InclusivenessFierce conflicts are on the go in the Church about
its membership. The Roman Catholic Church continues its centuries-old hunt for
heretics. Other churches sniff out gay clergy engaged in sexual activity. Yet
others chase away liberals who are not "biblical". Rick
and Mick here debate how inclusive the Church
Mick: Some years ago I was fortunate enough to holiday in
Zimbabwe. Memories of my boyhood came flooding back - the sounds and smells of
the African bush, the wide open spaces, the grass and trees and a host of other
familiar tones and shades almost beyond awareness.
The month was October, when daytime temperatures in the Zambesi valley can
rise to 45 degrees or more. The land was parched and the roads dusty. Brown,
scorched grass lay thin on the poor soil. To a casual observer it seemed that
everything was in suspended animation, waiting for the rains to come.
And yet life was everywhere in abundance, particularly around the water holes
and farm dams. Animals and insects can do with little food for a long while. But
without water they quickly die.
All this was in stark contrast to the lush, fertile green fields of England,
where I live. Here water is abundant and food plentiful - yet wild life is
scarce. Insects are few. One must go to the wilds of Scotland to be properly
bitten. Wild life is tolerated only within prescribed bounds.
The world outside the Church is like the Zambesi bush. It's beautiful yet
dangerous. Life is prescribed by death - that is the nature of things. Yet it
seethes with abundant energy, boiling and roiling with multiple life forms,
constantly alert, constantly changing, always creating.
In contrast, the Church is like the neat, manicured, engineered fields of
England where wild life is fenced in, carefully controlled. People are largely
out of touch with the life-forces upon which they depend. Anyone who doesn't
match strict entry criteria is turned away at its borders. Anything too strange
is quickly terminated.
And I ask if this is what Jesus of Nazareth began. Was he not supremely open
to life in all its untidiness, inconvenience and stubborn vitality? Can the
genuine Jesus be found in a Church which is fenced in, groomed and trimmed, its
beautiful stained glass screened against itchy-bites, its wide-open doors
policed against outcasts by grim vergers and against heretics by
Rick: After reading your beautiful and palpable description of
life in the African bush, I was inspired to tell a story of my own.
During World War II, I spent much of my summers on the farm of an aunt and
uncle. It is situated near a tiny village, Vasa, Minnesota, just twelve miles
from my home town, Red Wing. Surrounding Vasa are the properties of numerous
farmers who were either born in Sweden or were first generation
Swedish-Americans. My uncle was born in Sweden as were his siblings. My aunt was
born in the US to Swedish immigrants.
Among my most precious memories are those associated with the harvest.
Virtually all the farmers in the community worked in concert going from farm to
farm to bring in the bounty of the summer. As a young boy I enthusiastically
joined the men in the field helping to load shocks of grain on horse-drawn
wagons to bring them to the gnashing noisy thresh machine that separated straw
from the grain. I witnessed the hard working sweaty, swearing Swedes who toiled
with seeming glee over the rewards from the earth. For the most part, they spoke
Swedish to one another although all spoke perfect English. I think Jesus would
have enjoyed working with this hearty earthy crew.
In the village, the Lutheran Church stands on a promontory, its steeple
visible for miles around. It was built by the hands of the early settlers from
indigenous materials. In the cemetery that embraces the Church one finds a field
of Swedish names on markers, many indicating birth in Sweden in the late 17th
and early 18th centuries.
Although prosperity was found it was gained by hard work, sacrifice and
endurance. There is no question in my mind that the Church was a fundamental
inspiration and consolation to that immigrant community sustaining them in the
often hostile foreign environment. I doubt any of those crusty Swedes sought or
accepted gratuitous spiritual advice. When one farmer was chided by the pastor
for not attending services, he reportedly said, "It is better to be in the
field thinking about God than to be in church thinking about my crops."
Yet, most were found in the pews on Sunday morning worshiping with utter
reverence. I recall no evidence of prejudice or exclusionary behaviour amongst
them. In short, this remains an enduring example of a highly successful
Thus, when I read your lament of the Church, citing its exclusiveness,
prissiness and pettiness it was depressing to think anyone encounters such a
situation. It is foreign to me. That church of the sweaty, swearing Swedes I
experienced was celebratory, life-affirming and wholly supportive of the earthy
community it served. Obviously, our life situations have much to do in shaping
our perceptions of the Church.
Mick: Experiences differ. I hail from a country despoiled by the
British, you from one long free of colonialism. You have grown up as it were in
the bosom of the Church. I came to it as a young man. You have spent your life
in a close, familiar congregation. I spent twenty years in a completely secular
life after divorce excluded me from the Eucharist.
I question whether our experience is the main point here. Yes, it may lead us
to differing conclusions about the Church, each of us having had different
experiences of it at a local level. But the Church at large is the focus at this
I imagine it's rather like living in a small, peaceful town in South Africa
fifty years ago. Whites kept to themselves and Blacks stayed in their allotted
place. Peace reigned, and a degree of mutual respect was the order of the day,
surprising though that may seem to some.
But a person in that place had only to look up and see what it was that kept
the "peace", and everything else took on a new look.
Similarly, homogeneity of the Church at a local level preserves an appearance
of openness. A local culture of White Christians of Western origin in South
Africa gets on as well as can be. So also a local culture of Americans of
Swedish origin has a degree of harmony and apparent inclusiveness. But whatever
happens at a local level in the Church, a Christian has only to lift up his or
her eyes to see that the type of person welcomed by Jesus is excluded from its
wider fellowship. And all in the name of order, or right doctrine or some other
Rick: If I follow you correctly you seem to say that the positive
influences and experiences afforded by the local Church are nullified if there
is corruption in the leaders of the "larger" Church. That is to say,
the emotional and spiritual values offered by local church groups (no matter how
illusory you consider them) are nullified because of bad actors at the top. You
say, "…homogeneity of the Church at the local level preserves the appearance
(italics mine) of openness." Do you mean that comity between parishioners
facilitated by the Church is a sham?
Maintaining peace and mutual respect despite inequities among groups of
people is not necessarily a bad thing nor is it hypocritical to create tranquil
space for parties to dispassionately discuss their differences. It is better
than allowing a sincere and honest outpouring of rage.
I am confident that within every church body there is a "shadow
church." The shadow church is made up of those who passionately embrace the
idea of a transcendent non-material reality expressed in the rituals and
doctrines of their particular affiliation. Yet they cannot subscribe to each and
every doctrinal detail but consider that discrepancy tolerable.
Undoubtedly there are rascals in Church hierarchy as there are in all human
institutions. I have no cogent recommendations for changing that situation. I do
not, however, see why the mission of the Church must be suspended until all is
Mick: Point taken. You accurately describe the Church as it is.
I'm part of this hybrid creature. You are quite correct that, like every other
human institution, it is not homogenous. And, like the curate's egg, it's good
We are here discussing inclusiveness. I make my point again briefly. Jesus
went before us. He shattered both Jewish and Roman norms of taking in good
people and excluding the bad. We are Christians in response to him.
So what justifies exclusion? Not baptised? You can't receive communion at the
Lord's Supper. Not sexually straight? You can't be a bishop. Don't believe in
the resurrection? You are not Christian. Don't obey the Pope? You're not a
proper church. Don't speak in tongues? You're not saved. A Muslim? Go to your
I could recite instance after instance where we put God's children beyond the
Solutions for next Sunday? Open our church's doors wide to anyone and
everyone. Sit next to the smelly, mad bag lady. Watch masculine gay men kiss and
then receive the bread and wine. Vote for a lesbian to be bishop because she's
the best person for the job. Welcome the scared paedophile with open arms, deep
understanding and massive support. Rejoice in racial and cultural difference.
Invite our Muslim neighbour to share every aspect of our fellowship. Go to the
Buddhist for guidance in meditation and spirituality. Be poor to give to the
But there is a problem: All these people recognise at a deep emotional level
that many Christians - and I'm one of them - preach one thing and do another.
"Go into the highways and byways - but don't bring anyone in here who
doesn't meet our standards." So they're not likely to darken our doorway
Rick: The discussion of inclusiveness inevitably involves a
discussion of prejudice. In this context I define prejudice as
pre-judging, making quick evaluations with meagre and incomplete information.
Prejudice is a primitive, normal human defence mechanism analogous to our
biologic immune systems. Prejudice is instinctively aroused by confrontation
with new and potentially threatening situations that may cause an alteration of
the status quo (homeostasis in biologic systems). If the reaction of the
immune system is inappropriate or excessive, great harm may result. Similarly,
if prejudice is unenlightened and extreme, we all know what that can do to
interpersonal relationships and society at large.
Encountering an unshaven, staggering male in a dark alley will probably cause
fear and avoidance. A more critical evaluation may disclose a homeless diabetic
who desperately needs medical attention. We should all automatically inspect our
prejudices for their authenticity. When more information is gained, our actions
precipitated by our prejudice, can be modified or completely overridden.
Members of a church live in two worlds, one of the spiritual, the other of
civil society. Each world has its own set of rules that may be congruent or
divergent. These rules are established to maintain the stability and integrity
of each community. The rules can be changed but it is natural for institutions
and people to prefer gradualism and conservatism to avoid chaos and the
inconvenient or unnecessary disruption of their missions.
Some rules may not be amenable to change in the eyes of many if not most of
the constituents. I doubt many with common sense would deliberately invite a
murderer-rapist into the parlour of his home with his daughters and wife. Nor do
I think the victims and parents of victims of paedophilia have an obligation to
shield the perpetrators from the consequences of civil or ecclesiastical
sanctions. Our freedoms are often pre-empted by the rules of society and the
church. It cannot be avoided.
We must all be aware of our prejudices and reflexively analyze each one for
their authenticity and potential for harm. Where they are pernicious, redress
and change may be necessary for the good of society and the church. Such change,
however, ought to be sought with patience and civility if it is to be effective