Today is the first Inclusive Church Sunday. As a Church we are very involved in Inclusive Church and are very committed to its cause. However, as as a white married man I have been asked by several people (including more than one Bishop!) why this maters to me. So I hope you will forgive my self indulgence of explaining why it matters.
My story in brief:
I was brought up as a Baptist in Northern Ireland. I was a Protestant, lived in a Protestant area, I went to a Protestant school. In the Protestant world the most obvious form of exclusion was of Roman Catholics. (In Northern Ireland both communities feel like the persecuted minority: Catholics are the minority in Northern Ireland, Protestants the minority in Ireland as a whole. Seeing a first had the result of fear and suspicion was how I grew up…)
So I started my spiritual journey as a Baptist, then I left the church for a while, before getting involved in a Pentecostal Church. The forms of exclusion at work here were obvious: people who smoked, drank, used bad language or slept around were excluded… (I must also add that women were excluded from from leadership, as were the divorced, gay men and lesbians… but remember I was a teenager… so it was the drinking and sleeping around that attracted my attention…)
I never understood Christian teetotalism – after all Jesus turned water into wine, and the one act of worship Jesus gave us involves sharing wine… I also never understood swearing – why one word for sex or genitalia is allowed and one is not… I also read the Bible a lot at this time and I found that the bible was concerned with justice, with usury and gluttony, and none of these seemed to get a mention…
Then while I dithered about what I wanted to do with my life I spent year working for Scripture Union in Zimbabwe. Here I encountered issues of race – I was the minority (but also the uber-privileged). I lived in a huge township called Mkobo, just outside Gweru, where I was the only white person – people were amazingly friendly, but I was always a novelty… I couldn’t have a single conversation for more than two minutes without the subject of how different I was coming in to it…
Then I studied theology at Kings College London. I hadn’t thought much about issues of sexuality up to this point, but I ended up sharing a house with several people, including three gay men, two of whom were called to the ordained ministry, and I saw their difficulties as they approached a homophobic institution.
Yet at this time I became an Anglican. I became an Anglican because of the diversity of the Anglican Church. It contains both Protestant and Catholic spirituality, it contains both liberal and conservative theology, it contains different races, different social classes, and many other forms of difference…
I felt that the Church of England had been conservative on issues of gender politics and sexuality, but so had society as a whole, and like society as a whole the Church was changing.
But then came the scandal of a good and holy man called Jeffrey John being forced to resign as Bishop of Reading because of his sexuality.
As a result Inclusive Church was born on 11th August 2003 at St Mary’s Putney, at a Eucharist attended by over 400 people.
An on-line Petition was set up requesting assent to the following Declaration of Belief:
“We affirm that the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.
We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.
We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel’s proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church’s own common life must be justly ordered.
To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation”
I believe that “being inclusive” has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘left wing’ – it has everything to do with living out the Gospel. There shouldn’t have to be an organisation called “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.
As this morning’s Gospel Reading made clear, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast, and it’s a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry:
- Jesus speaks to woman as equals
- He accepts Zachaeus and Matthew the collaberating tax collectors
- He accepts Simon the revolutionary zealot
- He invites the rough, uneducated fisherman to follow
- He accepts and befriends prostitutes
- He ministers to a Roman Centurian
- He ministers to slaves and servants
- He embraces lepers
- He helps the ‘demon possessed’
So why do we need inclusive church? Why do we have to argue for what many of us see as the bleedin‘ obvious? Because the Church, the institution that hands these stories down, has so often got it wrong.
The church’s mission is to bring people closer to God. But all too often we see ourselves as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘guardians’ who keep certain individuals out, rather than the prophets and priests that bring Christ out to everyone.
When I was training at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were told that he motto of the college used to be “guard he deposit” – but the motto had fallen from use, and the only place the archivist could find it inscribed was on an old college bed pan. (Don’t think about that too much!).
But our job is not to guard, but to proclaim. This lager mentality, of circling the wagons, and refusing to engage with the best of secular thinking, is what allows outdated prejudices to flourish, and could kill the church…
Inclusion is the Gospel. The Good news is that every one of us is invited to live in God’s kingdom.
Jesus said: “Come onto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus did not say “Come onto me you heterosexual people (and men only if you are interested in the episcopate…)”
“Come onto me all who are heavy laden…” “all”
Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & social class…
Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.
This does involve a change in our thinking, because the Church, for most of its history, has condemned homosexuality, and denied women leadership roles. We can argue that the church tradition has not been quite as uniformly sexist and homophobic as most people imagine, but we could not say the church has ‘led the way’ in these issues.
The Church has a long tradition of homophobia, just like it has a long tradition of anti-semitism. I think if we want to see how the church can turn around, a good example is how we have changed is the Christian approach to slavery.
For most of the Church’s history it accepted slavery. The Bible allows slavery – we must be fair to our slaves, says Scripture, but slavery is explicitly allowed.
“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilisation, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
So said Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America
But the Church was able to see beyond the letter of Scripture to the spirit…
The spirit that showed that all people are created in God’s image, that human life is of infinite value, and taking that to its logical conclusion, slavery, buying and selling God’s children, is an affront too their creator. And now no sane Christian would see slavery as anything other than an evil, a grave sin…
Equality on the basis of gender and sexuality is legally enshrined – the Church’s position on this looks like we are still accepting slavery. At best we look laughably out of date, at worst we are seen as a force for evil…
Homophobia is still out there in society- but so is racism, and just like racism, it is seen as a moral evil. Except in the Church!
This argument is long won. What Inclusive Church is campaigning for is not simply inclusion, it is the future of the church. Holding homophobic views is is not just toxic to our common life, it is toxic to the survival of the institution (it is toxic publicity). To the general public not have women or gay bishops is no different to refusing to have black bishops. And if I am honest I think the comparison is a good one…
A Bible story to help us see how to deal with this: The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13):
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
At first I used this passage to argue that we should not try and remove gay and lesbian clergy from ministry or hinder their progression to high office in the Church. But no, this parable is the one I tell myself to check my rage against the homophobia and prejudice I see in the Church, from the House of Bishops and many others… I can’t understand how some prejudiced attitudes could be described as ‘Christian’ or how exclusive practices could have anything to do with following Christ. But we let God be the judge.
Our message to the institution is:
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.
God’s Kingdom already stretches out beyond the boundaries of the Church, we must now run to catch up.