Most people reading the title above will wonder what the debate is about—but in different directions. Some will say ‘of course is it’ and others ‘of course it isn’t’. The latest title in the Grove Ethics series explores this vexed question and is a powerful and important study by Dr Edward Dowler, formerly Vice Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and currently Vicar of Clay Hill, north London. His introduction highlights this polarisation of views.
One of the most powerful ways in which the New Testament expresses the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ is the image of adoption articulated by St Paul at the beginning of the Letter to the Ephesians. To be adopted is surely to be included: enfolded into Christ and thus unfolded into his mission. We thus start our investigation of inclusivity by noting that inclusion in this sense is a positive, indeed a glorious, thing, something God does, not because we deserve it, but ‘according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.’
Yet, when we move from the specific theological theme of our inclusion into God’s family as his adopted sons and daughters and, indeed, as Paul elsewhere teaches, our inclusion into Christ himself (eg 1 Cor 12.1) towards a more generic idea of inclusivity, things become contentious. For some, such a move seems obvious: inclusivity is a concept that points the way towards a more generous church, one that is ‘welcoming and open to all.’ Any denial of it seems to undermine fundamental Christian values, distort the mission of the church and ultimately misunderstand the graciousness of God because ‘inclusion is the gospel.’
For others, such emphasis on inclusivity as a fundamental value seems like a distortion of the gospel: a warmed-over, sentimental version of secular ideas, which masquerades as Christian theology whilst, at the same time, undermining and corroding it.
In his second chapter, Dowler explores the basic problems in the meaning of the term ‘inclusive’ as it is used in everyday discourse.
Now, of course, in modern parlance, the terms ‘inclusive’ and ‘inclusivity’ are currently used as a sort of shorthand to denote a liberal attitude, which seeks fairness for women, gay people and minority groups. But the open-ended nature of the term inevitably invites a question about how far such inclusivity extends. The inclusivity of groups and individuals does not normally stretch, for example, to an uncritical welcome to religious fundamentalists, paedophiles and members of the extreme right-wing political parties. Thus ‘inclusive’ as it is commonly used today effectively amounts to ‘inclusive of some groups but not others.’
The ironic result is that the language of inclusivity itself comes to be used as a means of defining groups that are in and out. As one writer puts it, ‘Toleration despises bigots, inclusiveness shuts out excluders, and diversity insists that we all line up to support it.’ Once a directory is compiled of those parishes or other organizations who define themselves as ‘inclusive,’ then this automatically implies that those who are not featured on the list do not share this identity. The very term ‘inclusive’ thus comes to be used as an instrument of exclusion, effectively creating ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups.
In the third chapter, Dowler goes on to review the work of James Kalb from the US, who argues that the liberal culture of ‘inclusion’ functions to flatten out and eliminate the significance of traditional institutions like family, religion, and local and particular communities.
If Kalb’s analysis is in any way correct, churches, which by their nature tend to be small-scale institutions, relying to some extent on informal, local arrangements and connections between people, might be threatened by certain aspects of the inclusive agenda. For, as Kalb contends, in an idealized inclusive society that many hope for, ‘The particularities of history, place and human relation must be deprived of significance. Traditional ties, standards, and identities must be destroyed so that populations become aggregates of unconnected individuals who are easy to sort and manage and unlikely to resist rationalized training, marketing, and propaganda.’20 For local churches, seeking to form communities of the baptized in the image of Jesus Christ, with distinctive identities, and bound together by love and friendship, such an approach presages destruction and death.
This makes for highly pertinent reading in a week when the inspection of church Sunday Schools by OFSTED is in the news, as part of the Government’s campaign against extremism.
Dowler goes on to explore the origins of Western ides of the individual, and argues that it originates in Christian understandings of men and women made in the image of God long before such notions were found in the Enlightenment. He then focuses on the crucial question: does the Bible support the idea of inclusivity? He explores this in the NT in dialogue with Richard Burridge’s Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics.
‘If Jesus were alive today, then he would have definitely been inclusive.’ This statement, or something like it, is one that I have frequently heard at church gatherings, expressed in an absolutely categorical way, as if it were entirely beyond question. Setting aside christological quibbles (‘If Jesus were alive today’?), even a cursory look at the gospels reveals such statements to be very simplistic…Many of Jesus’ parables speak not of inclusion but of division and separation, and Jesus, in fact, is not very inclusive when it comes to the wealthy and to those who are not Jews.
Whilst Burridge indicates that he wishes us to regard Jesus as inclusive, the significance of his analysis is that in fact we can do no such thing. The evidence, as he ably demonstrates, is very complex and varied, so that we cannot label Jesus as we encounter him in the gospels as inclusive or indeed as exclusive. To do so is, fairly obviously, to shoehorn him into modern categories into which he refuses to fit. The concept and language of inclusivity and exclusivity thus illuminates almost nothing about Jesus and in truth only really tells us about the preoccupations of those who deploy them. They are reminiscent of Albert Schweitzer’s depiction of New Testament scholars, who peer down a deep well of twenty centuries to see the face of Jesus, but instead are rewarded with a pale reflection of themselves.
Paul, too, resists categorisation by contemporary labels of ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’.
It is an exquisite irony that St Paul, a fearsome bogeyman for bien pensant opinion, who condemns homosexual practices, women who talk in church and slaves who are disobedient to their masters (Rom 1.26–7; 1 Cor 14.34; Eph 6.5) should stand as he does at the centre of the biblical vision of God’s inclusive plan of salvation. However, it was indeed Paul’s witness, in the face of initial opposition from Jesus’s original disciples, that the church should be open to Gentiles as well as Jews that makes him, perhaps ironically, the ultimately inclusive figure (see, for example, Galatians 2 and Acts 15).
Dowler concludes by proposing that the notion of ‘inclusivity’, which flattens out humanity and suppresses proper moral discussion, should be displaced by the virtue of justice, which is capable of differentiating between people and contexts.
How can we find a deeper and more robust language than can be offered by ‘inclusivity’ to understand the difficult questions that confront us in the church and in modern society? I believe that the Bible and the Christian tra- dition provide us with a wealth of resources. One of these, among many, is a deeper engagement with the traditional virtues, in particular the cardinal or ‘hinge’ virtue of justice as this has been described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and subsequently by the Christian theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Unlike the other moral virtues of prudence, temperance and fortitude which are mainly to do with self-development, justice has a certain pre-eminence because it is always and inherently neighbour-oriented.
The starting point of justice is not so much the assertion of individual rights as the acknowledgment of the debt that all of us owe to one another. Whilst inclusivity tends to separate people into two groups—the included and the excluded; the oppressor and the oppressed; perpetrators and victims—justice directs us to a far richer picture of the duties and obligations that all of us owe to others, as well as to the things that we are rightly able to expect from them in return.
Justice is, unlike inclusivity, variegated and dynamic in the demands it makes of us. Justice acknowledges that individuals, and the various types of human community, might owe different things to different people and at different times. For example, in my ministry as a parish priest, I owe something different to the child in my congregation than I do to the paedophile in my congregation; something different to couple who are about to get married than to the person who is on the point of death; something different to the head teacher of my church primary school than to my clergy colleagues in the deanery; and so on. The virtuous path lies in determining as best we can what exactly we do owe to each of these different people and trying to act upon this as best we might.
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