A brave faith

One gay Christian seeking authenticity

What Does It Mean To Be An Inclusive Church?

2013-09-15 12.01.25LAST WEEKEND the church where my civil partner and I worship together celebrated Inclusive Church Sunday.

Despite major building work which unexpectedly revealed the presence of asbestos, and has restricted access to the building during the week, last Sunday the doors opened for three special events to mark the occasion.

The day was dedicated to Inclusive Church, a national campaign for a church that is welcoming and open to all, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

Rev Bob Callaghan, the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church, led the programme of events, including a Communion Service with special prayers and hymns to mark the occasion, a workshop called ‘What does it really mean to be inclusive?’, and the Open Table monthly service for Liverpool’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, their family and friends.

Inclusive Church raises awareness about the ways that people feel excluded by the Church, especially because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, or mental well-being.

It began in August 2003 following the resignation of Rev. Dr. Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading because of opposition to an openly gay man becoming a bishop. An online petition setting out the founding principles of Inclusive Church gained nearly 10,000 signatures.

The campaign was launched in London at a service attended by more than 400 people. It has developed into a network of individuals and organizations which celebrate and maintain the traditional inclusivity and diversity of the Anglican Communion.

Inclusion is one of the core values of the church we attend, which means a great deal to us as individuals and as a couple, having experienced exclusion from faith communities because of our sexual orientation.

So what does it really mean to say that we are inclusive?

More than 200 churches across the country affiliated with Inclusive Church celebrated this day with a pack of liturgical resources written specially for the occasion.

The gospel reading included the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).  Rev. Bob Callaghan unpacked the symbolism of these stories.  In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep to seek the one that is lost.  The 99 are left unattended – perhaps they don’t need the the shepherd’s attention, as they are safe and secure, i.e. included.  But the lost sheep needs the shepherd and there is great rejoicing when it is found.

Bob presented this as a challenge – that our greatest effort should be in seeking out those who are excluded, not making sure the ’99’ on the inside are comfortable.

Does this mean seeking the ‘lost sheep’ so they return to Sunday services? Is it about making sure others think the way we do? Is it a warm, woolly liberal ideal that means ‘You are welcome, you come to us and we’ll accept you’?

None of the above. We are called to be with those on the margins, not so that we can pull them in to become ’just like us‘, but so all of us are transformed by a new way of being together in an open and honest relationship.

To be truly inclusive means opening ourselves up to transforming encounters with other people.  This isn’t soft and woolly – it’s a profoundly challenging, difficult, painful, scary, life-changing process.

In the afternoon workshop, attended by more than 30 lay people and clergy, Bob explored the difference between being inclusive and being radically welcoming.

Inclusion is good, but can be just a one way street i.e. the outsider coming in.  Being radically welcoming means leaving the relative safety and comfort of our positions and going out to be with those outside our communities to be in a truly mutual relationship.  We thereby risk finding ourselves changed by the experience.

Bob enlightened us that the English word ‘parish’ comes from the Greek παροικία (paroikia), meaning a sojourning, dwelling in a strange land, from root words meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘house’. Churches today seem more interested in defining parish boundaries than in reaching beyond their comfort zone to meet those who do not come within its walls.

This is the challenge of the gospel, literally the ‘Good News’. What is the good news that Jesus came to preach?  The parables give us a clue.  In the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the more famous account of the Prodigal Son which follows them, Jesus speaks of ‘great rejoicing’ when what has been lost is finally found.  So too, we are each  lost in our own way, yet God seeks us out, and rejoices over each and every single one of us.

No exceptions.  Exclusion is a human trait, not a divine one!

George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, spoke of seeing ‘that of God’ in all people. That can be quite difficult, particularly in people we may not like, who may be difficult to love, or seem utterly different from us.  As long as our churches continue to think in terms of us and them, in and out, straight and gay etc, we will continue to make the same mistakes repeated throughout history of rejecting the other in vain attempts to secure our position ‘on the inside’.

The photo above shows the Inclusive Church banner in front of the main entrance to the church, currently blocked due to building work to remove hazardous asbestos.

The contrast between the two signs, one inviting all to come in, the other warning to keep out, seemed like an apt reflection of many people’s current image of church, where the screen of welcome and acceptance hides an environment which can be toxic, especially for the most vulnerable.

For our church building to become safe again, the delicate work of removing the asbestos must be completed. So, for our church community to become more inclusive, we must examine our own prejudices and exposes the hidden hazards in our hearts that bar the way to radical welcome for all.

We long for the day when churches throw open their doors and go out to risk being changed.  We long for the day when our churches will be hubs of welcome, support and care for our communities, rather than holy huddles for a select few, and only as long as you believe in exactly what they tell you to believe!

Perhaps, when we open ourselves to the risk of being transformed and transforming, we may see glimpses of the Kingdom Jesus spoke of in the parables (he never spoke of church!).

Faith isn’t meant to be comfortable, full of certainties and securities, but a journey into the mystery of what it is to be a human being and who we are called to be.

At the Open Table LGBT Communion service following the workshop, we reflected again on God rejoicing over each and every one of us – which was particularly moving as most of the LGBT community is not accustomed to hearing words of affirmation from church leaders, or experiencing God’s unconditional love through their ministry.

Some words of the Inclusive Church Liturgy beautifully and movingly sum up the aspiration to be an Inclusive Church.

The eucharistic prayer, written by a theologian who happens to attend the same church, says of Jesus:

‘One came who upset the rules:
Who accepted the grace of the outsider,
Who looked for wisdom in those who did not count,
Who took his food in the company of the rejected.
One came who walked a strange path:
Who did not think anyone was unclean,
Who did not look for scapegoats
Who refused to put a price on anyone’s head.
The tables of the moneychangers he threw over.
The tables of liberation he threw open.’

The final song we sang, written by June Boyce-Tillman, to the tune of Londonderry Air, ended with the verse:

We’ll give a voice to those who have not spoken;
we’ll find the words for those who lips are sealed;
we’ll make the tunes for those who sing no longer,
expressive love alive in every heart.
We’ll share our joy with those who are still weeping,
raise hymns of strength for hearts that break in grief,
we’ll leap and dance the resurrection story
including all in circles of our love.

And as we are blessed and go out, in turn, to bless:

May the cross be the sign in which we begin again
to undo the cords of violence, the misery of exclusion,
and proclaim the love without conditions

Amen.


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