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Welcoming those who have been excluded

Updated: Sep 23, 2018

If you've been keeping up with our series on welcome, you'll know that a couple of weeks ago we talked about welcoming difference in all of its wonder and frustration, and I made passing reference to the fact that difference can lead to exclusion. There are people who are so different from us that it seems easier to keep them away, or at least keep them at a distance, only letting them in so far if not shutting the door on them completely. The truth is that the church (which I am using here in its widest sense) has been a place of exclusion for many, and so on Sunday we tackled that head on and thought about what it means to welcome those who have been excluded.

What we were really talking about was inclusion, which is a very deliberate kind of welcome, as it recognises that those who have been excluded have been faced with barriers which must be taken down. Inclusion is a bit of a buzzword at the moment, and so we started by asking what it means in practice. Inclusive Church is an organisation that works to support the inclusion of excluded groups - focusing on issues around gender, sexuality, race, economic power, mental health and disability - and they have invited people at a number of events to complete the phrase "inclusion is..." You can find some of the responses they have been given here, and these got us thinking and prompted us to write our own responses which you can find here.

We also looked at a scriptural model of inclusion, drawing on our reading from Luke 14:12-24, the parable of the great feast. I chose this passage because it has been significant in shaping my understanding of inclusion, on account of something one of my tutors pointed out to me a couple of years ago. At the time Jesus was speaking, the poor and the disabled were excluded from worship and society, as they were too unclean to be associated with and lacked the means to bring the proper sacrifices, and yet we are given no indication in this parable that they were cleaned up or made well in order to be included at the feast. Instead it seems that they were welcomed just as they were, included not because they had changed but because the world around them had. Christ transforms us, but he also transforms the structures and circumstances that keep people out and apart, and inclusion means joining with him in bringing about that transformation. Of course there is exclusion in this story too, as those who were originally invited miss out on the feast, but that is a decision they make for themselves, suggesting that inclusion is about making an offer not issuing an order.

I chose Luke's version of the parable but I can't ignore Matthew's rather harsher version, where the invited guests respond violently and are themselves destroyed, and then a man not in proper attire is bound and thrown out of the banquet. The story appears later in Matthew's gospel than in Luke's, and so the violence of the guests perhaps foreshadows the violence of the crucifixion which is soon to come, while their destruction may be intended to underscore the seriousness of what they do in rejecting the invitation. The eviction of the man not in proper dress is trickier, but perhaps speaks of the need for a heartfelt and appropriate response to the call.

So Matthew and Luke have different emphases - something which is true of their gospels generally as Luke has a keen interest in and heart for the marginalised, while Matthew seems more concerned with the division of believers and unbelievers - but they don't necessarily work against one another. Both seem to say that God wants to welcome people to the feast (we could ask why the poor and the disabled are not invited in the first place, but parables are not exact allegories and there is a danger that if we pull them apart too much there is nothing left) and to include those we may not expect.

And yet so often we have tried to draw up the guest list. I was once at a performance by Riding Lights Theatre Company, which included readings from members of the local community. One of the readers was the vicar of the church which was hosting the performance, who rather bravely admitted that he had nearly thrown Jesus out of the building just before the show began. The play was done in modern dress and began with the crucifixion, so the actor playing Jesus was bloodied and bruised from the beginning, and the vicar mistook him for a drunk who had got into a fight. It was sobering for him and for us to reflect on the fact that he had nearly evicted Jesus from the church, but then also to consider if that would really have been the right response if he had been a passing drunk. We are called to be stewards not bouncers of the church and the kingdom.

Earlier on I mentioned Inclusive Church, something I am familiar with because my previous church went through the process of joining the network, which meant holding a series of conversations around the particular issues they focus on, and ultimately deciding to adopt their statement of belief. This gave us something to be held accountable to, and meant we could be listed on their website, allowing folk who wanted a church committed to inlcusion to find us. What follows is some of our learning from that process. I realise I am preaching to the choir to a degree, as SBC already has a heart for welcome and inclusion, but there is always more to learn, and I hope there will be some food for thought here.

We need to give priority to the perspective of those who have been excluded, because they are the voices we haven’t heard yet, and we won't know how to embrace them unless we first hear them. Liberation and feminist theologies have sought to read the Bible from the perspective of the marginalised and hear the voices of those who have been ignored or silenced, and there is much we can learn from that work. We need to hear from those who have been or still are on the outside, which is why we invited people to come and speak to us about their experiences of both inclusion and exclusion. It was difficult to hear the pain of those scarred by church but also necessary. I once heard someone say “if your theology doesn’t work when you are face to face and heart to heart with another then it doesn’t work”, and so we had to come face to face and heart to heart with others as part of developing a theology and a church practice that really does work.

We need to not only recognise but also repent of the hurt that has been caused, because we are called to seek forgiveness and set relationships right, and we need to rebuild from a place where all are honest and vulnerable. For the last three years a group from my previous church has stood by the side of the march route at Leeds Pride with banners declaring God's love for all, and every year the banner that has got the most attention has been the one that says "We're sorry for the hurt. God loves you and so do we", and I think it is the honesty and remorse contained in the 'sorry' that has had the biggest impact. For those who have been badly hurt, the fullness of healing will come from God, but if the church has been part of the problem then it must also be part of the solution, and our repentance can open up the way which makes healing possible.

We need to be prepared to meet people on their territory, because if church has been an unfriendly and dangerous place, we can’t expect people to rush back in just because we hold the door open. Of course this must be done sensitively, because good intentions alone won't stop us from doing more damage if we simply charge in, but it does mean being willing to step out and enter other spaces in order to rebuild trust and relationship. That was partly what we were trying to do by going to Pride, and while I have to admit that we were nervous about the reception we would get the first year, we have received grace and love in abundance, and I have never felt a more powerful sense of sharing Christ's gospel than while proclaiming God's love in all its rainbow glory to those who have so often heard a different message.

We need to know who we are and how others see us, because it is easy to send out the wrong messages, so that we are less welcoming than we think or more welcoming than others know. This was something we talked about quite a bit at my previous church. On the one hand we were fully inclusive of women in every aspect of ministry without ever saying so publicly, but on the other hand the level of discussion we engaged in was difficult for some without that ever being our intention. That led us to reflect on the difference between being exclusive and having a distinct character. The truth is that no church will work perfectly for everyone, and we are only setting ourselves up for failure if we think that is where inclusion will lead us. Perhaps it is a case of needing to be visible and vocal about the things that matter to us, so that people know what to expect, and of loving everyone even while knowing we may not please them.

We need to learn what people need to feel included and take steps in that direction, because a commitment to welcome and inclusion is only the beginning. This really takes us back to listening to those who have been excluded, but here I want to emphasise the importance being specific and practical. It might mean making changes to the building or the shape of the service or the language we use or the activities we offer, and much of it will take time and practice, but that's okay because it is an ongoing process. I think also it's important to remember that inclusion might not always mean helping people to engage in way we expect them to. People need different things from church, and those needs come before our expectations, which is why we need to keep listening and learning and moving in the right direction.

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