This past week, Disability and Jesus lead David Lucas declared a day of social media action with regard to disability and access to Church. It seems to have been an extremely fruitful and wide-reaching demonstration of unity and desire for change amongst those with an interest in disability and Church, along with a much-needed poke to people at all levels of Church life to think about whether the Church of which they are part is a provider or denier of access. Even General Synod got in on the act tweeting its support for the campaign. One can only hope this is followed by action. If you want to learn more about what was said, the stories that were told on the day, the conversations that sprung up, and some of the hopes that there are for what is to come, you can follow the hashtag for the day here. Much was achieved in a short space of time. Much more may be to come.
Over the last few months, as I’ve spent my first prolonged period in full-time Christian ministry, one of the key areas that I’ve found myself struggling with is that of authority and control. As a Church of England (Assistant) Curate, there are some people that would defer to me in a lot of things. Thankfully not many of them are in my Church! Some people like to be under authority, they like to know where they are. They like boundaries, a sense of what is right and wrong, what or who is allowed in, and who should be kept out. Some people are, naturally, quite the opposite, straining against any boundaries that you might set as a leader, and indeed questioning what right any leader might have to set those boundaries in the first place. I’ve written before on the question of who, and what kind of person, do we want to be led by. Another way of putting it is, who do we want to submit to? Some of us want to say that we submit to God, but I myself find that a daily, or several times daily, decision that I have to make. Others are happy to submit to authority exercised by government (Jesus seems to have told us to do this, but what does it look like in our lives and in our society?)
We want to accept that God has us in the palm of his hand, that nothing can take us from his hand because we have been given to Jesus, as today’s lectionary gospel reading tells us. To do this, we work towards accepting that we are part of a new family, we have been adopted in to God’s family. We were adopted not because we chose to be, because we satisfied some criteria of suitability, but because God desired it to be so. We are his. All of creation is reconciled to God in and through Jesus. We have been brought together. It has happened. We are no longer strangers to the arms of God, as an excellent recent Vineyard song puts it. We might feel like it. You might not even think that God exists (well done for reading this far if that’s your point of view). We have, though, been included in God, and in his family. We are invited to lives of full participation. Full participation in what God is bringing about. For some reason best known to himself, he wants to partner with us in bringing hope, joy and peace to the poor, the widow and the orphan, the dispossessed, the unjustly treated, those who treat unjustly (or, to put it another way, everyone). This is the holy improvisation that we are invited to. None of us know how to do “Church” well, and what is Church anyway? All we’re called to do is love God with as much as we can, love ourselves, and love our neighbours. If we do this, if we believe in Jesus, the one he has sent, then we are doing what we’re supposed to. Jesus said so.
And so, and here’s the kicker, it troubles me when all we seek is inclusion. For inclusion and exclusion to exist and be exercised, there has to be someone making the decision to include or exclude. Someone, somewhere, has to have been given, or taken for themselves, the power to decide who is in and who is out, what is acceptable and what isn’t. A lot of our society is built on premises like this. I’m not sure that God designed it that way. Perhaps it was designed that way. There’s every chance I’m wrong and I’m speaking out of turn, but is it enough to give “power”, “control” and “authority” to the Church to include or exclude according to theology, economic “realities”, buildings or anything else, when the actual possibility of hope is not just to be included in something I was previously excluded from, but to participate in the way of life all of creation was originally designed for? There’s not a person alive, or an institution in existence which is able to reverse God’s declaration of life, hope, and a future over the creation he has reconciled to himself. I can preach up a storm, theologise (entirely speculatively I might add, just as I’m doing here) until I’m blue in the face. I can lock a certain group out of my building or my community life (literally or figuratively). I can validate this with all the proof-texting, systematic theology and apparent tradition and reason in the world, but that does nothing to diminish the power of what God has said and what God has done. All are welcome, all are welcome. All have a part to play. There’s not a Christian in the world who doesn’t have a ministry of some kind. There’s not a person that God does not want to be part of his family.
To simply ask the Church for inclusion ascribes the Church with too much power, I suppose is my point. What actually needs to happen, in my view, is that all of us who lead Churches at any level need to humble ourselves. The Church is God’s. It is not ours to maintain. He is growing it. He is extending its borders. It’s not ours to include or exclude. It’s ours to acknowledge that all are “included”. No-one is in the kingdom of God to passively watch the show as it unfolds though. We are making the show, with God as our director. He’s calling us to improvise our parts after the pattern of what we see him doing. To limit the scope of the Church to that of an ever-expanding club is to miss the point entirely. God is far ahead of us, preparing a place for all of us. Do we really want the Church to contain and belong to all of us? Or just some of us?
#fullaccesschurch already exists? Do we want it to or will we continue to think we have the power and the authority to pretend it doesn’t? Is it an impossible dream or a reality that we deny at our peril?