Thank you for inviting me to speak to your network of churches. My name is Ruth Wilde. I am the National Coordinator of the UK-based charity Inclusive Church, which works with churches on all areas of inclusion. I am speaking to you today from Birmingham in England and it’s really lovely to be with you, even if only virtually. I have fond memories of my time spent with members of the Swedish Church in Stockholm as part of an Inclusive Church visit in 2018. We have had a close relationship with the Svenksa Kyrkan ever since my predecessor, Bob Callaghan, organised a visit for delegates from Sweden in 2017.
Inclusive Church has been going since 2003, and we began working only in the Church of England, but now we are ecumenical. I am the actually first non-Anglican National Coordinator, being a member of the Society of Friends – a Quaker. Back in 2003, Inclusive Church was only working on sexuality and gender, by which I mean women’s equality – transgender inclusion was not yet on the agenda. Our charity was born out of a letter of protest, signed by thousands. The letter protested the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to block the appointment of a gay man – Jeffrey John- to be the next Bishop of Reading. The anger at the injustice of that decision sparked the creation of a new charity to work on inclusion and justice. Nowadays we work across 6 diverse areas of inclusion and are always expanding our work. We have become especially well known for our pioneering work on disability, including organising the annual Conference on Disability and Church, in partnership with St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
My talk to you today serves as an introduction to the work of Inclusive Church, but also to the values behind what we do – our reason for existing. As it says in our values statement, we believe in a church in which ‘all people… grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ’. Erik, who’s been in touch with me about the Inclusive Church series of talks and discussions you’ve been working on, tells me that your network of churches is called ‘The Future Lives with us’. If there is one thing I know about the church of the future, it’s that it must be inclusive. It must be inclusive in order to survive, and there’s been some good research into this, including a report by the Methodist Church called ‘Leading Together in Growing Methodist Churches’. Arguably even more importantly, the church of the future must also be inclusive in order to build the Kingdom of God. This is, after all, the church’s primary calling.
The Kingdom of God is a phrase Jesus uses in the gospels, but there is one gospel in which it isn’t mentioned – the Gospel of John. Many scholars believe this is because John’s idea of ‘eternal life’ is the equivalent concept. The ‘Kingdom of God’ or the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘Eternal Life’ are all ways of talking about a quality of life or the life of God – and for John, this is something we can all participate in, starting from now. We are called to become one with God, to be part of God’s life, and we do this by becoming more like God, which means imitating Jesus. Jesus’ love, as the Inclusive Church statement says, is ‘wide and long and high and deep’, and that love is demonstrated in the gospel stories over and over again, especially for those who society rejects, those who are cast aside, for whom life is made more difficult, often because of prejudice and discrimination.
John’s gospel has many examples of Jesus reaching out first and foremost to marginalised people. It is the only gospel which contains the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, for example. Jesus ignores social norms and the disapproval of the disciples and speaks to a woman one to one – not only a woman, but a woman from a religious group which was despised by his own religious group. He has a long and theologically complex conversation with her – longer and more in depth than any other conversation in the gospel. He breaks down barriers and raises up a woman who has been rejected by her own community, making her the one with the power and gift of the knowledge of who he is. She is the one who is chosen and sent to bring them – the ones who rejected her – into the Eternal Life of God’s Kingdom. She ‘saves’ them, just as the church will be only saved by listening to those it has rejected and marginalised, only by becoming radically inclusive, as Jesus was.
It’s also only in John’s gospel that we find the story of the Wedding at Cana. This is the first ‘sign’ or miracle in the gospel and, as such, contains an enormous amount of symbolism. When Jesus turns the water into wine, it is not only so that he can show his power; more importantly, it sets out his intention to include those who have been formerly excluded. It is no coincidence that Jesus takes the purification water, which was meant to ritually exclude some and include others, and turns it into a drink that all can enjoy – a drink of celebration and inclusion.
The other gospels also contain many stories of Jesus’ radical inclusion – of Jesus turning the tables on power and privilege. In all four gospels, we find the story of Jesus literally turning the tables over in the temple. Jesus sees injustice and it makes him angry. In this story, the chief priests who are in charge of the temple sacrifice system, control and exclude poor people by making it impossible to participate in worship without spending money that they often don’t have. Jesus not only enters the temple, he not only speaks to people in the temple and takes up space; but he sabotages the whole system which was put in place to control and have power over ordinary people. It’s kind of the opposite of what the violent protesters did recently in the United States government building – the Capitol. Whereas those protesters tried to silence the will of ordinary people by stopping democracy, Jesus took drastic action to change things for those who have no power and could not participate in the system. This kind of direct action could instead be compared perhaps to the actions of those who pulled down statues or took to the streets last year because no-one listened to them about racial inequality and institutional racism – these people were also tired of being silenced and controlled by those in power.
How often have you heard this interpretation of the cleansing of the temple in church though? Far too often, churches sit on the fence or actively prevent change from happening when it comes to the inclusion of black or poor voices and experiences. Our churches have become comfortable – we are more interested in criticising the methods of those who use direct action to make change happen and we’re not at all interested in listening to their frustration and pain. This is what Anthony Reddie calls the ‘politics of respectability’. You’re going to hear more from Professor Reddie later on in your series. The church should have no time for respectability politics, just as Jesus had no time for it. The church is no longer fulfilling its calling when it stops hearing the cry of those who are harmed and rejected by society. As Mukti Barton explains in the Inclusive Church book on Ethnicity, this is the biblical phenomenon of sighted people who cannot ‘see’ and non-deaf people being unable to ‘hear’ (Mark 8:18). Many deaf and disabled people find this kind of language used in the Bible problematic – it can be harmful to hear disability described negatively all the time, and it feeds into the overarching narrative in society of disability being a negative thing. Despite the inadequacy of the language in the Bible, and of language in general, the point of Jesus’ analogy here is to criticise those who wilfully ignore suffering, injustice and exclusion, and that is something the church needs to ‘hear’ urgently.
It’s not only respectability politics which makes Christians not act on injustice when we should. Sometimes it’s a lack of education, which is why Inclusive Church is primarily an educational charity; and sometimes it’s the fear of failure and shame which prevents us from changing and becoming more inclusive. There was a study done recently which showed that 67% of people in the UK feel ‘uncomfortable’ when talking to a disabled person. They fear ‘saying the wrong thing’, and so prefer to say nothing at all. But we’re all imperfect and we all will make mistakes, no matter how good our intentions are. We can’t put our discomfort and shame above the needs of others. Who suffers most when disabled people are not spoken to and included in the conversation? About a week after I started as the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church, I drove to my choir practice and parked my car right in the way of a wheelchair ramp. Someone from the organising committee had to come and find me in front of everyone and ask me to move my car. I was mortified. I felt ashamed, not least because I had told some of the choir members about my new job. I learnt some valuable lessons though that day – to be more aware of wheelchair ramps, to think more like a wheelchair user and consider their experience of life more instead of assuming that my experience is universal, and finally, to be humble enough to accept when I’ve made a mistake, swallow my pride, listen, and change. Justice and solidarity should be our primary motivations as Christians; not comfort and avoidance of shame.
Sometimes, though, there are times when we need to be proud and dispel a lifetime of shame. When we come out as gay or bi or trans, or our child does, we have to proudly throw off the shackles of societal and church pressure to conform, to be a certain way, to have a certain type of family. This is when pride in ourselves and our children is well placed and necessary. I came out as gay to my parents when I was 20, and first I, and then they, had to go through the process of shaking off the shame of being constantly told that who I was was ‘wrong’. This shame can have devastating consequences when unaddressed, and it would be far better if we stopped the negative messaging in society and the church in the first place. Some of you will have heard of the tragic case of poor Lizzie Lowe, who took her own life at 14, because she felt she couldn’t be both gay and Christian.
This year, I am once more going through the same process of what I want to call de-shaming – this time for a disability I never knew I had. Aged 38, I have recently been diagnosed with ADHD – which stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is a type of neurodiversity and it affects the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. I have written about this in a blog on the IC website, if you want to read more. The word ‘deficit’ and the word ‘disorder’ are already negative words, which shows that societal prejudice also affects the medical world. In fact, many disabled and neurodiverse people are now arguing for the social model of disability. This social model does not pathologise disabled people, as medicine and medical language too often does. It calls on people to talk positively about disability – not talking about disabled people as if we are ‘wrong’, inadequate or – in some cases – not worthy of life. As wonderful and helpful as modern medicine is (and I do not want to dismiss the help it gives to all people, including disabled people), it is very much built on a problem and cure mentality, and this can be incredibly damaging to disabled people in society. In fact, the social model of disability says that it is above all society which disables people. If there were ramps everywhere and subtitles on films as a matter of course, and if autistic and other neurodiverse people were understood and praised rather than judged and dismissed, perhaps disabled people would feel enabled and like we fit in to a society which sees us as gifts rather than problems and burdens. Personally, I am learning to throw off a lifetime of judgment, shame and trauma at being constantly misunderstood, and I am beginning to see that it’s society that really has the problem, not me, even if medication might be useful in helping me concentrate and retain information.
It is not only disabled people who have needs. As IC trustee, Fiona MacMillan, says, we are all a combination of needs and gifts, and when our needs are met, our gifts flourish. The fact that society sets disabled people aside in a separate category of ‘needy’ and burdensome doesn’t change that. Individualism and the desire to be totally independent is a false narrative and a dangerous one. Even if we think we don’t need anyone now, we will need other people at some point in our lives, especially as we get older. Part of the reason why disabled people are pitied, looked down on and excluded is because many people don’t want to consider their own fragility and dependence on others. The church is no different in this regard. Despite our entire faith narrative being built on the vulnerability and weakness of God (no less!), we have always tried to shift the focus of that narrative to be all about the triumphant ‘mighty King’ and ‘all-powerful Lord’ etc. Christianity has departed from its radically subversive beginnings which, in the eyes of the world and in the words of St Paul, looked ‘foolish’, because God triumphed only through weakness, disability and death. It has long been perverted into a religion of the strong, the conquerors- the religion of Empire.
The biggest challenge for Christianity now is for it to not only question but apologise for, denounce, and fully reject its imperial past, in order to once more embrace weakness and vulnerability as the core of its story and message. It can only achieve this if it listens to and centres the experience of those it has long marginalised and dismissed. Marginalised people are the truth-tellers of Christianity. We are the ones who show the way and who save the church with our knowledge and insight, just like the woman at the well saved her people, even though they didn’t deserve it. Jesus knew she was the key to the salvation of her people. He understood how things really were. She – just like him – was the cornerstone that had been rejected by a society which constantly refuses to ‘see’ things as they truly are.
Even nowadays, people within the church refuse open up to the truth. I have heard many Christians and non-Christians dismiss the kind of work Inclusive Church does as ‘identity politics’. This is an expression which is increasingly being used to put marginalised people back in our place, to avoid having to listen to us, to silence us, to make sure we are stopped in our tracks before we can even get started. It can be seen in the way that Black Lives Matter protesters were told they were destroying history when, in reality, they were making it. It can be seen in the way women are told we can’t take a joke when we are subjected to sexist attitudes at work. It can be seen in the way that trans women are made out to be perpetrators instead of the victims that they really are. In truth, it is only people who have enough privilege to not have to question their identity or place in the world who can dismiss marginalised peoples struggles for justice as ‘identity politics’.
As with so many things, there is another side to all this though. Labels can be both helpful and unhelpful, depending on the context and how they are used. There are times when a label can put someone in a box and be used against them to say: ‘you can’t achieve this because you are this’. Similarly, there are times when it is helpful to remember that we are all human and have more in common with one another than not. Also, solidarity between marginalised groups is incredibly important, as is the support of allies who are not themselves marginalised. In addition, none of us live in identity silos and our identities are complex, not just one single thing. Having said that, something must be named in order to be shamed, as the English expression goes. We must put something into words and identify it in order to fix the problem that exists. So, saying all lives matter might be true in theory, but it is unhelpful when the point of the expression ‘black lives matter’ is to highlight the experience of a group of people whose lives don’t currently matter as much as other people’s in an inherently racist society. There is a problem which needs to be named – black lives matter but society and law enforcement doesn’t act as if they do – in order to be exposed and put right. To respond with ‘all lives matter’ is similar to dismissing work for justice and inclusion as ‘identity politics’: it denies that there is a problem and it silences the people who are experiencing injustice and pain.
The church needs to reject its imperial past, wake up to the gifts of marginalised peoples, and understand that its calling is to preach a vulnerable, suffering God, not a conquering, all-powerful one. Only this can liberate the world and the church from its obsession with power and strength. The Bible does not tell us that denying our own weakness will set us free or that upholding the status quo will set us free. Only the truth can set us free (John 8:32), and the truth is found in relationship, interdependency, weakness, and in the love of Christ, which is ‘wide and long and high and deep’ and which, in the words of Liberation Theology, has a ‘preference for the poor’. It is both true that God loves everyone the same and that God loves the poor and marginalised preferentially. We can’t get our heads round that very easily, but it is true, and the church needs to reflect and act on it. No theology is more perverse than prosperity gospel theology, which says that God gives wealth and success to those God loves. Wealth and success are not even on God’s agenda. Strength in weakness and love for one another are on God’s agenda. Centring the most marginalised people is on God’s agenda. Moving the centre to the margins is on Gods’ agenda. Saving the church and the world through those who are ignored and dismissed and considered weak – that is God’s agenda. All that the world generally considers foolishness – that is God’s agenda.
How can the church of the future work to undo oppression, including its own long-standing oppression of so many, and centre the experience of marginalised people? There is a charity called Christian Peacemaker Teams, which I became involved with in 2011, when I went on a two-week delegation working with and learning from Native American peoples. Prior to that trip, I thought I was very underprivileged – as a woman, and as a gay woman. I had only ever really thought about my own personal experiences and pain, and that is so common for so many of us. I am extremely grateful that I came across CPT at that time in my life, as that two-week trip turned my life upside-down completely and I began to ‘see’ things I had never seen before. I was massively privileged. I was white, I was Western, I was brought up in a family which never had to go without money, I was never judged on the colour of my skin or my background or my accent, I had been to university, I had a job. The list went on and on and on. From a place where I was able only to focus on my own pain and marginalisation – which was real and should never be dismissed – I was suddenly broken open by listening to the experiences of a group of people who were far more marginalised and hurt than I was. Listening is what changed me – listening to others’ experiences. Listening and building a relationship with people. I was suddenly able to empathise more and also to see my own privilege. This enabled me to become a real agent for change working alongside other marginalised peoples. It awoke in me a solidarity that had until then laid dormant, and the question on my heart became ‘What can I do to help you in this struggle?’
My prayer is for the church to experience that same awakening one day soon. As a church, we need to not only understand about vulnerability, inclusion, marginalisation and justice in an academic way – we need a true conversion of the heart, a repentance, a turning around. We need to recognise Christianity’s own part in the violence of Empire, in the narrative of ‘might is right’ and the narrative of God as the mighty ‘Lord over all’. It may be true in one way that God is Lord of all, but in another way, the language we use about God can simply end up reinforcing everything that is wrong with the world. The church needs more humility, more openness to learning, more listening, more awareness, more solidarity, more equality, more inclusion. That is how it will stay alive in the future, and that is the journey you are embarking on as you read the stories of marginalisation in the Inclusive Church book series, and you listen, and you discuss what you can do differently in your context. I will be praying for you as you participate in building the Kingdom of God. May God be with you. Amen.
This talk was given to the Swedish Lutheran network of churches ‘The Future Lives With Us’ on Wednesday 13th January 2021 by Ruth Wilde, National Coordinator of Inclusive Church. You can watch it here.