Since the autumn, Revive have dedicated their teaching evenings to conversations about inclusivity, taking the categories identified by Inclusive Church as a starting point, but adding age and dividing gender into identity and equality.
We invited a series of speakers to come and talk from their own experience, to open our eyes to the stories of those who have traditionally or historically been excluded by churches, and to start us thinking about how we can better love and affirm those who have been hurt and rejected.
We grounded our conversations in experience because this is not a purely academic issue, but has a very real impact on the way we live out our call to love one another. Of course the stories we have heard are only a handful among many, and if they tell us anything at all it should be that we must seriously commit to listening to the other and coming to know them as individuals made in the image of God.
What follows is a very brief summary of what each of our speakers brought to our meetings. It would have been impossible to accurately represent the whole conversation, but hopefully this will spark some memories and lead to some new trains of thought.
Andy and Alan are a couple whose home has become something of a sanctuary for members of the local LGBTQ community. They shared their mixed experiences of growing up in churches as young gay men, with stories of both rejection and embrace. Alan’s response to being told that we were looking at what it meant to be an inclusive church was along the lines of ‘so they’ve decided to find out what it means to be church’, challenging us to recognise that inclusivity is in the fabric of who and what we are called to be.
Helen is a trans rights campaigner who was one of the founders of Trans Media Watch. She and her wife shared the story of Helen’s transition, including some incredibly damaging experiences of church. She used a spectrum from ‘Barbie’ to ‘Action Man’ to demonstrate that none of us fit neatly into boxes, calling us to widen and nuance our understanding of identity.
Leigh is Revive’s minister in training and finds herself in a minority as a woman in ministry. She shared her positive experience of growing up in a church that actively encouraged female ministry, and her hurt at watching the debate over women bishops in the Church of England. She noted that while Revive does value women and affirm their ministry, we will still encounter those who hold or are held back by other views. She confessed that she has become deaf to those who oppress women in the church, and asked if she should unplug her ears and engage in the conversation. She also raised the questions of how men are included in church, as women are increasingly in the majority in the congregations, and statistics concerning male mental health suggest that the church is not adequately providing a place of emotional and spiritual safety.
Glen is co-principal of a Baptist college and was previously a minister in a former mining community. He talked about God’s heart for ‘the least of these’, the poor and the homeless who Jesus identifies with in Matthew 25:31-46. He also challenged us to think about why we are seeking to be more inclusive, and what impact greater inclusivity would have on our community.
Leigh is (still!) Revive’s minister in training and she has a history of mental illness. She shared her experience of depression as a child and anxiety as a teenager, and her belief that God was working out an ongoing healing in her life. She suggested that we need a more nuanced understanding of healing, which sees God in coping as well and in cure, and recognises that God works through medication and management as well as through miracles. She also talked about the need to be a community of care and hold space in which it is safe to be vulnerable.
Simon is Revive’s founding minister who has experience of ministry across a span of age ranges. Simon got us thinking about ways in which we had felt excluded because of our age, encouraging us to thinks about our different needs and expectations at different stages of life. He talked about the way in which spiritual experience seems to be educated out of us in our middle years, so that children and the elderly have a particular gift of spirituality to give to the church.
Gill and Harland have recently returned from Peru where they served for several years with BMS World Mission. Unfortunately they were unable to make the meeting due to illness, but Simon and Leigh were able to draw on previous conversations with them so that we were still able to explore this issue. Leigh talked about some of the cultural values and assumptions that shape us but threaten to exclude others, and Simon spoke about how the story of Pentecost expresses God’s desire to draw all people together without destroying difference. Simon also shared Gill and Harland’s observation that embracing different ethnicities will mean contending with different theologies.
Sally holds a number of roles in Baptist life and has a particular interest in the theology of disability as her daughter has complex and profound disabilities. She challenged us with the fact that people with disabilities are the largest unreached people group, and used the parable of the great banquet as a picture of God seeking out and drawing in those with disabilities just as they are. She also talked about the importance of lament and adjusting expectations when faced with disability, and shared that research suggests relationship is more significant than access when it comes to inclusivity.
To quote Sally, inclusivity means creating a space where everyone can contribute equally, and that will mean rethinking everything. That might seem an overwhelming task, but it begins with a desire to talk openly and to love freely, and that is perhaps not so frightening.
This image is of a statue outside Coventry Cathedral, which has dedicated itself to dialogue and reconciliation since it was bombed during the Second World War.