I was at a church talk earlier this week about inclusion, based on the work of Inclusive Church. The church where the talk was being given was particularly concerned with certain aspects of inclusion, such as hearing and sight loss, the provision of wheelchair accessible toilets, or even toilets in general, as well as provision for those who are neurodiverse. It touched on visibility, use of websites, disability conference, resources etc. All very helpful and with a lot of useful discussion and support. Even ethnicity and women did not create a ripple. Then someone mentioned sexuality…
The problem was not that those present had a problem with people having different sexualities, but they knew that if the church wanted to make moves towards being more visibly inclusive that they would get push back and opposition from other people and even other local churches who were opposed. This is a peculiarly Anglican problem. Denominations like the Baptists or the United Reform Church have a congregational understanding of many issues anyway and would see it as an internal matter. The Methodists have agreed that there are some issues decided by their annual conference and then the individual circuits and churches can decide exactly how to proceed for themselves.
Anglicanism does not accept that level of diversity. It can certainly be argued that congregationalism is not an Anglican way of doing things, so there should be uniformity in what is done and taught. Except that the Church of England has already made some very large exceptions to that already, where individual congregations can vote to diversify on certain matters. For example, those with alternative episcopal oversight because they do not accept women priests or those who espouse male headship under the bishop of Maidstone. Before that whether or not to allow the remarriage of those who had been divorced was left to the individual member of clergy who had a conscience opt out.
There is already a great diversity of worship styles, from those who do not wear vestments and have a monthly communion service to those who have full robed choirs and clergy with several masses each week, and a whole spectrum in between.
Unfortunately, reasoned debate on inclusion and diversity in being hampered by an almost default belief in certain Anglican circles that somehow ‘inclusion’ is a secret codeword for ‘gay rights’ and a move towards inclusion would put them on a slippery slope to same sex marriage in church. Consequently there is resistance to even the idea that a church should be moving towards more visible inclusion.
Inclusion is Biblical. Nobody throws away their Bible to be inclusive. It is about studying the Bible, particularly the ministry and teachings of Jesus and the early church. Jesus went out of the temple to meet and eat with the marginalised where they were. The early church went beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish people and admitted gentiles. They instituted a new form of admission – baptism – that was open to anyone. No longer was initiation to the faith just for men through circumcision. Those who could not live up to the purity codes of Judaism could find a home in their faith in Jesus.
It is time that the contemporary church in this country caught up with the early church and recognised that the great commission was for everyone. Inclusion is about everyone, not just those who have different sexualities. If Samaritans could be included along with gentile widows, so can many of our excluded and marginalised groups. Frankly, some in the Church of England need to stop trying to fight a non existent enemy.
Let’s see a church that truly wants to be inclusive. One that is open and safe. Not one that is obsessed with sexuality as the sole test of some sort of ideological purity.