Speaking of inclusivity

The other day in an online ‘discussion,’ on matters sexual (there’s a surprise)  I was asked: ‘what does it mean to be inclusive.’

It is a fair question in that ‘inclusive’ seems to be a word, phrase, or motif that many across the breadth of the church seek to own. I suspect that part of the reason is that few want to either regard themselves, or be regarded by others, as ‘exclusive.’

Sometimes it is useful to be forensic about a particular word or phrase. When I was a young undergraduate one of the comments that frequently appeared in red ink, in the margins of my essays was ‘state your terms.’

So maybe when we use words (motifs) like inclusive and inclusivity it is  right and proper that we’ state our terms,’ at least that way we might understand where our various conversation partners are coming from. I also think it is important that we do not allow words and phrases to mean whatever someone want them to mean; although I would also argue that some words and phrases defy precise meaning. Language is both complex and political.

The early to mid twentieth century Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren was obsessed with the idea of motifs. For Nygen a fundamental motif was an idea, word or concept that is granted ‘a special position,’ and is of ‘fundamental importance.’ (Nygren believed that agape, radical self giving love, is Christianity’s only fundamental motif, although he was also pretty much taken with Eros, hence his book Agape and Eros). Nygren said the following on the subject of motifs, and motif research:

‘As distinct from historical-genetic research, motif research is concerned less with the historical connections and origins of motifs than with their characteristic content and typical manifestations.’ 

Now I have little doubt that some will be extremely uncomfortable with the idea of dispensing with ‘historical-genetic research;’ so be it.

But, what I would like to do is give some thought to the idea that if ‘inclusivity’ is to be afforded the status of a ‘fundamental motif,’ (which I believe it should), what could be its internal characteristics and external manifestations. Clearly there is a direct relationship between the two dynamics. Beliefs (orthodoxy) are made visible through actions (orthopraxis).

I have used the word could as opposed to would because this is an initial thought piece, not a fully worked through thesis, (Nygren took 741 pages to analyses agape – it is a very dense read!)

I would want to argue that plurality, diversity and structural ambiguity are core to the genetic make up of inclusivity. An inclusive community must actively accommodate and promote a variety of views. It must respect the legitimacy of different views. However, it must go further, moving from the cognitive to the real, or physical. It must also, demonstrably, go beyond weak form  (political and pragmatic) toleration of certain views, and more importantly, people.

An inclusive community doesn’t just make an intellectual assent to pluralism, it must also be inhabited by a set of diverse and different characters. Inclusivity has both an intellectual and a tangible and physical dimension. Inclusivity is a lived experience.

Plurality and diversity lead into ‘structural ambiguity,’ at least at the level of traditional descriptors. For someone observing an inclusive community it may well be the case that the only word left to really describe the community and its essence is…….’inclusive!’

Yes, a particular inclusive community may worship in a distinctive way. It may be high church or low church, liturgical or experiential, but, these for an inclusive church may be regarded as secondary markers, for the ‘fundamental motif’ is inclusivity.

The external manifestations of an inclusive church would, I think, be evidenced in two ways:

First, the style of leadership (and into this category I would subsume teaching). It is of course important that leaders of inclusive churches should have their own views, or theologies, but it is also possibly the case that these are not of primary importance.

The leadership of an inclusive church, if plurality and diversity are characteristic of inclusivity, should be happy with a range of well thought through views. Teaching would encourage reflection and allow for the potential for ‘good disagreement.’  Leaders and teachers would be ‘happy’ with the reality that some, maybe even many, might disagree with their theologies on a given (important) subject. The role of the leader / teacher is to accompany the people of God on their journey, without having a fixed pastoral or doctrinal outcome as the goal. The leader / teacher may also wish to work with the community in deciding on where the (perhaps porous) boundaries of inclusivity may be set. Inclusivity doesn’t mean collapsing into absolute relativism and, unrestricted hospitality (the Rule of Benedict, for instance, stresses this point.)

It does mean, however, providing the language whereby different communities can describe what inclusivity means, and how it will be experienced or inhabited, in their context. For each parish to be able to do requires an institutional architecture that allows for plurality and diversity. Institutional inclusivity must precede contextual inclusivity.

The implication of this is that the denomination must itself be inclusive allowing some parishes to define inclusivity by providing everyone with access to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, whilst other parishes may, additionally, chose to  offer pastoral prayers for same sex couples, or rites of affirmation.

Inclusivity at the denominational level can only be operational in a system characterized by a commitment to subsidiarity. Subsidiarity suggests the importance of liberal and conservative alike ceasing to frame contentious subjects in the rhetoric of ‘winner takes all.’ Subsidiarity allows communities (and individuals in positions of authority) to hold a particular position but, also demands that such a position should not be imposed on other communities (or individuals).

Subsidiarity and inclusivity go hand in glove. Subsidiarity doesn’t throw away all institutional norms, but it thinks very carefully (and I would argue pragmatically) about their scope. Subsidiarity values ‘good disagreement,’ but, insists that ‘good disagreement,’ implies institutionally approved differences in practice. Subsidiarity moves disagreement beyond the cognitive and appreciative and into praxis.

The second way in which the ‘typical manifestation’ of inclusivity is , therefore demonstrated is through the range of rites and practices offered by a particular community. I would want to argue that rites and practices are the epistemology of the church in action. If we claim to be inclusive then we have to have concrete actions that validate the claim. Otherwise to paraphrase St. James our ‘words are dead;’ meaningless, maybe even political.

Is my Church inclusive? Well, only up to a point. (the point being access to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist).   I hope the C of E is  moving towards adopting different ways of expressing a commitment to  inclusivity, but because the Church seems to prize ‘structural certainty,’ over ‘structural ambiguity,’ it can’t at present be fully inclusive. That is the reality within which we operate.

Does this matter?

Only, if inclusivity should be regarded as a ‘fundamental motif.’ 




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