LAST MONTH I gave a reflection at St John’s United Reformed Church in Warrington, the home of the first gathering of Open Table outside Liverpool, which began in July 2015, seven years after the Liverpool community first met.
My reflection, adapted here, was inspired by a blog post I wrote in September 2013 on the tenth anniversary of Inclusive Church, an educational charity founded in 2003 which works with churches of different denominations encouraging them to explore ways in which they may become more inclusive.
The reason I chose this is that this blog post, called ‘What Does It Mean To Be An Inclusive Church?’ has been one of the most read articles on my website. In the last few months of 2013 it was read 94 times, 93 times in the whole of 2014, 47 times in 2015, then 155 times in 2016 and more than 100 times since the start of 2017, so it looks like this year will break the record!
It seems this is an idea whose time has come, and that the Spirit is moving us towards greater understanding of our diversity and our shared identity as beloved children of God, who calls us to fullness of life through infinite, unconditional, intimate love, to come as we are and be all that we are called to be.
The story of Open Table reflects this movement of the Spirit. Around six of us gathered in June 2008 at St Bride’s Liverpool to create a safe sacred space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning Christians and all who believe in a more inclusive Church. Little did we know then that in July 2015, forty of us would gather with the Bishop of Liverpool to celebrate seven years of this ecumenical worship community, and that in March 2016 my husband and I would be commissioned by the Archdeacon of Liverpool as Local Missional Leaders for the Open Table community.
Meanwhile in July 2015 St John’s URC Warrington joined the Open Table family, followed by communities in Manchester and North Wales. In July 2016 we gathered in Warrington to share our vision and values – within three months of that meeting the number of Open Table communities had doubled to eight, including St Helen’s, Wigan, Stoke and London. The ninth Open Table community launched in the North East in March this year, and the tenth in Sefton will start in June. The number of enquiries from other churches has also grown – we have had contact with 21 other churches – 11 of these within the last three months!
On Saturday 1st April in London we told the story of Open Table at a networking event for leaders of LGBT+ affirming faith communities organised by OneBodyOnefaith (formerly the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement), and received another expression of interest plus publicity which may lead to more.
So what does it mean to be an inclusive church?
In September 2013, the church where my husband and I worship together celebrated Inclusive Church Sunday. Despite major building work which unexpectedly revealed the presence of asbestos, and restricted access to the building during the week, the doors opened for a programme of special events to mark the occasion led by Rev Bob Callaghan, the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church.
Inclusive Church is a group of Christians uniting together around our statement of belief:
We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.
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 launched in London at a service attended by more than 400 people. It has developed into a network of individuals and organizations which celebrate the inclusivity and diversity of humanity in our Christian communities.
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?
Let’s see what the Good News, or Gospel, of Jesus has to say about it.
The gospel reading we heard on that first Inclusive Church Sunday in 2013 (Luke 15:1-10) included two stories with a message, or parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin.
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 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 she is found.
This as the 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’ or worse, ‘Come and be like us’?
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. This is 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.
The English word ‘parish’ comes from the Greek παροικία (paroikia), which means ‘sojourning’, ‘dwelling in a strange land’, from root words meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘house’. Many Churches today seem more interested in defining boundaries around who’s out and who’s in than in reaching beyond their comfort zone to meet those who do not come within its walls. This is the challenge of 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, male and female, straight and gay, 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’.
This photo (right) which I took on that first Inclusive Church Sunday shows the Inclusive Church banner in front of the main entrance to St Bride’s church which, at the time we hosted that event, was blocked due to building work to remove hazardous asbestos.
The contrast between the two signs, one inviting all to come in, the other warning all to keep out, seemed like an apt reflection of many people’s 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 had to be completed. So, for our church community to become more inclusive, we must examine our own prejudices and expose 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.
As the community of Open Table, reflecting on God rejoicing over each and every one of us can be particularly moving, as many LGBT+ people are not accustomed to hearing words of affirmation from church leaders, or experiencing God’s unconditional love through their ministry.
As people who have found a safe sacred space to come as we are, let’s pray for that outpouring of the Spirit, that our communities may offer outrageous hospitality and radical welcome beyond the boundaries for those on the margins who fear they are not, or could never be included.
I’ll end with words taken from members of Open Table communities about what being welcomed and included means to them:
Open Table has helped me believe
my sexuality and faith can co-exist.
It has brought me closer to God,
given me the space to practice my faith.
It helps me to think about God differently.
It is a gateway for people back into church.
Bridging the gap between faith and religion,
My queer self and my Christian self,
A place of freedom and acceptance,
A sense of inner peace.