The Church and Public Life

Stephen AllenStephen Allen is the Associate Secretary, Justice Ministries, Life and Mission Agency, The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2 (NRSV)

In this passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans, Paul calls his readers to see the world in a new way. He advises them to renew their minds so that they may be transformed. This call to be transformed forms the basis for the ethical instructions that follow in chapters 12 through to 15. Through this transformation, they will be able to discern the will of God. This is our challenge today. We are called to see the world in a new way, so that we become receptive to new realities and to help society discern what is good and acceptable.

The Rev. Dr. David Pfrimmer, Principal-Dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary suggested at the Ontario Religious Leaders' Forum that the challenge for the "religious community is to nurture public places of moral deliberation" (Doing Ethics in Public Policy, by The Rev. Dr. David Pfrimmer, Queen's Park, Toronto, October 27, 2005). In striving to meet this challenge, we do so in a post-modern, secular Canadian society and a society comprised of many faiths and cultures. Profound cultural shifts have taken in place in Canada in a short period of time. These changes do not mean that the church has lost its voice in the public square. The church's voice will not always be heeded or heard, but there are important opportunities for the church to participate in the public square and to publicly live out our faith.

The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation and Living Faith offer us a scriptural basis and theological rationale to engage in the public square. Our allegiance is to God. "The Church must not merge or confuse her Gospel with any political, economic, cultural or nationalistic creed…. Her members take full share as their Christian calling in commerce, politics, and other social action" (The Church's Service to the State, in Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation, 1955).

Living Faith reminds us that: "God is always calling the church to seek that justice in the world which reflects the divine righteousness revealed in the Bible" (Living Faith: A Statement of Christian Belief, Wood Lake Books Inc. Winfield BC, 1984, p. 25).

Several years ago, a group of theologians from a number of countries and from denominations belonging to the Reformed tradition met to consider the role of the church in the 21st century. They did so, as they acknowledged, in the context of a growing gap between rich and poor, of ecological degradation, of conflict and violence and of globalization. What is the role of the church in these uncertain times? How does the church counter the sense of despair that often seems so prevalent? They suggested that the mission of the Christian Movement in the 21st century is to confess hope in action. (See Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context, Walter Brueggemann, Editor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, Louisville, Kentucky).

What does this Gospel-filled hope look like? The examples that follow hopefully illustrate moments when the church has sought to be a faithful public witness.

Corporate Social Responsibility Now Widely Accepted

Canadian churches, including The Presbyterian Church in Canada, played a pioneer role in introducing the concept of corporate social responsibility almost thirty years ago. As investors, churches asserted that they had a responsibility to ensure that the corporation they held shares in, was a good corporate citizen.

Thirty years ago, there was little public discussion about corporate social responsibility. In fact, the idea caused a great deal of discomfort and even opposition from the business community. The argument then was that the sole responsibility of a corporation was to provide as high a return to shareholders as possible. This line of argument meant that a corporation could have interests in countries with notorious human rights records, but as long as the corporation was not breaking any laws, then the business activity was legitimate and the corporation was above any criticism. Today, few corporations would argue that they do not have responsibilities beyond the financial bottom line. Corporations that take the triple bottom line seriously (financial, environmental, social) know that this is a good thing for its own sake and that being a good corporate citizen enhances the value of the corporation.

Several years ago, I attended a conference on ethical practices in the corporate sector. Participants represented some of the largest and most powerful corporations in Canada. In a post-Enron world, corporations are under greater public scrutiny, a reality that conference participants readily acknowledged. For some participants, ethics was largely about following the law and protecting the corporate brand. Other participants were clearly committed to lifting the ethical bar in their corporation. Acting in an ethical manner went beyond appearances.

When the conference ended, one of the conference planners approached me. He was a senior partner in one of Canada's largest law firms. He was appreciative of the role that churches have played in advancing corporate social responsibility and said that "we need the churches to keep pushing us." This was an unexpected moment of grace and hope.

Health Care As a Public Good

In the early 1960s, The Presbyterian Church in Canada was one of several denominations involved in public discussions about a publicly funded health care system. Through an act of Parliament, the program we have come to know as Medicare was established in 1966. By 1971, every province was participating in Medicare. Almost forty years later, the churches continue to participate in public debates about the future of health care.

Several denominations, including The Presbyterian Church in Canada, organized a Churches Forum on Health Care in Alberta in May, 2004. The keynote speaker was Dr. Nuala Kenny. Dr. Kenny is a bioethicist at Dalhousie University, a medical doctor and a member of a religious community. She was passionate in her defense of publicly funded health care. I found her presentation on an ethical framework for health care and health care policy stimulating and the framework she presented to be relevant to how we shape public policy more generally.

Dr. Kenny began by reminding her audience that each and every health care encounter is a place of moral meaning. Consider the power of the care giver and the dependence of the person receiving the care. This moment of care, especially in serious cases, is a moment of great vulnerability. Think of the many occasions when Jesus healed the sick.

Dr. Kenny then suggested that the process of developing public policy should be a moral endeavour. It should be more than the rough and tumble of brokerage politics. There is a great deal of public scepticism about public life and about public officials. Scepticism can drift into cynicism. This climate can discourage citizens from participating in civic issues. All elected officials end up being tarnished by this brush and we forget that there are many (regardless of the party they belong to) who are deeply committed to public life and to public service. The church can contribute to a public policy process that strives to be an ethical and moral process. What does religious faith offer? Dr. Kenny suggests moral imagination that offers alternatives and hope which advance the common good.

What does this mean in practice? The churches (through the Canadian Council of Churches) submitted a brief and an appendix to the Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. The brief did not suggest how hospitals might better manage the emergency wards during the flu season or what primary health care reform might look like. Instead, the churches focused on the values that should be foundational to health care policy. Our appendix was called a "Covenant on Health Care for all People in Canada." We explained the concept of covenant as a relationship with God and one that we have as a corporate body through God with each other. Through God, we are relational beings, connected to each other, responsible for each other. We acknowledged the pressing need to change the health care system but suggested that the answer did not lie in increasing for-profit care but in reforming and strengthening Medicare.

The language of covenant resonated with the Commissioner, The Honourable Roy Romanow. The first recommendation in the Royal Commission's Final Report called for a Canadian Health Covenant. Mr. Romanow attributed the concept of covenant to the churches.

The First Ministers and Health Ministers from the federal and provincial/territorial governments have met several times since the Commission's Final Report was submitted to then Prime Minister Chretien in November 2002.

A number of the recommendations have been or are in the process of being implemented, but not the first recommendation! First Ministers have negotiated programs that cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but they have not (to date anyway) grappled with a recommendation that is not intended to have any financial implications, but affirms that all of us involved in our health care system have rights as well as obligations and responsibilities. The churches will continue to raise this recommendation in future conversations with elected officials.

What Kind of Globalization?

The clothes we wear, the household appliances we use, the cup of coffee or tea we have in the morning — all are visible signs of the global economy. The churches are engaged in public discussions about globalization and trade. The volume and value of international trade have grown dramatically in the past decade. But the benefits are not being equitably shared. Consider one example. Trade barriers put up by many wealthy countries cost developing countries US$100 billion a year, almost twice as much as they receive in aid!

In January, 2004, denominations and ecumenical agencies from Canada, the United States, and Mexico met at Stony Point, New York. This consultation on globalization and trade took place with the encouragement of the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches. The outcome of the consultation was a document called What Does God Require of Us? A Declaration for Just Trade in the Service of An Economy Of Life. The Declaration was endorsed by the 130th General Assembly (June 2004).

A small team of representatives from churches Mexico, the United States, and Canada continue to work together. In May 2005, we met in Ottawa. This was an opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament from each of the four parties. We presented the Declaration and offered some proposals on how trade agreements could incorporate stronger ethical guidelines. With few exceptions, trade agreements do not benefit the poor and the vulnerable. Negotiating trade agreements is still about negotiating the best economic deal for the powerful and not about negotiating more ethical arrangements in which the benefits are more justly shared.

Changing this framework seems daunting at times, but we need to take the long view. A colleague with many years of experience in public policy said that we don't see immediate changes. Instead, improvements happen gradually — a process he called relentless incrementalism. I prefer faithful persistence! The church is not called to be successful, but as Jesus taught us, to be faithful.

We are guided by Jesus' life and ministry. As we read in Paul, we are to be transformed by renewing our minds so that we may discern God's will and not be bound by conventional wisdom. And we remember what Jesus said; Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me (Matthew 25: 45 [NRSV]).