TransEpiscopal, the delegation I’m with at General Convention 2012, was inevitably preoccupied on Thursday with preparing testimonies for the hearing on the resolutions to add ‘gender identity and expression’ to the Church’s non-discrimination canons, but the social gospel has also been a strong theme running through what was the first full day of the Convention.
It began at the Convention Eucharist where we celebrated three pioneers of the social gospel in America (none of them Episcopalians though) – Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden (pictured here as a young man) and Jacob Riis. Rauschenbusch exposed the great ‘social sins’ of greed, political power, militarism and class contempt; Gladden (who was influenced by F.W. Robertson) was the first American to approve of, and support, labour unions; Riis used photography and journalism to highlight the plight of the urban poor in New York.
Later on, at the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Speaker’s Corner (where Cameron Partridge and I had spoken the previous day about trans inclusion) Tim Yeager described social justice, especially in the workplace, as the deep tap root of the gospel and not an optional extra. A lifelong activist in the labour movement he expounded Exodus Chapter 5 as the one of the earliest, if not the first, example of collective bargaining and the worker’s ability to strike.
As soon as had Tim heard that Indianapolis was to be the venue for the 2012 General Convention he had pointed out that none of the Indianapolis hotels allowed their employees to join a union, but the booking had gone ahead anyway. It was stirring stuff, and as soon as the testimonies about the non-discrimination canons were over two of my TransEpsicopal colleagues, Gari Green and Donna Cartwright, both passionate about worker’s rights, rushed off to join a march in support of the hotel employees’ right to join a union.
When they returned to the hotel an hour or two later, still carrying their banners, hotel security accused them of forming a picket in the hotel lobby, but backed off when they explained that they were simply taking the banners to our stall in the Exhibition area where they are now proudly on display.
The social gospel is about realising the kingdom of God on earth now, drawing on the prophetic tradition in the Old and New Testament, with its passion for righteousness and justice, and its bias to the poor and oppressed. It’s about the Church engaging with its culture and embodying Christian faith in a social context, paying special attention to inequalities in the social body. It is suspicious of individual piety because it has a profound sense of the Church as a body, and that in the Kingdom of God everyone has a place at the table. In these and other ways it provides a powerful theological underpinning for those of us who campaign for LGB&T inclusion, and a reminder, that when that battle is won – which it will be – there will be many more wrongs for Christians to set right.