

The resolution also calls for the task force to study how the church currently fosters the theological understanding of social justice and asks it to recommend ways to foster conversations on social justice across the church.

The convention’s Ministry Committee on July 6 heard three speakers in favor of the resolution.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

The Rev. Kenneth Brannon, Idaho deputy and member of the Ministry Committee, questioned the need for a establishing a task force when churches are already involved in addressing social justice issues. “Social justice is front and center to what we do in the Episcopal Church,” he said.

Responding to his question, the Rev. Tracie Middleton, Fort Worth deputy and a board member of the Association of Episcopal Deacons, said that a theology of social justice could eventually lead to more resources on how congregations might tackle social justice issues. “There is an urgent demand for how we do it,” she said.

In an interview after the hearing, Middleton said clergy might be aware of only a few of the social justice issues that parishioners are passionate about. The ability to have a resource to network across the country to share ideas and knowledge would be beneficial to bring priests and deacons up to speed on the myriad of social justice issues that their parishioners care most about.

The resolution asks that the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider budgeting $15,000 to implement the resolution.

The resolution was proposed by the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. In its Blue Book Report,  the committee concluded that while the church is “doing many different types of work, social justice work is not robust across the Church.”

Most especially, the committee discovered that the understanding of “social justice” varies broadly and that activities across the church tend to fall more “into the realm of alleviation of suffering and the work of charity than the work of justice.”

The task force said this distinction caused “anxiety” for some who completed a survey, “both in terms of trying to define charity work as ‘justice’ and from some who do not believe the church should be doing justice work.” Some survey respondents replied that the church should “remove itself from politics and get on the work of social justice.”

“We heard concerns that social justice is ‘only about politics,’ ” the task force reported.

The task force also heard about “a sense of being disconnected from the words of the wider church and General Convention on the theology of social justice.”  It said “some felt that social justice preaching should not advocate a particular view on reform or that the emphasis should be on ‘outreach ministry’ but not social justice.”

Respondents to a survey conducted for the committee were eager for resources, suggestions and people to reach for help and “almost all who responded acknowledged a need for this work and many a desire to do it.  They wanted to connect with others doing this work but did not know how to find them.”

To clarify misunderstandings, the committee defined social justice work as “acts to address and heal the root cause of the injustice which prompted our need for charity in the first place.”

“In our churchwide discussions,” the task force report stated, “we talk about justice in terms of promoting social change and responding to long-term needs in combination with work to alleviate the suffering before us.”

– Mike Patterson is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. He is a member of ENS General Convention reporting team and can be reached at rmp231@gmail.com.