At the heart of much discussion about sexuality is the subject of inclusion. A number of developments in the last few weeks have helpfully highlighted the problems and limits of this language.
Full inclusion as full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church
Just over a week ago the recently appointed Bishop of Grantham made public that he is gay and in a long-term but non-sexual relationship. Although the situation is not as novel as the media claimed, this degree of openness about one’s sexuality within the episcopacy does represent a significant development in the life of the Church of England. It coincided with a number of same-sex married Anglicans writing an open letter to the House of Bishops which appeared in the Sunday Times, apparently the paper whose enquiries led the bishop to speak about his situation to a different newspaper. This letter included the regular appeal for “full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Church”.
But what is meant by “full inclusion”? A 2007 General Synod motion stated that “Homosexual orientation in itself is no bar to a faithful Christian life or to full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church”. This is perhaps the only aspect of the church’s formal teaching and discipline which has near universal support across our deep differences. It is also the most natural understanding of “full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Church”. Until this weekend it could be claimed that the lack of an openly gay person among the bishops cast doubt as to whether the church was genuinely fully inclusive in practice. It is now clear – especially as Bishop Nicholas at no point hid his sexuality or his long-term relationship – that the church truly is committed, not just in theory, to implementing its vision of inclusion set out in 2007.
There are now openly gay people among not just the baptised and communicant laity, deacons and priests but also among serving bishops. At every level there is still work to be done in the face of areas of resistance and exclusion to people simply on the grounds of their sexual orientation or attraction. Nevertheless, the church has at last clearly embraced “full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Church” in its proper and only logical sense: “full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church” without regard to sexual orientation. It has of course always done this but never as openly. It has now done so in a manner which is obvious and should not be reversed and which will, one hopes, enable LGBTI people to feel they can, if they wish, be more open about their sexuality and help the church to welcome them as Christ welcomes them.
Flawed appeals to full inclusion
The letter writers are, however, unlikely to accept this conclusion. Their call for full inclusion asked for much more. They want the bishops to “enable those parishes that wish to do so to celebrate the love that we have found in our wives and husbands”. But this is to address a separate question from that of inclusion. It is a question not of including people but of deciding which of the many patterns of life found among LGBTI people the church can faithfully celebrate. Even their own proposal would not be fully inclusive of all LGBTI people once inclusion is to be understood beyond “full participation in ministry”. It would still exclude from the church’s liturgical celebrations those who, for whatever reason, do not choose to marry their same-sex partner but to structure their relationships in other ways.
Despite this, the appeal to inclusion continues in order to persuade people to go further and commend same-sex unions. But this is a quite distinct matter involving inclusion and approval of certain ways of life as morally acceptable rather than inclusion of people. The reason for this continued appeal to inclusion was caught by Justin Welby speaking at Greenbelt where he said:
We cannot pretend that – so I’m putting one case then I’m going to put the other – we cannot pretend or I can’t pretend myself that inclusion from the point of view of someone in a same sex relationship just to take a simple…that inclusion of someone in a same sex relationship that falls short of the blessing of the Church is going to feel like inclusion – it’s not going to be perceived as inclusion. I think we’re conning ourselves if we say that there is some clever solution out there that means you can do less than that and it will feel like inclusion.
Here – voicing the views of many – he has developed the language of inclusion in two important but flawed respects. It refers to a subjective experience – something must “feel like inclusion”– and then to inclusion in a specific form as being necessary if it is “to be perceived as inclusion” and meet that subjective test: the “blessing of the Church” on “a same sex relationship”. These two moves are what then lead to a number of problems. The most obvious in relation to the first is evident in what the Archbishop then said:
But when you do that, if you do that, it will feel like exclusion to a bunch of other people, betrayal, subversion, even stronger words than that.
If inclusion is understood subjectively then that must apply across the board. But what feels like inclusion to some feels like non-inclusion or exclusion to others. So, as he went on to say, leading to dreadful reports on the need to “hug a homophobe”:
We have to find a way in which we love and embrace everybody who loves Jesus Christ, without exception and without hesitation. [Applause]. But – there’s a but coming – but that includes those who feel that same sex relationships are deeply, deeply wrong, or who live in societies where they feel they are deeply, deeply wrong and they feel deeply compromised by other Christians around the world.
And so any approach which tests a proposal simply on the grounds of whether everyone will feel included leads to an impasse, a dead-end and a paralysis:
Do I know when there’ll be a point where…a blessing will happen – no, I don’t know the answer to that and I can’t see the roadmap ahead.
This is because “inclusion” so defined proves impossible whenever there is deep moral disagreement. We will therefore never find a way forward on the issues which divide us if we reduce the discussion to “inclusion” or even make “inclusion” the primary category of our thinking. The problem is even greater if we then define inclusion in terms of “what feels like inclusion” and/or tie that to a particular moral stance which is highly contentious. If we treat inclusion in that way then we are saying that there cannot be truly full inclusion until there is full agreement. Alternatively, inclusion comes only at the price of moral incoherence. The moral judgment of every person in the church about what constitutes a holy life has to be given some form of validation by the church so that those who hold it and live by it can feel genuinely included. But if the church does the latter and meets the moral demands of certain people who say they do not currently feel included then, as the Archbishop pointed out, others will thereby feel excluded. We are hamstrung in the face of disagreement if we view inclusion in this way because for the church to take a particular moral position inevitably means it will fail in its call to be inclusive when there is moral disagreement.
How do we move forward? Going beyond “inclusion”
Instead of getting stuck in this cul-de-sac we need to say that inclusion properly understood is now more firmly established as a public reality than ever before thanks to the Bishop of Grantham. We need to welcome and consolidate that but we also need to be clear that inclusion does not and cannot give us the answers to the primary question we now must address. This is the question of how those who are included should live. Inclusion cannot answer what forms of life the church must welcome, include and bless and what forms it must not celebrate and should maybe even warn against as sin. Such warnings will almost inevitably make it difficult for those who are living that way from “feeling included”.
As we move from conversations to seek a way forward we therefore need to do two things. First, we need to continue to work to ensure that we are fully inclusive in the only proper sense: that “homosexual orientation in itself is no bar to a faithful Christian life or to full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church”.
Second, we need to stop pretending that appeals to inclusion can reasonably justify any more than this. The latest open letter from General Synod members is interesting on this count in that it makes no specific requests other than that “the College of Bishops is unequivocal in its acknowledgement that all, including those who identify as LGBTI, are essential to the health and future of our church and mission to the wider world” which is perhaps best understood as a rewording of the 2007 motion just quoted. However, it then says the signatories are “fully committed to the process of encouraging greater inclusion across the Church of England for all”. This, though limiting itself to “greater” not “full” inclusion, appears to be a veiled request for the sort of developments explicitly sought in the Sunday Times open letter. We need to recognise that if so then “inclusion” is simply a rhetorical device which lacks substance or persuasive power and seeks to portray opponents as opposed to inclusion.
The decision as to whether to include certain ways of life within the leadership and liturgical celebration of the church – in any area of life, not just sexuality – cannot be made on the basis of an appeal to inclusion. It requires us instead to appeal to God’s revelation as to his good and perfect will for our lives and to a moral vision of what enables human flourishing consistent with that revelation. It is to these matters, and not to a poorly-defined shibboleth of “inclusion”, that the bishops and the wider church now need to focus their attention.