By Jane M. Gardner
Many observers of the 2023 World Conference remarked that they truly experienced an inclusive global community that week. A song in Community of Christ Sings that illustrates this type of community is “Draw the Circle Wide,” 273.
Gordon Light composed the music and wrote the lyrics. In the folk-song genre, his songs typically are contemplative, focusing on a range of concerns including peace, justice, refugee issues, personal faith, spirituality, music for the liturgical seasons, and songs about the stages of our life, from birth to death.
Gordon Light, an Anglican priest, eventually ordained as a bishop, from Toronto, Canada, wrote “Draw the Circle Wide” in 1994 as a response to an address he heard at the Canadian Episcopal Church’s executive council. Presiding Bishop Ed Browning talked about the state of the church, mentioning at least twice, “We need to draw the circle wide.” Gordon Light says that phrase caught his attention, and he wrote the words to the song on the flight back home. He then set the text to music, which he said, “came naturally.”
A singer, songwriter, and guitarist educated at Carleton University and Toronto’s Trinity College, Gordon Light became a member of Common Cup, a band that emphasized not only contemplation, but taking action. The band raised money for the Canadian Council of Churches’ court challenge on refugee legislation and many other peacemaking endeavors.
In performance, the Common Cup Company sings this song in an up-tempo, energetic, and down-to-earth style.
Gordon Light’s text also is known as “God the still-point of the circle.” The first stanza names God as the “still point” of the circle—round whom creation turns.” As far back as the sixth century BC, the idea of the still point as a place of calm and balance can be found: “the soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching). Mystics believe there exists at the center of all life a silent, transcendent still point. Further, all peace, love, wisdom, and joy emanate from this center.
The second stanza speaks of loving hearts that faithfully encompass great and small. It forms a circle that touches far horizons and knows no borders, bringing to mind Galatians 3:28 NRSV:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The last stanza speaks of the dream of Christ in us that opens every door. Christ’s dream is larger and more than we could ever dream, for God…
is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…
The words of the refrain, “draw the circle wide,” help us visualize that in a circle, all points are equal distance from the center. When in the circle, all are visible to one another—“No one stands alone standing side by side.”
The refrain also reminds us that a circle is drawn when the outside points revolve around the center point, rather than vice versa. A similar idea was expressed by Edwin Markham (1852–1940) in his famous poem, “Outwitted.” He began: “He drew a circle that shut me out” and concludes, “We drew a circle and took him in” (holyjoe.org/poetry/markham.htm). This song shares a call for unity, especially during controversy and division.
Drawing a circle can be seen as an image of closeness and intimacy, like the famous sculpture, Circle of Friends. It also is paradoxical—from the warmth of the circle, we are asked to go wider and keep widening it. Although the text does not directly address LGBTQ+ issues or queer theology, the song has been adopted by those striving to widen their borders in understanding nuances of gender fluidity and nonbinary language. Since its first appearance in the mid 1990s, the song continues to be relevant, with an ever-widening application.
As we sing “Draw the Circle Wide” we are reminded that God’s ever-loving presence incarnated in Jesus Christ continues to work through the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds so that the circle of community is drawn wider still. The challenge is not only to sing this radical welcome and inclusivity, but to embody it. Perhaps that is exactly what the 2023 World Conference did!