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Becoming an Inclusive Church

The press has been busy in the last week! Not with the news that the PCC at St Andrew’s Church in Bedford has voted to join the Inclusive Church network, but that a leaked report suggested that the Bishops in the Church of England may propose to allow some form of same-sex blessings in church.

However this was not on the agenda of last week’s PCC. The PCC was tasked with listening to and discussing a presentation on what it means to be an Inclusive Church.

The presentation opened with Sheila Bissell reading from Psalm 139 v14: “I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way. What you have done is wonderful. I know this very well.”

She commented that a family should be where we can grow up feeling loved as we are, with no need to pretend to be anything other than ourselves. We discover and understand more about how wonderfully made we are as we grow. Church is God's family on Earth - when people enter church, they hope to feel the welcome and security to be who they are - made by God wonderfully and uniquely.

That uniqueness is expressed in how we look, move, speak, dress, behave, associate with, and show affection to. A welcoming and inclusive church enables people to be seen and loved for who they are, supports their mental wellbeing and creates space for healing from harm, discrimination, and trauma

Sheila was elected to General Synod as a candidate of Inclusive Church by the electors of St. Albans Diocese. Inclusive Church is committed to equality, at all levels and roles within the church regardless of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality. At present there are 150 members of General Synod, both clergy and laity who support Inclusive Church, roughly a third of the total. Together they are working at Synod to ensure the Church of England encourages parishes become safer places for conversation and connection, welcoming new people of all ages into a growing church.

Jenny Tomlinson then went on to explain what joining inclusive church involved. She reminded PCC that in our Parish Profile, written in late 2020 to ‘sell’ our parish to a prospective Vicar, we talked about aspiring to be an inclusive church (small i and small c). We meant what we wrote without, perhaps, knowing exactly what it involved!

Inclusive Church is a charity, supporting a network of churches who are wanting to “explore what it means to be ‘inclusive’ in today’s church”.

The Inclusive Church Values Statement is challenging:

“We believe in inclusive church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate.

We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality.

We believe in a 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.”

Inclusive Church has written a book series. Each book is written by experts in their field and includes first-hand personal experiences of people who have felt excluded. A theological section and a resource section are also included.

Jenny highlighted an Inclusive Church booklet, exploring discrimination on grounds of disability, and quoted from the introduction of this book:

“Hospitality is not an optional extra in the Christian life. It is non-negotiable. Jesus calls us to step into the unknown and welcome others - their place at the table is essential”.

A few of us from St. Andrew’s attended the Living in Love and Faith Zoom course hosted by St. Paul’s. It covered identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage. Over 5 weeks we listened, discussed, learnt and explored different aspects. The culmination of all the courses’ feedback resulted in this publication: Listening with Love and Faith. It’s a very powerful and detailed account of the views of people who took part.

Ian Riches closed the presentation by highlighting the work that St. Andrew’s has already done on this topic. We had an inclusive church study group in the autumn which chose to look at the area of sexuality.

Different people led us through many of the relevant bible passages. This study showed that it is far from certain that these passages prohibit loving, committed same-sex relationships, and that there is strong evidence that instead they speak of matters such as abusive relationships, lack of hospitality and temple prostitution.

There was no unanimity of view – but what was heartening was the spirit of openness and acceptance that characterised our discussions.

Ian then gave a personal testimony as to why he thinks this is so important. He and Caroline have spent the previous 30 years at another church in the town, before moving to St. Andrews. The theology of that previous church could perhaps be summarised as “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and physical expressions of same-sex love were indeed seen as sin. That meant that although gay people would be welcomed if they attended, there was no path to full inclusion in the church family unless they renounced any chance of a physical relationship. The end result was no openly gay people in the church.

Ian expressed his love for scripture, and that good theology should bring life! It should release people to be who they were created to be. Unfortunately, that’s not the result that he saw from the traditional teachings. Instead, people were harmed by effectively being told to choose between God and a loving relationship.

Through a long process of prayer, biblical reflection and talking to wise friends, Ian stated that he now believes that there is no way to be “halfway” affirming as a church. You either fully accept people as they are, or you don’t. The church therefore needs more inclusive spaces, places where people know they will be safe, be loved, and not asked to change who God made them to be.

He concluded by stating that signing up to the Inclusive Church statement and going on their register would be an important step in St. Andrews becoming such a space.

After a short group discussion, Lucy invited all those present to indicate the strength of their commitment to joining the inclusive church network. The PCC was whole hearted and unanimous in its decision, and St. Andrew’s church will thus shortly be signed up!

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