Diversity and inclusion: parish and wider church


Scripture: Matthew 6: 1-18 Nigel Bunce

How can the Church promote diversity and inclusion? Artistic depiction of White Jesus is a problem, because it can be seen as hypocrisy.  Indeed, hyposcrisy is the context of the Lord’s Prayer.

In the latest issue of the Niagara Anglican, Rev. Naomi Kabugi wrote that addressing racism in society makes us feel uncomfortable, or even angry. We might be tempted to say to ourselves, “Well, I didn’t ask to be born white.” But that misses the point.

Diversity and inclusion: role models

People often frame questions of diversity and inclusion in terms of role models. Do you see people like yourself in science, in politics, in the church … ? As a white male looking for a career in science, I had role models and mentors to spare.

It was different for girls, for non-whites, and for LGBT people. Often, it still is. Adele Halliday recently wrote in the Anglican Journal that words like “light” and “darkness” have a significant effect on how people [of colour] engage in worship. Do the images of God in our liturgies reflect them?

White Jesus

A particular problem in Western Christianity is that paintings and stained glass windows always show a “white” Jesus. Those Europeans artists didn’t necessarily ignore deliberately ignore the fact that Jesus was Middle Eastern. More likely, they instinctively wanted a role model and Saviour that looked like they did.

That worked when European societies were homogeneously white. But it doesn’t in today’s diverse European and North American societies. So how can we make our images of Jesus reflect all the people we see around us in everyday life?

I don’t advocate a Puritan style orgy of smashing stained glass windows with white Biblical figures. But we should be inclusive in the artworks we commission today.

A missed opportunity for more diversity and inclusion

Here’s an example of how I missed an opportunity at St. George’s.

Our most recent stained glass windows depict three lady saints. Hilda, Bridget, and Mary Magdalene. The first two are authentically northern European. But Mary Magdalene came from the town of Magdala in the Holy Land. I should have asked the artist to give her darker skin.

But I didn’t, and the moment has gone by. As another example, I am getting uncomfortable with our beautiful nativity set. All the figures, Holy Family, Magi, shepherd boy, have pale skins. These examples of lack of diversity and inclusion, of time making ancient good uncouth, make me feel rather hypocritical.

The Lord’s Prayer is about hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is the link to today’s scripture from Matthew Chapter 6. It includes the Lord’s Prayer. However, despite its special place in Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer isn’t a model prayer for every occasion. For example, it doesn’t include thanksgiving.

Jesus offered this prayer in a specific context. Not behaving like hypocrites who show off how pious they are. When they pray or give to charity or decide to fast. More generally, concerning food, asking only for enough. Concerning forgiveness, behaving towards others the way we hope the Heavenly Father will treat us.

An apparent contradiction

The passage is about how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. As opposed to how not to. But it seems to contradict other words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5: 16]. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

That context was different. Our good deeds should glorify God. Not ourselves. Taken together, the two passages say, don’t be a shrinking violet. But equally, don’t make a huge production of good deeds, like charitable works, prayer, or fasting. You don’t have to tell the world that you gave your seat on the bus to a pregnant lady. But doing so can be an example to other people.

Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

Luke’s Gospel recounts a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector [Luke 18: 9-14]. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like various kinds of rogues. He boasts that he fasts and pays his tithe to the Temple. In contrast, the tax collector was a model of humility.

He stood in the corner. He did not even lift his eyes from the ground. Jesus commended him. I don’t think we should be excessively penitent any more than we should boast in our prayers. The Pharisee didn’t need to tell God that he paid his tithe and gave to charity. He was just boasting.

St. Paul’s expression “puffed up”

That’s how Paul used the expression “puffed up” in his letter to the Church in Corinth. Paul used “puffed up” as a criticism. How not to behave. Most famously, he used it in the context of the great passage on love. Love, he wrote, is kind, it is not boastful, not puffed up.

Puffed up brings to mind arrogance, boasting, and entitlement. It includes relatively small sins, like travelling to the Caribbean for a Christmas vacation while pretending that you are working and self-isolating at home.

Being puffed up in smaller and larger ways

But being puffed up is also at the heart of much greater sins, like racism and colonialism. Which brings me back – sort of – to the question of how to depict Jesus in art. Centuries ago, it was a minor issue that Northern Europeans showed our Brother Jesus looking “like themselves”.

But that isn’t 21st century Canada. As a minimum, new art needs to reflect the diversity of modern Canadian society. It needs special care to depict accurately the Middle Eastern people who populate the pages of Scripture. As to what to do about existing art, I simply don’t know.

Diversity and inclusion among diocesan clergy

However, our Diocese is making good efforts in an even more important area. The identity of clergy. We now have, admittedly small, numbers of Black, Latino, South Asian and Indigenous clergy. It’s start, but an important one. Not every priest in the diocese now looks like me.

The season of Lent is a good time to think about these issues. So let me end with words with which I began the service. “I invite you to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And by reading and meditating on the Word of the Lord.” Therefore, perhaps the passage we read this morning. Amen.