Being Radical about Radical Inclusion

by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


Being a member of what the media persists in referring to as the “C of E’s parliament” has brought some difficult and demanding moments, especially in the years when we were struggling to shape legislation on the ordination of women as bishops. Recently Synod has again had to contend with another subject on which feelings run high, same sex relationships. It could have been dreadful, but in fact it was one of the best debates I have attended in nearly twelve years as a Synod member.

I think it helped that members had time and space to prepare themselves for the debate rather than rushing into it straight from other business. Many of us took part in small groups where we were able to look both at examples of situations where conflict over matters of sexuality arises in parishes and also to reflect on what we felt about the House of Bishops’ Report. Others, who did not feel it appropriate to participate in the groups, met in a nearby parish conference centre, where the Archbishop of Canterbury spent time with them. We were also helped by a variety of fringe meetings over the previous forty-eight hours.

Then, for something over two hours, and with around forty members speaking, Synod was passionate but courteous. Divergent views were listened to and speakers applauded. A sketch writer, released from his normal duties because Parliament was in recess, commented on how much higher was the standard of behaviour on the church side of Abingdon Street. Above all, the Synod managed to correct what had been so badly lacking in the report that I and my colleagues in the House of Bishops had laid before them. The debate set a new and positive tone and provided a much needed momentum for the task of revisiting the ways in which the Church affirms and celebrates the lives, loves and ministries of those among it who identify as LGBT+. Voting not to “take note” of the bishops’ document may be a somewhat arcane piece of procedure, but for many it served the task of projecting that desire for a new start beyond our Westminster debating chamber and into the world outside.

So how might we go forward from last week’s debate? I suspect that the clue lies in the term “radical inclusion” that was used so powerfully by Archbishop Justin in the final speech of the debate. But that on its own will not be enough. Alongside it we need a Church that is prepared to be “purposefully paradoxical”.

Few, if any, present at last week’s Synod expect that body to be voting through a change in the Church of England’s canon on marriage by two thirds majorities in all three houses any time soon. But what can be challenged without further delay is the argument that begins from that premise and then extrapolates it almost to infinity.  Such an argument asserts that until the law and the canons change, wider teaching is fixed. Once that is conceded the argument then runs that until teaching changes, the discipline cannot be modified. Accept that and we are pressed to agree that as long as the discipline remains untouched, the prayers of the church cannot change very much either. It may be a logical argument but it is the logic of logjam.

Times of change are by their nature times of paradox. To be purposefully paradoxical is to recognise that whilst consistency may be a feature of the endpoints of a journey it is rarely present all along the way. What nineteenth century physics found to be true for the trajectories of photons passing through a pair of narrow slits, twenty-first century theology must allow to be the case for a church traversing through a time of challenge and change. Some aspects of change will get ahead of others. Some parts of the church may move faster, further, or at a different angle than their neighbours. Messy Church won’t just describe a brand of work with children. In many ways we will be more like the pluriform Church of the New Testament, marvelously malleable under the hand of the Holy Spirit.

Such an embracing of paradox with a purpose provides the context for an exploration of the Archbishop’s radical inclusion that is much, much more than the maximum freedom which one Synod member tellingly remarked may mean little beyond “the prisoner being allowed to walk around their entire cell”. It opens up the possibility of exploring our prayers, our discipline, our outreach, our ministry and our teaching, and doing so with the expectation that things are going to look significantly different afterwards. Moreover, radical inclusion requires that we should no longer be reflecting about sexuality issues without LGBT+ members being present, nor doing so in a context where they feel marginalised or unsafe. “Talking about us, without us” must never again be a charge that can justifiably be levelled against us.

We are, after Synod, very much at the beginning of a journey, but it is both a better journey than we might have expected and a journey with God. That is what matters the most.

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11 Responses to Being Radical about Radical Inclusion

  1. Dear Bishop David,
    I am grateful that your recently published thoughts on inclusivity refer to the T element as well as other parts such as LG and B. The discussion in recent times and the House of Bishops’ paper made no reference to transgender people. It is therefore good to know you see an end to the process of talking about people without including people from the groups under discussion.

    Many trans people do find they are welcome within the Church of England but aspects of how matters get handled remain problematic and sometimes seriously deficient. I, and I suspect other trans people, look forward to learning how this new style of discussion might be enabled.


  2. Thank you, Bishop David. As an American Episcopalian and a frequent visitor to England to visit friends and family, I follow with great interest the activities of General Synod. When I am in England, I live in the Diocese of Salisbury. In the US, As you may know, the Episcopal Church has recognized the right of gay/lesbian clergy and parishioners marry in their churches. Gay/lesbian bishops have also been called to serve. It wasn’t an easy decision and we did see some people leave, some for other denominations, some just gone. But I believe Christ calls all to his rable and to life. We may be smaller, but we are better for including everyone. Thank you.


  3. Correction: that ‘s TABLE’ not ‘rable’ but both may be appropriate!


  4. Gareth says:

    Excellent piece – and so much more *human* – than either your (bishops’) paper, or the letters which so many of you wrote to your dioceses in the light of that paper.
    A number of you (diocesan bishops) seem to have been set free to by the Synod debate and wider reaction to your paper: free now to speak much more generously, free from the fear and defensiveness which seemed to hold you captive only a very few weeks ago.
    Perhaps that rather pitiful GS paper has served a good purpose after all. It has surely opened cracks large enough for the Holy Spirit to get in – and inspire a fresh, loving, and Christ-like leadership from the bishops. We’re not there yet. But we may be seeing the beginnings of something very good indeed.


  5. Kate says:

    Dear Bishop David
    Could you please share this new study by academics from the highly respected John Hopkins and Harvard with your episcopal peers? It shows equal marriage laws cut teen suicide attempts by 7%

    They extrapolate to the ability to reduce suicide attempts by American 15-19 year olds by 134,000 attempts a year. You may have seen the Guardian mention it. It is easy to see that sorting out the CofE position could equally save the lives of many teenagers. Everything the HoB writes seems to be sterile about doctrine and not focused on saving lives. Hopefully the next attempt by HoB will prioritise saving lives. Your piece is heartening and suggests the possibility of change, the first believable green shoot.

    Thank you


  6. Ross Bell says:

    Dear David,

    I am, as ever sympathetic to your humanity and willingness to be alongside. Alas you are part of an organisation which has proven itself to be “institutionally homophobic.” You refer to the term ‘radical inclusion’ I am afraid that it is much simpler than that what is needed is just inclusion. I use the word “just” because it is merely a matter of justice and the respect of human rights. It is no longer radical or unusual or extreme, although that is how inclusion and equality seems to be responded to by the powerholders within the Churches. For society it is just normative.

    What might be needed is for the church to be humble enough to place itself under the laws of the land. To carry on demanding and functioning with a royal perogative which enables the organisation to be exempt from Employment Laws, Equality and Diversity Laws, Tax Laws reveals the position that the church as an institution is proud to maintain and carry on with its abuse. Be part of society – now that would be radical.

    You mention “the ways in which the Church affirms and celebrates the lives, loves and ministries of those among it who identify as LGBT+” which made me ponder on that. In my years of ministry and having stepped beyond this excluding organisation, I can point out how the church affirms and celebrates us. It doesn’t. It is that simple, until I can have my humanity celebrated in equality, under the law of the land, with yours then the Church continues to fail.

    Good luck but for many of us queers we having minced off dancing and laughing in a different direction.

    Big kisses


    (Fr Ross K Bell)


  7. I hope that “Radical inclusion ” does not evolve into a catchphrase or buzzword. I hope that LGBTQI people will be able to walk into churches the length and breadth of the country and be able to relax and enjoy and feel the enfolding love of the Holy Spirit. I pray that there will come a time when the media won’t immediately look to the church for a voice that would oppose my rights as a gay man. That preachers would be enboldened to speak out against homophobia or transphobia or biphobia. That a person can minister with their gifts instead of being treated with suspicion. It will only be radical inclusion when we are not drawing any distinction and inclusion is so obvious that nobody thinks about it any more and we stop patting ourselves on the back because we are affirming ministry. Instead we regard the excluders as the weird ones.


  8. Dear Bishop — You are right. People tend to forget the Early Church’s struggles with the lapsed and the tensions and the different tracks followed by Cyprian and Stephen, and even the other minor sees. It took a good while to get things settled in the church. We need to pray for the gift of love producing fruits of forbearance and patience to allow God to work out his will on us.


  9. Chris says:

    Dear Bishop David

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am fearful, however, that your position opens the door to any and every practice being blessed and affirmed by the church of England. Are you really saying that church leaders can be “purposefully paradoxical” in any area of teaching and practice in the hope that the official position of the church will catch up in the end? It sounds superficially noble, radical, even revolutionary but it is untenable. The church should be governed by God’s word. At the very least it should be governed by its own canons. You seem to be suggesting that neither hold sway? But in a society where social mores are shifting daily, where does that leave the church? Are we simply to be carried along, being “purposefully paradoxical” in line with every new development in society? Societal norms have shifted massively concerning beginning and end of life issues. If people wanted the church to baptise aborted foetuses should the church be purposefully paradoxical and oblige? If people wanted the church to hold a service to prepare a person for death by euthanasia should the church agree? The debate in question concerns sexual ethics but here too norms have moved with alarming speed. It is not inconceivable that society will soon endorse what is currently consider paedophilic; bestiality is already tacitly improved of by many.* If this happens, should churches be purposefully paradoxical and bless and affirm such unions.

    I expect that some will read these comments and ridicule them as fantastical or simply scaremongering. But intellectually your position offers no safeguards against such things taking place within Christ’s church. Instead we become a body that is ruled by popular opinion or even the minority opinion of some of its leaders, who are willing to purposefully disobey the canons of the church and the teachings of scripture. And in so doing the church has ceased to be different from the world and therefore ceases to be a source of blessing to the world.



    * I would strongly add that I am in now way suggesting that these sexual practices are linked to or should be equated with homosexual acts between consenting adults. I merely use them as example of sexual practice that are currently forbidden by law but which could conceivably be permitted in years to come.


  10. Rosemary Hannah says:

    Dear Chris, Thank you for admitting that marriage between two people who love each other, and seek the best for each other is a different thing to paedophilia and bestiality. I see no desire in society to affirm that latter two, none at all. Indeed the affirmation of same-sex relationships has come from looking dispassionately at the good and the harm that relationships do. We see that same sex marriage leads to good and stable behaviour, while molesting children has become an anathema to society because we see the harm it does.


  11. Pingback: Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes (and Words)? | ViaMedia.News

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