All have seen

All the ends of the earth
have seen the salvation of our God:
sing joyfully to God, all the earth. – Psalm 98:3

Monday, May 2, 2011

Inclusion as dominant paradigm in church discourse

I was recently in a discussion on a forum board of predominantly Episcopalians, asking the question: "Can we be totally inclusive?"

The question is interesting because in some quarters, especially congregations which are supportive of the National Church, the notion of "inclusion" has become so predominant in discourse that it functions as a major paradigm in regulating thought and discourse - more important than just about any theolgical notion (with the exception of "love").

When our discourse about the church becomes dominated by the notion of "inclusion," we are not looking in the right place - and we are in danger of flirting with exclusivism.

When we are so focused on inclusion, the basic question that we are asking is, "Who belongs inside, and who belongs outside?" As this question grows to predominate our church consciousness and our ways of speaking about things, it means that we tend to try to answer this question before answering other questions - or to answer those other questions on the basis of our answer to this one.

The danger is that we start providing answers which are patently silly, destructive, or otherwise unacceptable - because we are then likely to see a simple "flip-flop" - where, still focussed on the same question, we begin thinking, "We have way too many people in here, a lot of them don't belong! Which ones do we need to push out?" We've seen this type of thought in this thread already, in speaking of "tolerating the intolerant" and the danger of this attitude. When "tolerating" and "inclusion" become such an incessant and insular focus, it's only natural for us to start to logically begin flailing about and contradicting ourselves. The answer isn't within the narrow margins of the question "inclusion or exclusion?" - it needs to be found elsewhere.

Jesus was not at all obsessed with "inclusion" and "exclusion." There were times He was immensely "inclusive" - thousands coming to listen to Him, and then eat with Him. But there were times that He was profoundly exclusive - spending time with only a group of followers; spending time only with the twelve (including the Last Supper, the only time He shared what we now call the "eucharist"); spending time with only Peter and John; and at the pinnacle of exclusivity, going off by Himself. There were moments that the disciples were entreated to let more come ("suffer the little children to come unto me"); there were moments that they wanted more company, and Jesus less.

"Inclusion / Exclusion" was thus by no means a central, motivating factor in Jesus's decisions, or in His teachings; the question of "inclusion/exclusion" was always predicated upon other concerns which Jesus clearly saw as more important.

Instead of asking, "Who should we include and who should we exclude?" our question is better put: "How should we be loving to all people, whether or not they find themselves in the limited circle of our church fellowship?" We discover that "loving people" doesn't always involve trying to cram them into our church - either physically, or even theoretically - by somehow counting them as "one of us." Some groups are large, others are small - this was true of the groups with which Jesus shared fellowship, and it's also true of the church, and singular church fellowships.

As an example of destructive thinking based on the "who's in / who's out" question: in a recent posting on the Covenant, Fr. Mark Harris, who's on TEC Exec Council, was positing: if we keep Section 4 of the Covenant, this might mean that Bishop Spong can't be a bishop any more; that we're no longer allowed to read the creed as primarily metaphors for other things (which usually means, environmentalism, "progressive" political aims, etc.., which - note here - I am not disagreeing with - but simply disagreeing that this isn't the same as "Jesus").

To this I'd simply respond: if it is utterly necessary for TEC to maintain Bishop Spong as a bishop in good standing - given that he has responsibilities as such to "defend the faith" and that he denies the resurrection and many other central tenets of the faith (such as, seemingly, prayer - he may "redefine" prayer to mean something else which outwardly appears as something similar to what Trinitarian Christians do when they pray, such as a form of speaking to one's self for self-motivation - but this is, then, no longer what Trinitarian Christians are referring to with the word "prayer") - if TEC must keep on Spong as bishop even if it means losing fellowship with other churches which are Trinitarian, does it not seem that either:

1) TEC is no longer a Trinitarian Christian religion. It is, instead, a kind of larger inter-faith body which includes some persons and fellowships which are Trinitarian Christian, but also others who simply see themselves as following Jesus, but without embracing the most basic Trinitarian Christian beliefs - such as Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and many atheists and agnostics;


2) The question of "ecclesiology" and church politics is so high in the concerns of TEC that this outweighs its most basic commitment to Trinitarian Christian belief, and its fellowship and listening to other Trinitarian Christian churches. The ecclesiology runs the church, rather than the Christology; the Christology is determined by the church politics, instead of the church politics being grounded in our faith in Christ.

This is not to say that there is no "faith in Jesus" - it's simply that that faith takes its form from how we tend to look upon TEC itself and its polity, instead of, e.g., who Jesus said that He is (as we find it in the gospels), and what He did. This is not to say that there is any "intention" on the part of TEC of leaving Trinitarian Christianity - simply that, when concerns about church polity and inclusion/exclusion are so high in its priorities, that inevitably these will determine its Christology, instead of its Christology being determined by God's self-revelation in Scripture and in the body of Christ universal (all churches).

So: until we begin to "chill" a bit on the "inclusion / exclusion" question, and begin to realize that all groups are, subtly inclusive and exclusive in their own ways - and agreeing with the basic conclusions of Foucault that it's really impossible for any group to be "intrinsically" more inclusive than another ... we are going to have problems.

Instead, we should try to be asking ourselves more the kind of questions that Jesus Himself asked: "Who am I"? - who is Jesus? And: how do we love other people - realizing that there are some who are "in" our group, and "outside" of our group?

The attitude I am seeing more frequently within TEC membership is something akin to this: "We are the true enlightened ones; we have the correct dogmas about gender and sexuality, and anyone who doesn't believe these and follow these closely is a totally irrational bigot." Of course, it's never said in so many words ... we have more subtle, insinuating ways of putting it. But then, let's think: who are all these awful irrational bigots? The Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and about 85% of protestant Christians (my guess) worldwide - if we're thinking that women's ordination is a "must" - and about 95% of protestant Christians worldwide if our rule is "actively gay ordinations are a must." So all in all, the "chosen ones" who should speak for all Christianity in casting aside the others as bigots is a group of (my guess) somewhere between 2% and 0.2% of the world's Christians, including Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Let's think about the claim many are making in TEC, that TEC is the only church which has listened to the voices of LGBT people. As a Church of England Anglican, I'm rather taken aback by this statement. I've heard so much from the LGBT community, and from its TEC representatives, I wouldn't know where to start.

And on the other hand, there are, e.g., the voices of the African provinces of the Communion, making up probably half or more of the total number of Anglicans. Do we hear from them? Occasionally, a TEC representative will hand-pick a gay or lesbian African as a voice - but this is about as reliable as an Evangelical picking out a self-identifying gay person who claims a "conversion." I do agree that there are many problems with how many Africans view sexuality, to put things very, very lightly. But do the sins of some extremists amongst them mean we must boycott their voice, and be deaf to them? Do we have any idea, e.g., of what the Church of Uganda is facing with the Pentecostalist revival in Uganda? I know some Ugandan Christians, one is a Pentecostalist. Did you know that many Ugandan Pentecostalist Christians are saying that "Anglicans in general are not born again?" Might it not be that if the Primate of Uganda were to take a rather "hardcore" stance ... that this would be generally rejected or laughed at in Uganda, and politically even make some problems regarding attitudes toward homosexuality even worse? How often do we hear about the concrete impact of our decisions on their mission, their church people, who are terribly terribly skeptical of what is happening in the West? How often do we insist upon "speaking for them" - e.g., +KJS telling African women what they should be concerned about? Our own TEC reps saying, "The real Ugandans don't feel this way ..." - and we accept their word in speaking for such "real Ugandans?" Don't we realize that without detailed knowledge of their own voice and their own situation, all the words that we hurl at them are likely to come off as imperialist and simply make the situation we pretend to despise even worse?

Is our goal really something like improving the lives of LGBT people, or is it rather trying to show to the world that we have some profound sentiments about ethics and inclusion? And aren't we really hurting the cause of LGBT Christians worldwide if we pretend to be their valiant heroes - but then paint ourselves as unique extremists in our choices of bishops and Presiding Bishop, by choosing people who sound to other Christians like they are denying Christ? If we truly cared about the fate of LGBT Christians worldwide, wouldn't we be more critical of ourselves in the way we appear to be ... to put things mildly ... extremist? As no top-level church leader has made the remarks about Christ seeming to deny His essential qualities, as has +KJS?

I would suggest that anyone who carefully reads Anglican news on all sides - the "right" and the "left" - would see the many signs of terrible problems within TEC - the lawsuits claiming property of churches whose people bought and built their church homes with their own money and who hold the titles to the property, using "special, sacred" church law to claim them contrary to normal, secular law, making us appear to be fundamentalists by carrying out lawsuits to enforce this odd "doctrine" which seems so legally self-contradictory (a trust claiming another's legally owned property, created by the very benefactor of the trust); the very strict and selective enforcement of canon law, with extremely punitive consequences for those who leave who have paid for their own property, and no consequences at all for those who teach and practice eucharist before baptism; the failure of the church to bring transparency after +KJS was described in the election materials as being "dean of the Good Samaritan School of Theology," which would have caused an inquiry to be made in any small-sized business or local government claiming to employ voting and democratic process; supporting a self-describing atheist for a position in one of the Instruments of the Communion, the ACC; acknowledging (through Presiding Bishop Griswold at a Primates Meeting whose conclusion he assented to) that the "fabric of the communion" would be torn (i.e., schism) if Gene Robinson were consecrated, and then going ahead and consecrating him weeks later? After practically having admitted by its highest leader to being schismatic, then accusing others of being schismatic? Etc. etc.. One really needs to read the news on "both sides" here, simply because the Episcopal News Service fails to mention a lot of things, as also the sources which are in general supportive of TEC.

I would conclude: part of this mess is in having elevated the question of "inclusiveness" to such a dominant position in theological discourse within TEC. "Who is in and who is out" is not one of the questions we need to answer first ... it is subsidiary. If it is answered at all, it is answered only after asking ourselves, "Who is Jesus? And who is He for us? How do we turn ourselves toward Him, and follow Him?" We do not ask this question trying to pre-formulate the question in a way to "include" or to "exclude" anyone.

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