A presentation to the Parochial Church Council of Cobham, Surrey

Let me read Luke 15, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, to you.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

There can be little argument that Jesus was ‘inclusive’ – with a small ‘i’. He was happy to eat with tax-gatherers and sinners; he healed people so marginal that we don’t know their names, but we know only what was wrong with them – they were dumb, or suffering from haemorrhages, or lame, or suffering from leprosy. He was kind to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, and his most famous parable had as its hero another Samaritan – those people the Jews didn’t have anything to do with.

So you may say that it’s a no-brainer that a church, any church, is almost by definition ‘inclusive’ – and we would say that about St Andrew’s, I’m sure. Why then should we sign up to an organisation, a pressure group, called Inclusive Church, capital I and capital C?

Inclusive Church has a ‘statement of belief’ which says,

‘We believe in … [a] …. 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.’

So far, surely, so uncontroversial. But, you might say, isn’t IC really a lobby group for some things that some people, even some people in our church, perhaps, are against, such as gay marriage? If St Andrew’s affiliated to IC, wouldn’t that be a sign that we were supporting those controversial ideas?

I have met and listened to the chair of IC, who is the new Dean of Guildford, Dianna Gwilliams, and I’m convinced that this is not the case. The reason is that IC is not about this or that form of theology or biblical interpretation. It is about people. IC is all about making all types of people welcome, that is, included, in the church. IC does subscribe to a number of groups within the church, and some of them are actually opposed to each other. IC says that they ‘work with, among others, the Association of Black Clergy, Women and the Church, the Group for the Rescinding of the Act of Synod, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Changing Attitude, Affirming Catholicism, the Society of Catholic Priests, Accepting Evangelicals, Courage, Modern Church, Progressive Christianity Network and Integrity (US).’ Not all of these see eye to eye with each other!

What is much closer to the mission of IC is the welcome which the church should have for all people. I’ll read you what Dr Martyn Percy, the head of Cuddesdon theological college, said in his Inclusive Church Lecture at Southwark Cathedral last summer.

“We often assume that the two fundamental problems confronting humanity are death and well-being … In other words, we do all we can to avoid ourselves, our communities and our churches declining; and do all we can to encourage growth.
But I think the heart of the gospel tells us that the main problem might be something different: alienation. Or perhaps put more sharply and pastorally, loneliness. Our isolation from each other, and from God, is the fundamental problem.

This is how R S Thomas puts it in his poem, ‘The Word’:

A Pen appeared, and the god said: ‘write what it is to be
Man.’ And my hand hovered
Long over the page,
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’”

Abide, abide with me, is the message of Jesus, and it should be the message of the church. Be like the lost sheep, come back to the fold. Well OK, you might say. We do welcome anyone. No need to join an organisation about it.

But I say that we don’t do it publicly enough, demonstrably enough. If I were gay or lesbian, or mentally impaired, or disabled, or very poor – perhaps on the streets – what might I think, when I came up to the door of our church?

Just think how many newspaper articles and TV interviews there have been about things where the church in general isn’t, or hasn’t been, welcoming, inclusive.

IC started as a reaction to the way that the top theologian and brilliant pastor, the Revd Dr Jeffrey John, was forced out of his appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003, because he is gay.

On Desert Island Discs the other day, the famous church historian, Prof. Sir Diarmaid McCulloch, the son of a vicar, who has been a faithful Christian all his life, told how he was allowed by the Bishop of Bristol to train for the ministry, (although the Bishop’s Advisory Panel didn’t think he ought to be allowed to,) and he was ordained Deacon – but then he was blocked from being ordained priest: all because he is openly gay.

Or what about the question of women bishops? It has taken the church forever to ordain women as ministers, and it’s only this year that we might finally have the first women bishops. But what must it look like from the outside? It looks as though our church is shot through with misogyny. It looks as though, in places at least, the Church of England doesn’t really like women.

There’s nothing outside, no public sign, to say that we aren’t like that. So our person on the outside, looking in, may well be put off. It would be understandable – never mind if it was ultimately right or not – if they said that the church didn’t look inclusive: indeed, if you fell into certain categories, it might seem to be actually exclusive.

Now this is where I think there is merit in drawing attention to ourselves. There’s a business school story about two milkmen, whose milk rounds overlapped some roads, so they were in competition. They both delivered every day: but one of them put a big sign on his milk float, ‘I DELIVER MILK EVERY MORNING’. And he doubled his sales. Customers came to him. He made it absolutely clear that he had what they wanted.

I think that, if we joined IC, it would have a similar effect. The person who is a bit marginal, for whatever reason, would no longer be in any doubt whether they would be welcome. ‘We are part of Inclusive Church. YOU ARE WELCOME’, the sign outside the church would say. You are definitely welcome, because we are committed, publicly committed, to making you welcome.

I think that joining Inclusive Church ought to be central to our mission – to our vision. I really hope you will support it. Think of that lonely bod, hesitating outside.

Hugh Bryant
29th January 2014 – at the meeting, only one person agreed. The overwhelming majority said, ‘We are inclusive. No need to join Inclusive Church.’