Inclusive, Confident, Faithful

A Response to Rowan Williams

by Steven Shakespeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard

from Signs of the Times, No. 24 - Jan 2007

In a recent interview with the Dutch press, Archbishop Rowan Williams was quoted as follows: 'I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself. Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: 'You can come in, and that decision will change you'. We don't say: 'Come in and we ask no questions'. (Nederlands Dagblad, 19/8/06).

As ever, any subtlety in the Archbishop's point was lost in its translation into the language of the media. The headline over the interview simply read: 'The Church Is Not Inclusive.'

It's tempting to dismiss this as yet another symptom of the depressing state of affairs in our churches at the moment. We are locked in internal debates. The 'liberal' or 'inclusive' voice is dismissed as an innovation, or even attacked as a heresy of the decadent Western world. Church leaders feel the pinch. They get pushed into ever more confined and conservative positions. And all the time, the image given to the world is of closed doors. The observer might be forced to agree: the Church is not inclusive.

Increasingly, however, supporters of an inclusive church are not lying back and thinking of John Robinson. They are finding a confident, contemporary voice. The strength of that voice comes from a real engagement with the heart and soul of the Christian tradition.

So when we read Rowan Williams' comments, we have to offer more than hand-wringing and despair. We first need to address the concerns he raises by saying loud and clear that inclusion is not about a flabby tolerance which has no convictions and no cutting edge. No: Christian inclusion is the shape of Christian life and community. It is rooted in the openness of Jesus to all who wished to eat with him. It is therefore a challenging and costly path to walk. The Archbishop is right to say that Christianity calls us to conversion. But Christian inclusiveness does not shirk this. Our lives are transformed because we overcome the fear, guilt and prejudice which underpin exclusion.

The second thing we should do is offer a compelling account of why inclusion is woven into the very texture of Christian theology. Dry rationalism is not enough. Nor is a dismissive attitude to the stories and imagery of the Christian tradition going to get us very far. We need to connect people with the inclusive pulse of Christian life.

That means making some big claims. Inclusion is living truth, not just a modern fad. Inclusion is faithful to the Bible, which is a living tapestry of voices and experiences in which God's people learn to abandon idols and embrace the stranger. It cannot be reduced to a collection of laws reflecting our own cultural prejudices. Inclusion is faithful to the way God is revealed. Christians don't follow an abstract truth, but a truth fleshed out in Jesus, who creates a new kind of community, inherently open to the Other. Jesus even faces and overcomes the ultimate exclusive barrier of death itself. He shows that we don't need to offer people as sacrifices and scapegoats to enjoy friendship with God.

An inclusive Church, then, is not a soft option. It is, ultimately, faithful to the nature of God. In contrast, fundamentalist forms of religion are unfaithful. They do not read the Bible attentively, or take revelation seriously. They impose on God their own ideas about truth and certainty. The God who is Trinity - infinite love in ceaseless relationship - refuses to be pressed into these ready-made moulds. Liberals need to recover their confidence in this authentic Christian tradition.

So much opposition to the full participation of women, gays and lesbians in the Church is driven by a weak and insecure theology, which does not have the courage of its Christian convictions. We are easily tempted to substitute a faith based on the messiness of revelation for one based on man-made conventions about nature, power and purity.

Some of the most searching challenges in Christian mission have come from those who have been on the receiving end of such abuses. They point out the limitations and hidden violence of our communities. We need to be reminded that, without these voices we cannot do inclusive theology at all. The 'how' of theology needs to be as open and alive as the 'what'. Our life does not consist of fixed positions, but of relationships, story, and a faithfulness that has to be worked out in the middle of time and change. After all, doesn't the church proclaim a God who meets us on the way, in the heart of the world and its history? Those who have found liberation in this encounter can teach us the real meaning of conversion: not joining a club, but tasting fullness of life.

So we contend that inclusion is embedded at the heart of the Christian enterprise. It is not a watery 'welcome', a limp handshake which leaves the church untroubled in its fortress mentality. True inclusion is the Christian value par excellence. And it isn't the church's possession. It is the gift of a new creation.