Updated: Mar 12
I am incredibly humbled that the new Methodist Strategy for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion has decided to use the formulation I proposed back in 2020 – Justice, Dignity and Solidarity. Beyond Inclusion was the title I gave to a talk for the Gathering, Cardiff Conference. When I was invited to speak, it was in the expectation that I would have just attended the Methodist Conference and that the final decision about same sex marriage would have been made. Of course, COVID-19 intervened and so it was left to the Conference of 2021 to make the final decisions. I am delighted that the vote in favour of allowing local churches and ministers to conduct marriages for same-sex couples was so overwhelming and I am hopeful that we will see the first weddings by the end of the year.
The same Methodist Conference received a report on a Strategy for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within the Church, an important step overshadowed somewhat by the marriage debate. Both decisions, whilst positive, also reveal to us the extent to which our own church lacks inclusion and sets out something of a map for the long road towards justice. In the words of Dr Martin Luther King:
‘The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’.
(“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.)
I am delighted that the Methodist Church has decided to drop the term, EDI because I believe that the notion that the struggle we are engaged with is fundamentally about equality, diversity or inclusion needs to be challenged. Whilst EDI covers a wide range of policies and processes adopted within other institutions and there is a huge amount to learn from other organisations, unless the church is able to reflect and ground these understandings in theological language, as well as in the language of the heart, I believe it will ultimately fail to launch. Many of us are well used to the world of acronyms like EDI because of our involvement in professional life or politics or activism. However, that is not the world that most churchgoers inhabit and, if we are not careful, the plethora of acronyms and groups of letters we use will simply turn off the very people we wish to reach.
It’s important to say that the institutional Church is beginning to get EDI … slowly and a long way behind others! I was part of a church working party well over a decade ago that was asked to formulate a theology of equality and diversity for the Methodist Church. It failed, not because of the group, but the nature of the task because, for the Christian, these are not options but givens. Both equality and diversity are built into the very structures of life itself, the creation being a divine act to diversify, God deciding to bring the ‘other’ into existence. In the very beginning, God created diversity and saw that it was very good.
Equality, although also a given, has been a harder gift for the people of God to accept and embrace. It took a long time to get to Peter’s acknowledgement in Acts 10: ‘I now see that God shows no partiality’, and the history of the Church since has not been a showcase of equality in action.
And then we come to inclusion, one of those fuzzy, feel-good words that brings joy to the heart of liberals everywhere. There is a danger, it seems to me, that we think of inclusion as a safe, even comfortable place, where we get together with like-minded friends. I hope we are beginning to understand that many of our visions of inclusion have just been differently exclusive. True inclusion must embrace difference, and even disagreement, as well as diversity.
It’s not only the definition of inclusion that troubles me, but the picture it paints. It suggests that LGBTQ+ folk are outside the Church looking in, pressing our noses against the window. It allows too many in the church to think that there is no issue because: ‘There are no gays here!’ I don’t know about other LGBTQ+ folk, but I am not looking to be part of someone else’s church! I recently came across an article about the legal system in post-apartheid South Africa, entitled: Dignity and Justice for All . This seemed to encapsulate what, I think, we are really looking for and what the struggle is really about.
I want to replace equality with justice. By this, I don’t mean the kind of retributive justice we see in our courtrooms, but the restorative justice seen supremely in the Cross of Christ. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, Christians affirm that something new has begun in the relationship between God and creation. Within that, humanity itself has been renewed and called into a new way of community, based on the kind of justice that puts the experiences of the victimised and marginalised at the heart of our shared narrative.
The crucified Christ embodies for us all the vulnerable and exploited and demands from us a way of justice that restores the humanity of both victim and perpetrator. This justice is revolutionary, dismantling the systems that embed privilege for some and injustice for most. Scripture sums up God’s justice thus: the last will be first, and the first last.
I know, from work with groups seeking political and social reconciliation in post-conflict contexts, that this understanding of justice is difficult to accept and even harder to live. This is as true for Christians as others, so ingrained is the notion of retribution and punishment in our justice systems. If justice is ‘love in action’, as Dr King insisted, we would much prefer to choose those whom we love.
Secondly, I want to suggest dignity rather than diversity. Everything we now know about the Climate Emergency tells us that diversity is the very thing that enables life to flourish on our planet. Where the rich diversity of our ecosystems is under threat, all life on our planet is at risk of extinction. Human eco-degradation has been likened to a group of shipwrecked people setting fire to the lifeboat they are sitting in.
Diversity isn’t just an environmental issue. The image of the church as the Body of Christ in the New Testament (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 12) reinforces the need for diversity as essential for the church to function properly. Our struggle therefore, is not an intellectual argument about whether diversity is a good thing - it is essence of life – but a call to action to nurture and protect it!
Dignity is an active decision to recognise the presence, needs and intrinsic worth of others. The way we treat people is our gift to them, taking their stories seriously and acknowledging their importance to us. It is to act as if the lives of others mattered as much as our own. This is grounded in John Wesley’s doctrine of Prevenient Grace, God’s grace is at work in our lives long before we are aware of it, loving us into life and restoring to us the dignity of children of God. Because of God’s grace, we are able to respond to the love of Christ as free agents. It is a gift we are given by God and a calling from God to give it to others. This is rooted in the Incarnation where God dignifies human life by entering into it fully in Jesus of Nazareth. In the life and ministry of Jesus we find encounters with people in deep need where he insists on asking what they want from him. Instead of assuming or doing what he thinks is best for them, he listens and offers them the dignity of agency and decision.
We have a quotation on our wall from the Latin American liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino, which says:
Solidarity is another name for the kind of love that moves feet, hands, hearts, material goods, assistance and sacrifice towards the pain, danger, misfortune, disaster, repression or death of other persons or a whole people. The aim is to share with them and help them rise up, become free, claim justice, rebuild.
[Theology of Christian Solidarity, 1985]
Solidarity is a much richer word than inclusion. Too often our models of inclusion resemble an invitation to a middle-class dinner party. We want others to be present, but only as long as they behave properly and use the right fork. We design the menu and the seating plan, and then invite others to follow our rules.
Solidarity, as Sobrino emphasises, moves towards the other rather than waiting for the other to come to us. In this movement, solidarity risks being vulnerable, venturing out to places where our writ does not run. It is prepared to overturn our own tables of privilege to create the new community of Christ. Solidarity acknowledges the ancient Irish wisdom, that:
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine
It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.
Solidarity is so much more than enlightened self-interest or well-meaning inclusion. Rather, it is the profound realisation that our wellbeing is inextricably bound up in the wellbeing of all that surrounds us. It is the very definition of Connexion, that funny Methodist word that carries so much theological heft in describing the Christian life.
Justice, dignity and solidarity are words deeply rooted in Scripture and fundamental to our understanding of Christian life and faith. Each one challenges us to review our actions in the light of the demands of the Gospel and to seek the courage and strength to do better tomorrow. Each one has at its heart, a call to repentance and transformation, and together, they provide both a vision of, and the way to what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community. It is this foretaste of heaven that the Church is called to embody.