November 22, 2010

Inclusion as the Church's Identity

An address to the Welcoming Church Workshop
at St Ann’s in the Bronx, November 20, 2010
by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

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Depending on how you define it, inclusion is central to the human experience and the Christian faith. People want to belong, they want to love and to be loved. They know that they are more together than they are apart from each other.

This concept is so central to theology that it is enshrined in the second creation account in those famous words, “it is not good for the human to be alone.” And the point of that story, by the way, is not that every man needs a woman — after all, God made the animals first as companions for Adam and it was only when they proved insufficient that God took the next step of making another human being: it is Eve’s likeness to Adam, not her difference from him, that makes her the one best suited to be his partner. Clearly the contrast between Eve and the animals is not about gender but humanity.

People, as the song assures us, who need people, are the luckiest people in the world. And this goes for everybody — it isn’t about theology but about human psychology. People need people.

Where this moves into conscious theological discussion is when we look at the nature of the community we call the church. And the central point I want to make about that community of the church has to do with the fact that it is a community with boundaries. Not everyone is a member of the church — even if defined at its widest, and as Episcopalians have long seen it, as the company of all faithful people — all baptized persons, as the Outline of the Faith, the Catechism, puts it. It is something into which one is welcomed and baptized. No one is born a Christian, no one is naturally a member of the church; in fact the church is unnatural! Ironically, the false charge leveled by some Christian conservatives against GLBT persons — that we aren’t born that way and so we have to recruit — that false charge is actually true of the church. The church has to recruit — or it will die. No one is born a Christian, but anyone can become one. As Archbishop William Temple said many years ago, the church is an institution that exists for the benefit of those not yet its members.

The tragedy of course — and the reason we are here today — lies in the fact that the church so often, all too often, rather than opening its doors in a radical welcome, slams those doors in peoples’ faces when it judges that they do not measure up.

Well, let me just say that the church is not intended to be a posh nightclub with a stern guard at the door who only lets those in who seem most fashionable and likely to liven up the place and spend big bucks. The church is the body of Christ, for God’s sake — not a private club. I take my cue for this from the powerful words in the epistle of James:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
Substitute sexual orientation for dress code and you will see what I mean — it simply isn’t the church’s job to judge or exclude. It is the church’s task to grow by addition, by welcome and inclusion of any and all — and further, not to be content merely with those who happen to wander through the front door, perhaps having seen the sign that says that “all are welcome” and are not made to feel too terribly uncomfortable, or told to sit at the back of the bus. No the church — which is the people, not the building — actually needs to go out through those doors in mission — on mission, God’s mission — and let the world know that there is here to be found a place of hope and joy and above all fellowship — a place where no one is alone because they are joined as members one to another as the body of Christ.

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This language of membership is nowhere so well expressed as in the writings of Saint Paul. Now, I know that the name of Paul is one that can raise reservations in the hearts of LGBT people, myself included. But he still proclaims a powerful truth, in his imagery of the church as a body with many members. He goes on at length about this in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, but I want to close with his reflection on the subject in Ephesians.

In this very theological letter Paul is dealing with the mystery of inclusion, the great mystery of membership, and how many can be one.He calls this “the mystery hidden in God who created all things so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known...”(Eph 3:9-10) “Rich variety” — I am reminded of the fact that after the flood, when God wanted to set his name in the sky as a sign of an everlasting covenant not to destroy, that God chose the rainbow. God knows his logos!

Paul goes on to define how it is that through the power of God at work in the world the many can be one, the variety remaining various, but joined in one in an organic way in which unity does not equal uniformity, and in which the dignity of every person is respected and enhanced through the gift of loving service one to another.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:4-7)
Note how the language moves from one, one, one to all, all, all but ends with each. By means of inclusion, by being included, by becoming a member — not by birth but by adoption — each human being enters the church in response to God’s call, to joining the one body through the one baptism under the watchful care of the One who is above, through and in all. But the “eachness” of each of the members does not disappear upon inclusion.

Inclusion does not mean creating either a stew in which all the ingredients lose their identity, nor a string of identical sausages, but something more like one of those fancy dishes you see on the shows on the Food Network, with multiple ingredients playing off each other in a dynamic combination. (The church is really gay!) We, the church, are a rare dish indeed, and we are impoverished if we restrict which ingredients we allow.

Ultimately, inclusion means not excluding — it is as simple as that. And woe to the church that sets itself up to exclude — it has cut itself off from its life; it has, in the long run, cut itself off from the gifts of God and the people of God, that is, the many potential people of God against whom, by its exclusion or bigotry or judgment or even misguided theology, it has closed the door.

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But enough gloominess — we are here to open the doors; and I assure you that the Spirit at work in us all will break them down if those in power do not open them. God’s will in creation is that we not be alone, and God’s will will be done.+


Michael Cudney said...

Thank you, Tobias. It was a wonderful talk, and I'm happy to have heard it. The workshop was terrific with lots of engaged conversation and fellowship. Thank you for being there.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Michael.

Meanwhile, a gentleman with too much time on his hands (or not enough) attempted to post a boilerplate comment in defense of the thesis that the Roman Catholic Church is the One True Church of Christ, and that "Protestants" are "amputated" from it and hence incapable of living. I mention this simply for the record, as I rarely refuse comments.