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On inclusion

On inclusion

by Gawain de Leeuw

I have a problem with the word “inclusive.” When people announce “We’re an inclusive church,” or I see signs that say, “Everybody’s welcome,” I cringe. Because chances are I won’t go to that church. And it’s not because I don’t like everybody, or try.

But these phrases for me are like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It’s not because announcements of inclusivity are inaccurate. I don’t mind the hypocrisy of churches that won’t expand their musical repertoire or disparage the attractive techniques of megachurches. What we mean by “inclusive” is specific: we have lesbian, bisexual, gay and a few transgender people who take positions of authority in our congregations. But I doubt we’re that inclusive until we have Sam Cooke or Gloria Gaynor in the hymnal.

I’m not unsympathetic. After all, inclusivity reflects the sentiment, “We’re not like those awful evangelicals and Roman Catholics.” We can now dine in polite society and hang with the professional, educated class. We can now be done explaining that we’re not like the bigots on the other side.

But once we’ve patted ourselves on the back, enjoyed our being inclusive, we still have work to do. Because declaring our “inclusivity” will not strengthen our church or make us more appealing. It’s lovely theater, and plausible marketing. But it’s just the beginning.

Inclusivity conveys nothing of value except being inclusive. It’s like advertising “free stuff” for the taking. But what is free can often seem worthless. What we offer for nothing can strike the outside as cheap. If everyone can have it, perhaps it’s not particularly valuable. For if we’re busy saying we’re an open place, with open doors and open minds, and it does not seem appealing, perhaps we’re focusing on the wrong issue.

I suggest two confusions.

First of all, inclusivity is not the same as hospitality. Hospitality requires intentionality and resources. We can talk about inclusivity all we want, but if we aren’t curious about others our inclusivity is insincere. If our communities aren’t willing to do the careful work of making people at home, making them feel loved, we’re not as inclusive as we’d like to be. And this is a delicate dance. There’s a difference between hospitality and desperation.

Secondly, inclusivity is passive. Being inclusive does not mean we will learn the primary, fundamental task of the institutional church: building relationships. That means not merely opening up our doors with the “inclusive” banner, but going out into the world. Our open door policy might be about letting us out, rather than ushering people in.

My issues is not about the sentiment. I love the sentiment. I like having a diverse congregation with a wide variety of backgrounds. I like that we have a church that assumes that any person who enters has a place at the table. But pronouncing inclusivity is one thing. Demonstrating that our shared life has value is another.

The Rev. Dr. Gawain de Leeuw is a priest at St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in White Plains, NY. He blogs at The Divine Latitude.


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Troy Haliwell

I found “inclusive” to be what I need to come into the door to seek more information on Episcopalianism as a whole.

What I would like to see is a better connection at the start that was church driven rather than dependence on the individual in questing a place to feel the presence of God. Proactive phone calls, invitations to meet with the vicar and/or associate priests, phone calls when any parishioner but especially a new one is missing for a couple services in a row.

I know in the not-so-distant past in Roman Catholic parish churches I belonged to, that pro-activeness was at the heart of the church body and it’s hierarchy. If I missed more than one mass, I got a phone call or a home visit to make sure I was healthy and okay-not asking me why I missed but just making sure I was still alive.

It is “inclusive” that sparks the attention and brings us initially in the doors, now the church as a whole needs to transform from “inclusive” to “Welcoming and Sustaining.”

barbara snyder

Ironically, Clint: “frosty” was a marked improvement in gay/church relations 10-15 years ago – at least from my point of view. 😉

I agree very much with your “softening the heart” point, though; I’ve never thought about it in exactly that way, but I think it’s just about perfectly said….

Clint Davis

Words like “inclusive” are helpful markers, but sometimes they mean that a congregation is just as frosty to gay people as they are to straight people. Hospitality and welcoming are a practice in softening the heart, and without other practices to soften the heart too there will be a church full of self congratulating folks with hard hearts.

The music line is the reddest of red herrings. Music is in the service of the liturgy, not the tastes of whoever might show up. “Various styles” are no substitute for softened and opened hearts.

barbara snyder

(That’s not to say, either, that it’s not a good thing to be “inclusive” in general. All should be welcome at the church, indeed.

But at that point you have to ask: why bother with the church at all, unless it has something to say about “the spiritual life” I mentioned above? I mean, what would be the point of belonging or going?

So, both things are important.)

barbara snyder

To me, the thing about music is a red herring here.

The word “inclusive” was used, as far as I can tell, as a code word to let the GLBT acronymn crowd that the church wouldn’t harrass us. When a [gay] person saw, on the church website, the word “inclusive,” they knew they could come and develop an actual spiritual life at that church without being referred someplace for “reparative therapy” – or without being expected to break up their marriage and/or family.

For no other group of people is or was this true. Straight people who like Sam Cooke and Gloria Gaynor had places to go to church and be safe; gay people did not. In other words, the church itself was the problem.

This is not to say I don’t wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that “inclusivity conveys nothing of value except being inclusive.” I do agree with this. It’s not to say, either, that I don’t think it’s time to move beyond that idea; I do think so.

But it has nothing to do with “minority groups” or “tokenism.” It came about because gay people were told that “God hates you” and that we were abominations. In that sense, “inclusivity” was and is an important idea. That’s what it meant to me, seven years ago when I was first coming around. I wouldn’t have stayed and become a Christian if there hadn’t been places that called themselves “inclusive” and meant it. So for that, I’m grateful.

It’s only a stopping place along the way, from my point of view. It’s not an end goal.

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