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Interview: Bob Callaghan national co-ordinator, Inclusive Church

06 February 2015

'I wish that church leaders had more time to pray'

I often have to say to people: "it's more than just about the gay thing."

From its beginning, Inclusive Church identified a number of key areas where exclusion from church may be experienced. This does include sexuality, but also disability, mental-health issues, poverty, gender, and ethnicity. Many of the people we deal with are hanging on to church by their fingertips, because of the way they have been treated.

Inclusive Church is a charity created just over ten years ago. At its heart, Inclusive Church sees inclusion as a gospel imperative, and at the heart of what it means to be Anglican. Although all churches would claim to be welcoming, we encounter too many people whose experience of church is far from that.

The job of co-ordinator involves organising the members who sign up with us, working with our volunteers to make sure that our presence in social media and on the web is good - now much more important than it ever was; supporting individuals and parishes; talking to deanery synods; going to events like Greenbelt, General Synod, LGBT Pride events, Mental Health Day, Disability Awareness Day, and events that dioceses may run through our contacts there.

The membership of Inclusive Church comprises individuals and churches from a number of denominations and none. Our purpose is to provide a network of churches where people know they will receive a welcome and a safe place. It provides hope for people who feel alienated by the Church. Second, is the way it reminds the wider Church that these issues are important. Part of our work is to speak truth to power.

Part of the decision to apply for this post came from my experience as a gay man in a civil partnership. Although I worked in very supportive churches, there was always the need to be prudent with the truth about my personal life. Working for Inclusive Church has allowed me to be fully open in a way that I know some other clergy in a similar situation can't be.

I came to faith as a teenager, through the ministry of Hugh Maddox, who came to be Rector of Sandwich in Kent. Previously he been curate at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and so brought to us a real sense of the gospel being relevant to social action and justice. In many ways, my spirituality is still rooted in a God who has a heart for the excluded.

I have a card in my Bible from someone who wrote to thank me for helping them to know Jesus better. In many ways, that's the stuff of being a parish priest, or should be. Helping people grow in faith is a real privilege. In slightly more measurable terms, I suppose I'm proud of the fact that, while incumbent in Dartford, we managed the remarkable feat of bulldozing the parish church and vicarage and rebuilding it as a Healthy Living Centre. It took nearly 20 years, but was quite an achievement for all involved.

Currently, my main project at Inclusive Church is a book project in partnership with Darton, Longman & Todd. I'm the series editor of six resource books about the core issues of exclusion that we are involved with. There are 42 contributors in total. The books are being published in pairs: Disability, Mental Health, Sexuality, and Poverty have been published. The books on Gender and Ethnicity will be published this spring.

I've been particularly touched by our work on mental health and disability. Whenever I go out to preach about Inclusive Church, someone always comes up to me afterwards to thank me for mentioning mental-health issues. They share their own experiences, and say it's the first time they have heard it mentioned.

I've come to a whole new realisation about how difficult and complex the needs of those who are disabled can be. We assume that if we have a ramp and a hearing loop we can tick the disability box. But if you need a carer, for example, you're not able to be up and out very early. No way are you going to be able to get to church by 9.30 in the morning.

We've run three conferences at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and a young girl called Sarah came. She had to courier her special chair into the conference the day before, and courier it back the day after. She's young, vibrant, intelligent, wants to be involved. . . I hadn't seen that world of disability, but I get it now.

A lot of disabled people are quite isolated, but a lot are using the internet and blogging. Getting to know your local carers' networks helps you find out where disabled people are. Have conversations with them, ask them how they would want to access the church for carol services, weddings, and funerals. How can we make it better, even if they don't want to access church on every single Sunday?

If I'm not visiting a church on behalf of Inclusive Church, I'm able to go as an ordinary member of the congregation. In two churches I covered yesterday - 20 in one, 40 in the other - I was by far the youngest. If you're an ageing congregation looking after wonderful listed buildings, a small group of older people whose energies are needed for keeping the show on the road, there's less time to sit and pray and discern what God wants. There's very little energy and time to grow the church and draw younger people in.

The institution hasn't realised that life is more complicated than in 1952. It still runs on the assumption that people are having their tea at 5.30, and available to come to meetings at 7.30. It's a big shift, and no one knows how to turn it round. So they keep on going as if nothing is different.

If clergy are not modelling an appropriate way to manage time, how do we help our congregations? The internet has changed our working patterns over the past ten years, but we haven't worked out how to use these well.

I wish that church leaders had more time to pray, to reflect on where God may be leading the Church in the future.

I've just read A Theology of Gender by Rosemary Lain-Priestley. Some of the statistics she outlined made me angry. Women comprise half the world's population, and yet represent 70 per cent of the world's poor. They do 75 per cent of the world's agricultural work, but own only one per cent of the land.

Part of what makes me angry is the way in which the Church as an institution is partly responsible for such discrimination.

It's been interesting to see how people have been reacting to Pope Francis's ministry. There seems to be a genuine openness to his affirming of the poor. I think people want the Church to be a place that is open and accepting.

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal have both been important for me. These are both books about returning and coming home to God.

I grew up very happily in east Kent, in Sandwich. It's a beautiful medieval town, and one of the Cinque Ports. I now live in Gloucestershire with Alan, my partner of 22 years, and our dog, a rescued German Shepherd called Cruz, named, we think, after one of the Beckhams' children.

Churches could learn a lot from the welcome you get in a gym. Twice a week I go to a spin class. This is a high-energy, cardio exercise class using indoor cycling. Loud dance music, disco lights, and Lycra - it's so different to many of the things that I do as a priest.

I'm a firm believer in never telling God your plans. I'm open to where God may be leading me in the future as I reflect on my calling as a priest.

I'm a list person; so I am happy when everything on my weekly "to do" list is crossed off.

Something that we both treasure is the novelty of having free evenings. Alan was a teacher; so he used to be working each evening, and I usually had parish meetings. We're happy at the end of the day to sit down with a gin and tonic, cook a meal together, and have an evening in - unless, of course, it's spin-class night.

I pray daily, and try to maintain some sort of order to my prayer life by using the Daily Office. I pray for people, specially for my cell group, being very aware that the others in my cell group are all incumbents and incredibly busy. They need prayer. I pray for the trustees of Inclusive Church, and for particular friends. Having moved to Gloucestershire, I've been able to settle into local church life a little, which gives me a Christian community to be part of.

It would be interesting to be locked in a church with Justin Welby. Before his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury, he said in a radio interview that he would like the Church to be "incredibly inclusive". I'd like to use the opportunity to share with him something of what my experience of the Church has been.

The Revd Bob Callaghan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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