Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Episcopal Identity

"Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Episcopal Identity"

By The Rev. Nate Bostian
TMI Head Chaplain 2010-2021

In the media and in education it seems we hear a great deal lately about words such as "diversity," "inclusion," "equity," and "social justice." These are often conflicted and politicized terms, but they are also terms which are deeply rooted in the Christian Story and Episcopal Identity. I would like to offer a brief reflection on diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice as a chaplain dealing with diverse groups and cultures in the context of Episcopal schools and churches. But, I must begin by saying I am not an expert by any means, and there is a vast literature to help our understanding from authors like Martin Luther King Jr, Cornel West, Ibram X. Kendi, and many others who speak to equity and inclusion issues that affect different cultures, ethnicities, identities, and abilities.

Since I cannot effectively speak directly to all these experiences and concerns, due to my lived experience, I feel that the best way I can help move this conversation forward is by talking about how these issues are expressed in Scripture, in the history of the Episcopal and Anglican traditions, and in how we pray and worship together. Because, at the heart of Episcopal identity is the idea of "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Agendi," which means that "How we pray shapes how we believe and how we live." And it turns out that diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice have been at the heart of how we believe and pray and worship for decades and even centuries. With this in mind, what I want to do is take the everyday definitions for these terms as found in Merriam-Webster, and look at how they unfold in the Bible and in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer [BCP].

Let's start with Diversity. This is defined as "the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: Especially the inclusion of people of different races, cultures, etc. in a group or organization." At the heart of Christian faith is the affirmation of God as the source of Diversity. This comes in the doctrine of the Trinity, in which the three diverse Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, share in a common life of Love for all eternity. This is how Christians explain the meaning of the phrase "God is Love" (found in 1John 4.7-16). God is eternally a communion of the Source of Love (in the Father), the Beloved (in the Son), and the act of Loving, which binds them together (in the Spirit). From the Love shared forever between these distinct and diverse Persons in Godself, the entire world in all of its diversity is created, as God's Love overflows to create endless forms of life most beautiful and most wonderful.

But diversity is not only rooted deeply in Godself. It is also rooted in the very nature of Christian community. When people are called into fellowship with God through Jesus, they are said to form "The Body of Christ." And Scripture explicitly states that this Body is diverse, filled with many members who all have different functions, as they share together to build up the entire Social Body in Love (see Romans 12 and 1Corinthians 12 on "one Body, many members"). The Bible, in books like Galatians and Colossians, goes on to say that this diverse Body is made of a diversity of genders and cultures and socioeconomic classes. For "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither servant nor free person, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3.28).

This diversity has found expression in the Anglican and Episcopal traditions for centuries. We have always been a broad and embracing Church, seeking to hold in unity various ways of following Christ: From those who identify with a more Catholic and ritual approach to the faith, to those who are more Protestant and Reformed, to those who are more Progressive and Liberal, to those who are more Traditional and Conservative. Furthermore, we have sought to hold this unity across many cultures, from England to the Americas to Africa to India to Asia. Thus, we thank God for diversity in the BCP page 840, when we pray: "O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children."

This Episcopal emphasis on Diversity leads us to Inclusion. According to the dictionary, this is "the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability)." The principle of Inclusion is rooted in the foundational doctrine of Christianity: The Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as the Trinity implies diversity, so also the Incarnation implies inclusion. Why? Because by including human life in God's life in the person of Jesus, God takes the radical step of including something totally different from God in God's own self. The Infinite includes the finite. The Eternal includes the mortal. The Undying includes death. The Sinless takes our sin and consequences into God's life, to heal us by Christ's resurrection. 

The Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, also embodied inclusion and welcome by embracing all kinds of people: Saints and sinners, Jews and non-Jews, women and men, peasants and nobility. All were welcomed and fed and healed by Jesus. And he taught all of them to pray to the same God, who included them all when he taught them to pray "Our Father who art in Heaven..." From the time of Jesus, to every chapel and every worship service in the Episcopal Church, we always pray together "Our Father who art in Heaven." And we find this expressed in our service for Baptism. In it we pray "All praise and thanks to you, most merciful Father, for adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light" [BCP page 311]. From the Incarnation flows inclusion, and from inclusion flows the Episcopal values of welcome, embrace, incorporation, and hospitality for everyone who God puts in our path.

This leads to Equity, which is defined simply as "dealing fairly and equally with all concerned." Depending on the Bible translation you read, you will find that equity occurs between 10 and 20 times in Scripture, notably in the Psalms. Several echo the words of Psalm 98, which states "In righteousness shall God judge the world and the peoples with equity." In these passages what is affirmed first is that God is righteous, and calls us to be righteous. Basically righteousness means to be in a "right relationship" which is honest, caring, and oriented in the right way. Because God desires a right relationship with all people, God wants all people to be treated rightly, equally, and fairly. 

In other words, because we are all God's children, and we are all equally loved and equally share in God's image, God wants us to be treated fairly with equal opportunities to thrive and flourish. Just as a human parent wants all of her children to have an equal shot at having a great life, so also our Divine Parent wants us all to have the opportunity, and access to the resources we all need, so that we can live the "abundant life" promised by Christ (see John 10.10). This is why Jesus instructs us all to pray for "daily bread" for everyone, because God wants us all to have equitable access to the resources we daily need to thrive (see Matthew 6.9-13). And this is also why equity is mentioned 9 times in the Episcopal BCP, and it is explicitly written in language that anyone can understand so that we may have equity in prayer and access to God, because "common equity ought to be allowed to all human writings" [BCP page 10].

This leads at last to the concept of Justice. This is defined as "the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims." Justice is not merely the act of punishing people who do wrong with a fair punishment. Justice is also about creating the kind of society, with the kinds of institutions, which are able to ensure that every member of a diverse society is treated fairly and justly. Thus, justice is not just about consequences for individuals, but also about the policies and programs which are practiced in a society. Hence justice is also "social justice."

Many think that "social justice" is a new idea. But it is really as old as the Bible. The Hebrew word "Mishphat" occurs over 400 times in the Old Testament, and is almost always translated as "just" or "justice." It refers to both the individual and social sides of justice outlined above. In the New Testament the word "just" and "justice" come from the Greek root word "dikaios" which is used hundreds of times in various versions. Common to all of them is the idea of being in a right relationship with God and with other people. It is with this in mind that Jesus says that those who are "dikaios" (just or righteous) are those who fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and helped the needy. This is because Jesus says "whatever you have done for the least of these brothers and sisters, you have done for me" (see Matthew 25.31-46). This is God's justice: To be equitable and compassionate to those in need, because Christ lives in us all. 

It is with this in mind that the Episcopal BCP gives this definition of justice when it explains the meaning of the 8th commandment "do not steal." In commenting on this, the BCP says this means "to be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God" [BCP page 848]. And with all of this in mind, the BCP includes this prayer for "Social Justice": "Almighty God, who hast created us in thine own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of thy holy Name" [BCP page 209].

All of these concerns for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice are brought together in the promises that Episcopal congregations make every time someone is baptized into Christ. In our "Baptismal Covenant" on page 305 of the BCP, the priest asks the congregation to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourselves" and to "strive for justice and peace among all people [as we] respect the dignity of every human being." To realize that the Christ life is in all people, even those who differ from us: This is Diversity. To embrace all people as worthy of Love: This is Inclusion. To treat all people with respect and dignity: This is Equity and Justice. These are not "new" values, or "new" ideas, to the Episcopal Church. They are what we have been seeking and striving for over decades and centuries. And we invite everyone into this abundant life of Inclusion and Equity with us! 

This is why we pray for the WHOLE Human Family: "O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." [BCP page 815]
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