Labor Day: An Anglican Theology of Work

The Collect for Labor Day (BCP1979):

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another
that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide
us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but
for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for
our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of
other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out
of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

One gift that I believe the Anglican tradition offers to the Western World (and maybe the East as well), is a thoughtful, and meaningful theology of work.  For most of my upbringing (in the American evengelical protestant tradition), daily work was seen, at best, as a sort of necessary evil that one had to do until an opportunity arose to do the “real important work.”  ”Real important work” was going to church on Sunday, reading the Bible, being a missionary, or preaching.  Any other sort of activity or labor was only important in so far as it supported or enabled any of the “real important works.”

Now I realize this is probably an over generalization, but it is one that strikes very near the truth.  It effected me, and I know that it effected others in the tradition.  My grandfather, for instance, worked hard & honestly for 30 years in a refinery to support his family, community, and church.  He did his work well, faithfully, and with some measure of joy.  Yet, if you asked him, he would tell you his work was not “important” or “meaningful.”  In his mind, “preachers” and “missionaries” have the only important work, and I suspect he is not alone in this sort of thinking.

Anglicanism, refreshingly, offers an alternative to this sort of thinking about work and labor as reflected in the Collect for Labor Day above.  Anglicans (or at least properly catechized Anglicans) believe that work, far from being a necessary evil, is one of the primary activities by which we are linked with one another and with the rest of creation.  Because of that, the work that is done, the way it is done, and to what end it is done, is actually of tremendous importance.  It is about far more than just “punching the card.”  It is, in fact, a type or shadow of “communion.”

Together with this comes in the wonderful Anglican concept of “the common good.”  It teaches that life, and work, and worship always exist and are meant for more than the self alone.  It points or life of prayer and work outside of ourselves and toward the wider world.  I first encountered this idea of the common good in NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, but soon came to discover that it predated the honorable bishop’s work by several hundred years.

The twin ideas of interconnection and common good come together to give great meaning to our daily work and labor, and I believe comes much closer to the New Testament idea of true “ministry” expressed by Paul in Ephesians 4:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,to equip the saints for the work of ministry

In this context, the ministry isn’t done by the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, it is done by what we would call “ordinary people”… ordinary people like my grandfather and scores of other laborers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, and men and women working 9-5 jobs for the glory of God and for the common good.  Apostles and the rest, at least in these verses, are simply in supporting roles… they are the servants of the servants of God.

I hope such a thinking about work, labor, and ministry will inspire you as it does me to do my work with care, diligence, and hope.  There is much value in the way we spend our time and labor, for if we don’t find meaning, ministry, and Christ in the primary work of our lives, where else will we find it?  Christ is in our midst always, not only in “church” or the “mission field.”

Almighty God, guide us in the work we do.

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~ by jdballard on September 5, 2011.

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