Who is welcome?

I want to pick up again on a comment that has been left by Helen on a previous post. She said:

Is it necessary to explain who you welcome? Should a church not welcome all? If you list welcoming gay people then you would need to list disabled, addicts, people of other ethnic backgrounds……..etc all who feel alienated towards christianity often. Is all not enough? St mary’s feels currently a place of welcome to all.

I think it is worth carrying on this discussion and those questions are worth answering.

My initial response is that lots of institutions are quite good at saying that they welcome everyone. However, that isn’t the same as actually making changes which will actually make everyone feel welcome.

There is a difference between gay people and the groups that Helen identifies – this is that some parts of the church actively, loudly and belligerently campaign against the human rights and well-being of gay people. Even though churches may not have a great heritage in some of these other areas, I don’t think that there is any similar campaign against disabled people, addicts or people of non-white ethnic groups. It is quite different and I often feel puzzled that straight people can’t see the difference.

That isn’t to say that there are not issues to think about for all those groups though. Just looking at the list that Helen thought of, I think it is worth making the following comments.

Regarding disability issues, I think that rather than say, “The Disabled Are Welcome at Our Services” it is probably actually more welcoming to make clear statements about accessibility and to continue to try to eliminate both physical and non-physical barriers to participation. Our current access situation is available here, though it does change from time to time. It used to be the case that disability was an impediment to ordination. It isn’t that long ago, for example that an attempt was made to bar someone I knew who had a history of epilepsy from priesthood in our church. Things have changed considerably in these areas though now, thank God.

With regards to addicts, I think that the situation is mixed. Churches are not always terrible places for people with addictions. Some indeed make space available for 12- step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous etc. However, some care does need to be taken with how one speaks of such groups – as they are anonymous, they often don’t want it to be advertised that they are meeting, preferring to go under names like, “The Thursday Group” or something like that. I don’t know whether people who live with addictions are more or less alienated from church life than from other institutions in society, but I’d be interested to know whether there has been any research on this.

With regards to people of different ethnic backgrounds, there are certainly things to do. I often speak of us being an internationally gathered congregation and have made particular efforts to make sure that different ethnicities are visually pictured on the cathedral website. So, although the student group pic has lots of white hands on it, this marriage one has African hands and the children’s ministry page has Asian hands all covered with sticky paint. Again, I expect that these ways of representing the common life of a congregation are as important as any statements about who may or may not be welcome.

Incidentally, coming to St Mary’s has disabused me of any prejudice that a congregation which is explicit about its welcome to gay folk might find it difficult to welcome African folk and particularly Anglicans from Nigeria. We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord.

There are other groups who might traditionally feel unwelcome in church. Two come to mind particularly – those who are single and those who are divorced.

One of our statements about ourselves here at St Mary’s says this in response to some of these issues:

We are young, we are old. We are straight, we are gay. Some are single, some are married, some are partnered, some are single again. We are men and we are women. Some live alone, some live with others. We have different abilities. We have different understandings of the truth. We have all kinds of different reasons for choosing to make this our spiritual home.

I enjoy leading a church which is happy to make such statements about itself out loud and post them explicitly for all to see.

Being an Inclusive Church

One of the main themes emerging from this year’s Scottish General Synod was the issue of inclusion. I’ve mentioned before the phenomena of getting just about any group of Scottish Episcopalians together and asking them what our church is about. The answers are always the same – good worship and being an inclusive church. (Interestingly, no-one ever defines us as having anything much to do with having bishops. I remember one provincial conference where I’m sure everyone would have voted to change the name to the Scottish Inclusive Church if such a thing could have been proposed).

And all this came up again last week. In the long debate about mission and in other parts of the synod, the ethos of the Scottish Episcopal Church was claimed to be being an inclusive church. I’ve long had a suspicion that part of this is that Episcopalians in Scotland are all a bit odd in one way or another and when we say we are an inclusive church, part of what we mean is, “Thank God, I’ve found a church that welcomes me. There is no-where else to go”.

Anyway, on and on it went. “We are an inclusive church” sayeth the crowd.

Yet I’ve come to the conclusion that this is aspirational talk rather than something that we have already achieved. Some of the most interesting things said at the synod were when people said things that suggested that perhaps the church was not quite yet as inclusive as they would like it to be.

Marion Chatterley got us to agree to a gender audit.

Analu Waller reminded us that cutting grants for buildings could mean cutting support for access for disabled people. She also challenged us to go back to our congregations and count the disabled people there and then ask whether we are really an inclusive church.

Ian Ferguson from the big evangelical congregation Trinity Westhill in Aberdeenshire said, “Inclusion is not just about the gay commmunity”. (And everyone nodded along).

I said that the bishops’ current policy on gay blessings and ministry was not something we could all support. (The bishops are directly stating that they are discriminating against gay people for the first time in our history).

And then there was the Faith and Order Board saying that inclusive language amendments to the liturgy would do tucked into the back of the book as an appendix of permitted texts. It was me again, who reminded them that the liturgy committee has been trying to get us to think of liturgy as formative for faith and that making inclusive language merely optional was not really the kind of thing that lots of us are hoping for.

All these things were comments from people complaining that we are not inclusive enough for them. Yet still we say (and indeed our new Primus seemed to reiterate), “We are an inclusive church”. It is a distinct theme and one which needs a bit of thought throughout the church.

What’s the most important next step?