An inclusive church is a fundamental gospel imperative
I am beginning to discover that the exact recipe for jollof rice is a source of some considerable contention in my parish. So in seeking to describe it, I am probably wading into a west African cultural controversy that I don’t fully understand. But here goes anyway. Fry onion and garlic and chillies until golden. Add finely chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and stock. Then add long grain rice and allow the rice, while cooking, to soak up the liquid. Serve with parsley and hard-boiled eggs. You can jazz it up with chicken and other ingredients, but that’s basically it. Though “basically it” certainly won’t do for any of the women of this parish. My churchwarden, Jayne, thinks she makes the best jollof rice. Others think they do. I remain diplomatic.
This is the real stuff of the Church of England. Indeed, it’s not for nothing that old-fashioned church magazines were stuffed full of recipes. After all, the eucharist is a stylised meal heavily seasoned with wider cosmic significance. And what made Jesus’s eating habits so theologically alert was that he refused to make his table “a map of economic discrimination, social hierarchy and political differentiation” as the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it. In a world where women waited on men and where the rich would never sit with the poor, this open commensality was revolutionary stuff and, Jesus insists, a model on earth of the heavenly banquet that is to come. An inclusive church is not an expression of secular liberalism but a fundamental gospel imperative.
Which is why I believe that the recent submission of the CofE regarding same-sex marriage feels like heresy. Instead of wanting to open up the marriage feast to all, the church insists on blocking those who would make promises of love and commitment to each other in the sight of God because, being gay, these people are regarded as beyond the pale. And just as Jesus was accused of eating with undesirables, with hookers and tax collectors, so too the inclusive church is accused of being indifferent to sin. When Augustine wrote about “original sin” he was describing the view that humans are fundamentally broken and that it is not within our power to put ourselves back together right. He was saying something about the human condition. But in the hands of prissy, middle-class moralists, sin has morphed into an ethical term used to draw a line between those who are acceptable and those who are not. Throughout his ministry, Jesus sought continually to subvert such a self-satisfied distinction. Often the way he did this was through food and table fellowship, which is why so many of the religious people of his day hated him.
The problem with the CofE on the gay issue is not that it doesn’t practise what it preaches but that it doesn’t preach what it practises. And orthopraxy (what you do) is more properly basic than orthodoxy (what you think). In practice, the CofE has a reasonably good track record of opening up the jollof rice and the communion wafer to all comers – and certainly better than its official pronouncements would lead onlookers to believe. So why is there such a huge gap between the CofE at parish level and the CofE as expressed by official pronouncements? During General Synod this week, the archbishops came under heavy fire from parish clergy for submitting a shockingly negative response to the government’s same-sex marriage proposals in the name of the CofE, as if they constituted the CofE’s views. They don’t. The parish church is typically a more inclusive place than the church’s leadership understand. Here there is neither rich nor poor, black nor white, gay nor straight. The archbishops are out of touch. The parish is the centre of gravity of the church.
Fr. Giles Fraser is, once again, in touch with the reality of the what the Church at large thinks about Race, Women and Gays – as compared with the official stance of the hierarchy of the Church of England. Parish life can be very different from the corridors of power in the Church, but it is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ in terms of real relationships – not only in the Church but in the world outside the Church. If the official Church continues to block initiatives to include everyone into the family – regardless of race, ethnicity, status, gender or innate sexual-identity; then its exclusivity will deter the very people whom Christ died to redeem. Who has not sinned?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand.