Seeing Christ in Human Rights

An Invitation to a Global Conversation

by Donn Mitchell

from Signs of the Times, No. 29 - Apr 2008

Roughly half the world's Anglicans live in societies where basic human rights concepts are deeply embedded in history, law, and culture. And roughly half do not. This situation gives rise to a seldom-asked yet very reasonable question: When the Anglican Communion speaks of human rights, do we know what we're talking about?

On the one hand, the answer must surely be 'yes'. There are Anglican 'fingerprints' on all the great landmark documents, from Magna Carta to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An Archbishop of Canterbury drafted the former and a prominent New York Episcopalian chaired the drafting of the latter. And great voices from the church-the Wilberforces, Gladstones, and Tutus-have championed the cause.

Yet the inter-Anglican discourse of the last ten years seems to derive little benefit from this legacy. No mention is made of the 1998 Lambeth Conference's 'affirmation and adoption' of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the need to reconcile this 'teaching' with the rejectionist rhetoric that has defined the decade. Little awareness is evidenced that beginning in 1948, when the Declaration was still in draft, Lambeth has repeatedly affirmed its principles as a standard for all people, Anglicans (presumably) included.

Part of the problem is that in countries with long-standing human rights traditions, Christians generally, not just Anglicans, lack a Christian vocabulary of human rights despite the role that Christianity played in developing and refining them. No one alive today in Great Britain or Australia can remember a time when trial by jury was not enshrined in law. No one in Canada or the United States has a great-grandparent who can remember such a time, either.

Yet influential voices in the Anglican Communion come from countries where human rights concepts are recent and/or fragile. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria is from a country that, based on its own reports to the United Nations, has a very poor track record on human rights. Archbishop Drexel Gomez, who chairs the Covenant Design Group, is from one of the few Anglican provinces where a portion of the civil polity is not a state-party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the most widely affirmed human rights covenant.

The result is that equality arguments sound 'secular' to some ears, and biblical arguments sound devoid of justice to others.

The Anglican Examiner, a new religion public affairs website at, hopes to address this 'theological deficit' by encouraging Anglicans around the world to contribute to an on-line discussion entitled 'Seeing Christ in Human Rights.' Beginning now and continuing for 30 months, the discussion will focus each month on a separate article from the Universal Declaration and pose a serious of theological questions about it. For example, the current discussion, which began on St. Patrick's Day and will run through April 30, takes the following form:

Text of Article One

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Questions for Article One Discussion:

When you think of your experience of Jesus - in scripture, the sacraments, in your prayer life, and in the tradition of the church:

  • What suggests that we are all born free?
  • What suggests that we are equal in dignity and rights?
  • Does Jesus ever appeal to reason or conscience?

In your view, does Article One of the Declaration:

  • Emphasize rights but not duties?
  • Value the individual above the community?

Please feel free to address these questions or pose others. And please encourage others you know to join the discussion.

Participation in the forum is as simple as going to and following the links to 'Seeing Christ in Human Rights'. Individuals who wish to post their comments can simply click on the word 'comments' at the bottom of the first message they see. The comment need not necessarily be responsive to the posted message. It can address the discussion questions directly or pose new questions.

The ultimate goal of this forum is to develop a practical theology of human rights, a goal that would benefit greatly from contributions by members of the Modern Churchpeople's Union.

Donn Mitchell is editor of The Anglican Examiner.