A change of battle cry

09 August 2019

There is a place for lament, but inclusive theology needs to prepare for heaven, says Sam Wells

ALAMY

The model Hilary Lintow with Chinese Cloth by Bridget Cox, BP Portrait Award 2019

The model Hilary Lintow with Chinese Cloth by Bridget Cox, BP Portrait Award 2019

I HAVE a simple agenda: I want to change the question that we’re all asking. I say “we” and “all”, because my sense is that those who advocate the inclusive-church agenda and those who most vehemently oppose it are currently asking the same question, and the reason they are at odds is because they are giving different answers.

My counsel to those who are glad to bear the epithet “inclusive” is not to shout their answer louder or longer than the opposition, or give examples of the pain and suffering that the opposing answer has caused, or suggest that the arc of history bends towards their position, and thereby win the argument; it is, instead, to ask a different question. A similar question — but a subtly different question. I believe that, if we get the question right, the answer and the argument will largely look after themselves.

THE great debates of our day aren’t fundamentally about human rights, or economic benefits, or legitimate migration, or coarsening public discourse: they’re about profound identity, deep belonging, and about how we each can find a balance between securing our own sense of who we are, and appreciating and encouraging the flourishing of those whose identity and belonging is different from our own.

It is into this context that St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, speaks some powerful words. In the midst of controversy over the person of Jesus Christ and over what kind of lifestyle was faithful to his legacy, St Paul announces a revolution in our notions of identity and belonging. He says: “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3.20).

I want to pause for a moment to recognise how transformational those words really are. Paul literally shifts the centre of the universe, from this existence and our daily reality to the realm of essence, the things that last forever, the habitation of God and of those whom God has called to share the life of eternity.

Rather than earth’s being the source and testing ground of truth and coherence, the measure of all things becomes heaven. When we are assessing whether something is right or wrong, the question now is: does it stand the test of eternity? Will it abide with God for ever, or does it belong to the world that is passing away?

CONSIDER the cliché of our time: “I hear where you’re coming from.” When we’re confronted with a disputatious work colleague or an enervating in-law or a troublesome fellow passenger on a bus, and we have the will to come alongside them but still somehow win the argument, we say, with a hint of understanding perceptible within our weariness, “Look, mate, I see where you’re coming from. . . ” and then we show that we really do appreciate what’s making them act in this exasperating way.

But there’s always a “but”, and, sure enough, after a short or long time, we eventually say, “But see what it looks like for me,” sometimes adding an indefinite number of people around me or like me — clearly the vast majority, disadvantaged or distressed by our interlocutor’s behaviour — and we subtly suggest that our perspective is better, wiser, more comprehensive and more authoritative, and must prevail. You could say that that’s our cultural problem today: we’re not really hearing where the other person is coming from.

ALAMYThe winner of the first prize in the BP Portrait Award, Charlie Schaffer, with his portrait Imara in her Winter Coat. The exhibition runs from 13 June to 20 October 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery

But Paul takes this kind of argument and spins it around 180 degrees. By saying that we’re citizens of heaven, he is saying: “It’s not finally about where you’re coming from — it’s about where you’re going.” See what a colossal transformation it involves: if we try to reconcile where we’re coming from, we’ll never manage it — we’ll be defeated by difference, deflated by diversity, discouraged by divergence.

That all changes if we follow Paul and start to concentrate on where we’re going. We’re going to heaven — where there is more than enough love for all, more than enough joy, more than enough truth, more than enough space for everyone to flourish.

So, we arrive at a definition of the Church: a group of people who all come from different places but are all going to the same place. Yes, it’s interesting where we’re coming from; but, in the end, that names irreconcilable difference and damaging diversity. What is vital is where we’re going: a space where diversity is our biggest asset and a kaleidoscope is a sign of abundance.

SO, BEING a Christian transforms our identity. No longer are we trying to assert our assumptions as normal, demanding that everyone hear how much we’ve suffered to ensure that they excuse our eccentricities, imposing our prejudices on others so that we never have to be challenged or changed. Now we’re a people pooling our resources for a journey that we make together to a place that none of us have ever been. There are no experts, because we’re all citizens of a country that we have never visited, and longing for a home that we’ve never known. How do we prepare for that journey?

We start by consulting the guidebook. In the guidebook, we start to learn a new language, begin to practise new habits, commence making new companions. For example, we stop saying “Life isn’t a rehearsal” — because, actually, it is — or “Life’s too short”, because the life that really matters goes on for ever.

We stop taking the largest piece of pie or the biggest slice of cake, because we believe that we’re all one body, and you eating is the same as me eating, and we recognise that there isn’t a shortage of the things that matter; so helping ourselves to the biggest slice is a sign of lack of faith in the plenitude of God.

We cease making ourselves omnicompetent because we know that, for a community to flourish, everyone has moments when they need to ask for help, and moments when they’re in a position to offer help. We cease seeing others as a threat, and start to perceive the ways in which they’re a gift.

Once we’ve got this new language, new habits, and new companions, we can explore the next stage. And that’s living as if we were already there. The experience of what it is like to feel as if you are already in heaven is what we call the Kingdom of God.

And, when we’ve got used to living as if we were already in heaven, there is only one more step to take: to let go of our own belonging, release our constant effort to establish and maintain our own identity, and, instead, allow ourselves to be wholly owned by God. This is, of course, what baptism enacts. But it’s no simple thing.

I WANT, now, to add a second dimension to my argument. Having made a plea that we transfer our attention from where we’re coming from to where we’re going, I want to suggest that, at the same time, we transfer our emphasis from the wrongs we’ve suffered to the glory that awaits us.

It’s hard to categorise Alzheimer’s. Once we have developed your scheme, by which there is disability, which we seek to live with, think beyond, understand, even befriend; and illness, which we seek to overcome, withstand, and not be defined by, then we have to work out in which category to put Alzheimer’s. And we had better decide quickly, because Alzheimer’s is fast taking over. It hides itself away because those with the condition become less likely to enter public spaces. For that reason, it’s almost an invisible condition.

ALAMYTheresa gazes at Aunty Therese by Gandee Vasan, BP Portrait Award 2019

When I came to St Martin’s, one woman stood out. You couldn’t miss her. She would shout from the congregation at unexpected moments. If you quoted Ecclesiasticus, and said “Let us now praise famous men,” you wouldn’t get as far as “and our fathers that begat us” without her shouting “And what about the women?”

It was like a tripwire. If the role of preacher and presider one Sunday were both taken by men, you could be sure that, as you greeted her at the door, she would look at you with her withering gaze, and say, “Have you forgotten about the women?” There was no use arguing about taking turns and cherishing the gifts of all. She was a single-issue fanatic.

Although it wasn’t just one issue. She had the same seek-and-destroy guided-missile approach when it came to vegetarianism. Rare was the congregation member who’d not been cornered by her strong handshake, pleading escape from her vice-like grip as she “talked and explained the scriptures” as far as they made the consumption of meat unconscionable.

From everything that I was told, dementia had not made her a vigilante: she had always been like that. If anything, her faltering faculties slightly reduced her passionate advocacy, and scaled the volume down just a little.

She came to the first two evenings that we organised to discuss dementia and faith. She listened as people spoke movingly about caring for a beloved husband or mother, and absorbingly about how dementia works, and how its varieties differ. But then she made it clear that she believed that we could do better. She buttonholed two friends, and hatched a plan. Over two lunches together, they spoke, and the two friends wrote things down about her, about her life, about her mother, and about her condition.

And so it was that we beheld her glory. On the third dementia evening, she stood behind a lectern. In her hands were four pages of notes, typed out by her two friends from their conversations. And then she began to speak. Slowly, and with extraordinary dignity, she told us her story. And what a story it was. “Mummy was Baroness von Hundelshausen. She spoke six languages. I was born in Mexico, and brought to Britain as a baby.” She went on to speak of the “battle”: “Jesus made it very clear that women are equal and not to be pushed around by men. But women’s role in life and society has always been undervalued and must be equalised.”

She went on to speak of working for a newspaper and taking it over a few years later. “It was really lovely, because I could say anything I wanted to say.” She talked of being elected as a councillor for Westminster, and making sure that Buckingham Palace paid local taxes — which it had never done before. She talked of being radicalised by her mother’s dementia, and realising that “the Government didn’t give a damn about old women.”

But then, astonishingly, she spoke about her own experience of Alzheimer’s. “Fear and anger can be very close together, especially when you have memory problems; and I was angry.” She explained what we’d all experienced of being with her. “I hate people deciding for me or speaking for me. I want people to understand that I’m still me, I still have a sense of self and my own rights.”

HOW awesome is the sight. Here was the one brought to Jesus through the roof by friends carrying a stretcher — through the roof of ignorance, prejudice, impatience, and hasty judgement. And, in that moment, I saw what prophetic ministry means. Not berating authorities, not denouncing congregations, not excoriating government; but slowly, patiently, building sufficient trust with a person who is socially excluded, not assuming that one has to speak on their behalf, but over a transformative meal, listening, taking notes, assembling thoughts, so that, one day, with a fair wind and a sympathetic audience, that person could speak her own words, sing her true song, and let the whole room thud with the sound of jaws dropping.

ALAMYManu Kaur Saluja with her painting Jenne, winner of the BP Portrait Award 2019, National Portrait Gallery

They that wait upon the Lord shall mount up with wings like eagles. That night I saw a miracle. I saw what church can be.

I want to reflect with you on that story in the light of my contention that the key question isn’t where we’re coming from, but where we’re going. The key theological theme of what we might call the inclusive movement in the Church has been the doctrine of creation. The simple message has been to point out that all things are bright and beautiful, and God made them, every one.

It’s an attractive message, but it’s a flawed one, because there are clearly things that God has made that are not bright or beautiful, both in the actions of the created order and the dynamics of human desire. What the inclusive message is really doing is highlighting significant elements that have long been attributed to the fallen creation and reallocate them to the original creation.

To use the terms I employed earlier, this becomes an argument about where, scripturally, we’re coming from, or in which silo of Genesis 1-3 we best belong. But the key strategy that tends to accompany this theological theme is that of pointing out the plight of those who have been allocated to the wrong silo, having been treated by some combination of Church and society as fallen, flawed, and sinful, when they were, in fact, created, different, and beautiful. The strategy works by appealing to reactions on a spectrum, from pity via tolerance to justice, all of which are problematic.

THEY are problematic for three reasons. First, in pointing to the need to include minority identities, they collude with the false distinction between the divergent and the normal, and with the noblesse oblige argument that the privileged and normal should do the decent thing and allow the divergent and strange a place at the table.

This is an understandable but unwise argument, because the renewal of Church and society is not about the justice of the fortunate sharing a bit more with the unfortunate, but with everyone realising how much they have impoverished themselves by failing to receive the abundant gifts being brought to them by one another. Meanwhile, it retains the notion of first- and second-class citizens, only arguing that the table should have a place set for both, not just the former. This achieves inclusion, but only as a form of patronisation and a retention of a sense of superiority and inferiority, which is a very damaging cost.

The strategy is problematic, second, because the doctrine of creation is not the best place on which to ground a theology and ethic of diversity. It’s simply too difficult to distinguish which things are glorious aspects of created order — such as the sight of a cheetah in full flow; which are the more troubling parts — such as the sight of that same cheetah disembowelling an antelope; and which are the more straightforwardly fallen parts — such as the hunter shooting the same cheetah as a trophy skin to hang on a wall. The doctrine of creation has been used to justify many perverse things, such as the superiority of one race over another, and I believe that, rather than reallocate identities from one silo to another, the best strategy is to look elsewhere for a new perspective.

That elsewhere is eschatology. As I have maintained, the point is not where we’re coming from, it’s where we’re going. Where we’re going is a working name for eschatology. I’ve just pointed out that what’s needed is for everyone to recognise that they are impoverishing themselves by not opening their lives through practice, habit, law, and relationship to receive the gifts of each other. That’s called mutuality, reciprocity — or, sometimes, hospitality.

But what eschatology adds to this is the realisation that God’s Kingdom is enriched by opening itself to the abundant diversity of creation, such that the life of God in eternity is not sufficiently imagined unless it is peopled with the full panoply of earthly human identities. In other words, the ethics of inclusion are about each person acknowledging their own need and poverty, and thus developing an appetite for broader relationship and connection; meanwhile, the theology of inclusion is about God inviting all kinds and manner of persons to share in the banquet, not for their sake but for God’s sake.

God invites us all to be at the heavenly table, not because any of us have a right to be there, or because God is trying to set straight a historic injustice or present imbalance, but because God chooses never to be except to be with us in Christ, and that being-with is not a for-some-people thing but a for-everyone thing, and it is not a for-now thing, it is a for ever thing.

Our way to live eschatologically is not to choose whom we think will be joining us in eternity, as if we were predicting a sports team that hadn’t yet been selected: it’s to learn to live with everybody now, and to receive their unexpected gifts with imagination and gratitude, in recognition that these are the people with whom we will be spending eternity, lucky and blessed as we all are to be there, and we’d best use these earthly years as a time for getting in the mood.

AND that brings us to the third thing that is problematic about the conventional inclusive strategy. It too easily ends up being mostly about me. When the conversation is based around “Are you coming from where I’m coming from?”, there’s an almost inevitable tendency for it to descend into “And now I’m going to spend a very long time telling you all about how difficult and unfair and yet endlessly interesting it is to be me,” and my own experience becomes the principal example of every injustice, and my own recognition and acknowledgement and acceptance and validation becomes the principal goal of all agitation.

ALAMYLaura Guoke, the winner of the BP Travel Award in 2016, with her work Monika; Rima and Muhammed Ahmed, portraits of subjects she met at Ritsona refugee camp in Greece

There is a serious and vital place for lament in ethics and liturgy, but lament is impoverished if it’s wholly or largely about oneself, and theology is impoverished if it’s wholly or largely about lament. Meanwhile, theology is undersold if it’s mostly or entirely lament about society or the Church, and seldom, if ever, joy in the glory of God.

I recall hearing a Muslim leader say “Everything God gives us is given that we may develop knowledge and mercy.” In other words, whatever our circumstances, whatever our disadvantages, sufferings, exclusions, or oppressions, every single one of us can receive these conditions in such a way that builds up our understanding of ourselves and the world, and shapes our compassion for those we know, and those beyond the circle of who we know, and thus, through such knowledge and mercy, we are shown the face of God.

The cry of inclusive theology should not be “People like me have suffered from both social disadvantage and ecclesial exclusion, and it’s not fair, and I’m going to go on and on about it till you change something.” It should be “See what remarkable insights and wisdom people have offered the Church about the character and the grace of God, often in spite of their disadvantage, and sometimes because of it; and see how much the Church, which can hardly claim it’s full to bursting with insight or wisdom, stands to be enriched by these gifts. Surely it’s long past time the Church should dismantle its deliberate or unconscious barriers to receiving these gifts — and this is how wondrous the Church might be, if only it would!”

Earlier, I told the story of the woman with Alzheimer’s, not to demand that she and those who share her condition be included in a congregation, but to demonstrate what renewal a Church can find, and what glory in God it can experience if it can only find ways to receive such a person’s gifts. At the end of her story, one can only wonder at what the love of God can do. That is how the story should always end — and not by raging at the failures of the Church, which will always be countless, or the grief of an individual, entirely justified and completely understandable as that grief may be.

THERE is a battle going on in the Church right now, and it is one of those good battles which, in centuries to come, the Church will look back on as defining anew what it means to be a child of God and understanding afresh what God has in store for those who love the Kingdom. I believe that the so-called inclusive side of this debate will win the argument, but I’m concerned that, if it wins the argument on the grounds that are currently most commonly advanced, it will win the argument at significant cost.

One day, we’ll look back on this debate in the Church and realise that this was the moment when we truly discovered what lay in store for us in the Kingdom of God, and how we had the precious invitation in the power of the Spirit to model that beloved community now.

One day, we’ll realise that this was the moment that we finally recognised that our calling as the Church was to imitate the glorious breadth of the heart of God. One day, we’ll appreciate that this was when our limited understanding was made to be swept up by the joy of God’s boundless imagination. May that day soon come.

This is an abridged version of the 2019 Inclusive Church lecture, given by Canon Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, at Southwark Cathedral on 9 July. The full text is available at www.inclusive-church.org/events/the-inclusive-church-lecture.

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