Guest columnist the Reverend Keith Hebden makes the case for a church without prejudice

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St Mark’s Church, in Mansfield, is a member of the Inclusive Church Network.

A couple of years ago our church council voted unanimously for this. It means we believe the church should not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality.

One of the gifts that churches bring to their neighbourhoods is that we are made of people who are very different from each other.

Our worship and traditions—and some of our values—hold us together, but we are black, white, rich, poor, old, young, gay, straight, and pretty much every colour of the rainbow in between.

It’s one of the reasons why new people at church often feel so at home—you can’t be the odd one out because we’re such a mixed bag already.

Being an Inclusive Church is easy to sign up to but harder to practice. I find it especially difficult because, as a straight, white, middle class, able-bodied and mentally stable man, I don’t have any experience of what it means to feel left out or powerless through not being these things. There is an ancient Chinese saying that you should never ask a fish to explain what water is. Well, don’t ask a straight white guy to describe privilege. I’m so immersed in it I don’t really know any different.

So being an Inclusive Church is hard because we don’t always realise it when we’re excluding others and need reminding. It’s also not easy being an Inclusive Church because the Church of England—at an institutional level—is as sexist and homophobic as many other institutions. Sometimes those prejudices are even written into law!

It continues to baffle me that we ‘get away with’ discriminating against same-sex couples. In fact, despite the fact that there are happily married same-sex couples at St Mark’s Church, I am only legally licensed to marry opposite-sex couples. So I’m no more able to break the rules for them than I am to jump over the church roof.

We celebrate their love and commitment in public, and proudly, but I long for the day when I can sign the marriage documents myself. That day will surely come. Of course not all same-sex couples like the idea of same-sex marriage—we shouldn’t generalise—but for those who do...

It’s also difficult to be an Inclusive Church when your building is beautiful but was built so long ago. Most of our buildings are fully accessible but we have small areas that still are not—try getting your wheelchair up to where the choir sit, for example.

In a few months we’re going to have some Bible study groups where we will spend four weeks listening to stories from people from around the country who are disabled, and seeing what their experiences—in the light of our faith—can teach us about how we can do better at being an Inclusive Church.

We’re bound to get it wrong at least as much as we get it right but our hearts are in the right place, I believe, and we hope and pray that we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds too.

Perhaps you are a member of a church, mosque, members’ club, or other institution and you’ve been wondering how inclusive your community’s welcome is? Perhaps you’ve started on this journey yourselves?

If so, I would love to hear from you on via the Chad letters page. Stories of lives changed are life-changing stories.