So what is an inclusive church?

One of the steady characteristics of liberal Anglicans has been a presumption that the church is - and therefore particular churches should be - as all-embracing as possible.

Exactly what this means has varied over time. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), for example, wanted to include everyone who accepted the Apostles Creed. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) wanted the church to lose the 39 Articles and to include everyone (except, of course, Quakers and Catholics whose political allegiance as well as their religious sensibilities were suspect).

'Inclusive' can be negative: implying a desire to distance oneself from any theological stance that is grounded on the presupposition that it is exclusively true.

Mostly, at the moment, 'inclusive' in church circles is a label to convey to the knowing public that homosexuals are welcome and women are taken seriously. It is in deliberate opposition to what Professor Marilyn McCord Adams terms the sex-and-gender-conservatives. It is a badge of broad allegiance to an open style of church community focused (in the UK) in Inclusive Church and (in the US) in Integrity (I guess and could easily be wrong) but it is not restricted to either.

I would argue this is not nearly enough.

Specifically I suggest that inclusion is heavily freighted with concepts of power - only 'inclusion' is a warm and cuddly word whilst 'power' is hidden in the hold.

Conservatives would, to use the broadest available brush, deny full personhood in the church to women (but not in all cases) and to homosexuals, citing Scripture as justification. It seems so obvious to liberals that this is plain wrong. Yet all churches pattern power in such a way as to grant some people full personhood and, deliberately or by neglect, to marginalise others. It is always much easier to see the mote in another's eye.

I have come to see churches in general as engines of conformity - using subtle and crude means to include and exclude people according to whether they 'fit'. 'Fitting in' is almost a synonym for church membership and it is relatively straightforward to plot how close to, or distant from, a notional core of a church each member is - starting from where they choose to sit in the building.

I see liberal and inclusive churches thriving without noticing that they do so because of the fairly arbitrary power that the clergy have - with the obvious implication that, when the wind changes direction or a new vicar arrives, the whole community can be forced to change gear. In fact it is the most popular clergy who wield the greatest arbitrary power and the happiest and most thriving churches who would find it hardest to examine the substructure on which their present success is resting.

I have seldom come across lay people on church councils even being told what their legal powers are - except, of course, when relationships have deteriorated to fisticuffs at dawn.

So my argument is: if churches are to be truly inclusive they must take power out of its hiding place and examine it carefully. They must learn to allocate, use and constrain power in such a way as to minimise the possibility of its arbitrary exercise and to predispose church members (lay and ordained) to regard one another as equal children of God. I think 'rules' are necessary but insufficient and so churches also need to address the informal ways that power is realised (in relationships, words, knowledge, ...).

And my problem is - how to do it? How can any group, whether a face-to-face community or a national or international body, be structured so that no-one is marginalised? How can both the formal and informal ways in which power is patterned be bent to nurture one another and not to squash people? Or, perhaps a smaller goal, how can the misuse of the power to marginalise people be minimised?

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