Yesterday, after being invited by a Facebook friend, I attended an event at one of our local churches. The invitational blurb began “Ethnicity The Inclusive Church Resource – A Living Conversation with Revd. Dr. Michael Jagessar, our General Assembly Moderator in 2012-14, a theological educator, cricket fan and the URC’s Secretary for Racial Justice and Intercultural Ministry, will be talking about his new book, Ethnicity. However, with Michael, you can never be sure where the conversation might take us!”. Interested as I was in the subject, what speaker might have to say and his love of cricket, I went along, and I was glad I did.
I came along with an open mind, expecting to be challenged and taken outside my comfort zone (usually a good thing), with every intention to just listen to what the speaker had to say and to the Q&A session that followed. Regarding race and ethnicity, I have long taken the view articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. I would like to think that my past record proves I am anything but racist and have done more my fair share to encourage ethnic diversity and discourage discrimination. While there was little in the way of fireworks, the speaker gave a good account and there was some good input from the audience.
For me ethnicity is a non-issue, yet one of the outcomes from the meeting was to make me realise for many this is not the case and given, even without realising it, I see the world through a certain lens, as do many I associate with, such as in the church context, this can become a barrier to those who see things through a different lens, which may be just as valid. As a consequence, we could find ourselves putting off folk who might, for example, otherwise wish to join in our church services. While I take some pride, if that is the right word, that the church to which I belong has folk in it from many different ethnic backgrounds, who seem to integrate pretty well with the majority who are white, Anglo-Saxon, I fear we may have avoidably put off some in the past because we haven’t been welcoming or understanding enough.
One of the moving parts of the meeting was hearing members of the audience giving accounts of when they felt welcomed and loved in a church or similar context and when they didn’t. Linked to this there was the issue of needing to engage (and sadly often not) with and look out for our neighbours. Given this was an issue that concerned a number, it made me realize how important it is to be loving and welcoming, or to use the title of this posting – inclusive. One of the interesting questions to be raised was the supposed increase in racism in our culture and how we should respond. While I take issue with that assumption and believe that to want to restrict immigration is not necessarily racist, I am open to the suggestion there are many in our country that are uncomfortable with those of BME origin coming into the country, and how we need to treat such is an important question (which I have discussed in previous blogs).
This brings me to the Inclusive Church, with which the speaker is linked. It seemed to me that, if churches are to be what Christ said they should be, then being anything other than inclusive would be a contravention. We are told after all to “love one another”, and when we do, the world will know that we are his disciples. Moreover, when we do and demonstrate the unity that ensues, the world also will know the teachings of Jesus are true. The sad reality, however, is that too often is not the case and in my sixty odd year sojourn upon this earth I have come across too many casualties that bear witness to this. While there may be all sorts of reasons for people being given the cold shoulder, or worse, such that they no longer wish to associate with a given congregation, the main reason is a lack of love and, in a practical terms, a failure to recognize difference. This occurs in every section of the church, from the fundamentalists who do not embrace those who fail their strict (some say over-strict) orthodoxy tests, to the liberals who cannot come to terms with those who are certain on aspects of the faith they don’t go along with.
As is my custom, when I come across a “new” movement, I decided to check out their website, in this case of the “Inclusive Church” organization linked to speaker. I was struck and impressed by the opening words: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.” However, as much as I welcome these aims, I also have reservations, which will be addressed in the sequel to this blog.