I’m going to talk both generally and personally about inclusivity today – generally because there are some general principles and personally because we all perceive our lives and faith through our own, personal eyes.
So, to start personally, about 18 months ago I had not heard of Inclusive Church. I then came across an ‘Inclusive Church’ day being held at a church near Basingstoke and included it in a news bulletin for another diocese for whom I had recently started working. There was a complaint and the reason lay in the Inclusive Church statement of belief. “We believe in Inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”
The complaint went to the powers that be and it was upheld. No mention of Inclusive Church please. The reason was the mention of sexuality.
I felt I needed to find out more and look more deeply into what Inclusive Church did and that is one of the reasons why this sermon series has taken place and why we are thinking of joining Inclusive Church. We had Dianna Gwilliams, Dean of Guildford Cathedral and chair of trustees of Inclusive Church, to speak in the parish last month and she said that Inclusive Church encourages churches to look at who isn’t coming to the church and why. Is it because they are going elsewhere? That’s fine. We don’t want to take people from other churches. Is it because the signs are difficult to read if you have learning difficulties, is it because you are concerned that your children are too noisy, is it because you are worried you can’t put money into the collection plate, is it because you don’t feel welcome because of who you are?
Early in the series, Lesley challenged us at St Mark’s to think about times when we had felt excluded. We got into groups and I started talking about a group of people whom I knew from the local school who didn’t really want to come to church because of what I perceived to be social and economic reasons and how could we overcome this. A bit later I realised that I was talking about ‘them and us’, rather than about ‘us’. My very language – and attitude – was being exclusive. After all, we are all the body of Christ. It’s not a case of ‘us’ being a body and ‘them’ being another body. We are the body.
There are a series of books about the different groups that Inclusive Church is trying to be open to and in one of them – about poverty – it is suggested that just as if one part of your body is hurting you do not go ‘oh poor you’ but you give a yelp of pain, so if one part of the body of Christ is hurting then the whole body is affected.
So, if anyone is excluded whether unwittingly or – at times – deliberately, then the whole church is hurt. And I am not getting far with inclusion if I say ‘them’ rather than ‘us’.
So, what do we do?
We talk, we share, we listen. Again, in the book on poverty there was an example of a project – called ‘Listen Up’ – which had people acting as both interviewers and interviewees, so that they really shared and heard each other which helped everyone see things from other people’s perspectives, helped them do what Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In doing this we will learn, we will be vulnerable and we will make mistakes. But we can acknowledge mistakes and move on. We can share more of our humanity if we are vulnerable.
So again, I am going to share something personal. My elder son is gay. That’s fine – and he gave me permission to speak about this, in fact saying that he wants people to know as much homophobia comes, he believes, from hiding when someone does not define themselves as straight.
He has felt, I believe, welcome in this parish, but he told me last week that he knows few gay people who wouldn’t come to church because of the prejudice, because of the damaging experiences they have had. He said that church, on the whole, does not feel like a safe place for a gay person and that having a safe space – a place where you can be yourself without fear – is vital.
What? Even in this parish? Aren’t we inclusive? Probably more so on some issues but not on others. I was really upset by the idea that many LGBT+ people would not want to come into a church, however inclusive it might be trying to be, because of past history. Maybe I should have known that. I wasn’t seeing the world through my son’s eyes, walking in his skin. What else don’t I realise? Who else feels like this? We can’t all know. I, for instance, don’t know a lot about disability or issues raised by ethnicity. I speak from my own pretty privileged background. I can only ask, we can only ask, and share and be prepared to be vulnerable. It may mean that others come forward and speak from their own experience, or feel able to come into the church, make their voices heard, become leaders.
And we will get it wrong. I may be getting some of this wrong. But I, we, will learn.
The other thing is that we can ask for forgiveness and ask for grace – God’s grace. Because this is the difference. What I have been saying in many ways could apply to a secular organisation but there is a difference. As the Inclusive Church statement of belief says: “We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ” – and Jesus Christ in his time on earth broke down barriers, was inclusive, welcomed the outsider, never cared what someone’s status was, never asked if Peter was educated or from a privileged economic background before telling him to ‘build my church’, never asked about sexuality – and, the statement continues believes in a church which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”
These things can be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes us being open and determined – conduits of the Holy Spirit.