Friday, May 25, 2007

Present Challenges: 5. The Problem of Inclusivity

When I began blogging, Blogger did not allow you to label posts. This changed some time ago, and I have been going back giving labels to previous posts. This means it is possible to find posts on similar subjects or in a series. So clicking Personal Journey will display all the blogs in this ongoing series together. It also means I can refer to previous posts more easily. Seasoned bloggers will know all this already, of course. Others are far more sophisticated in their blogging than me. I hope the relative simplicity of this blog does not spoil it for anyone. I really do appreciate the time people spend reading what I have to say even though my posts are not always as regular as I would like them to be. I am working on this - I promise!

In recent posts labelled Present Challenges, I have been trying to face honestly some of the specific challenges here in Hong Kong that I find myself facing in this stage of my personal journey. I have identified four so far:

1. Baptism
2. The Schools
3. The Congregation
4. The Buildings

I will make the last post about present challenges today before I get completely depressed! I am calling it the Challenge of Inclusivity. Appropriately it will bring me back, after a short detour, to my Personal Journey.

In my next blog, I will offer a conclusion to this short series. After that, I will attempt to explain where I personally am now and where I see myself going. This is going to be interesting because while I think I know where I am, I am not so sure I know where I am going! I know where I would like to go, but that is another matter!

Present Challenges: 5. The Challenge of Inclusivity

Depending on how many of my previous blogs you have read, you will know that my Christian origins lay in a very evangelical and charismatic context. Over the years, I have found myself ministering outside of this context while remaining sympathetic to many of its emphases. The advantage of ministering in a definite theological context is that you know where you are and where your congregation is. You can reasonably confidently make assumptions about what people believe, think, and experience.

In Moreton, for example, as a curate, I could assume that people believed the Bible to be reliable and authoritative and that the Holy Spirit could be experienced in a certain way in the present. In Banchory, the congregation was far more diverse. Some did indeed believe that the Bible was reliable and authoritative, but others saw it merely as one source of authority and one that needed to be interpreted and applied with caution.

At Banchory I decided to make a virtue out of necessity, namely, out of the diversity. While at Bedford, working in a secular context, I had seen first-hand how irrelevant the Church was to most people’s lives. It wasn’t that people weren’t interested in spiritual things; it was just that they did not go to the Church to find out about them. I had come to feel that the Church needed to be far more outward looking and less focused on internal disputes.

I also came to believe that the emphasis on 'theme' churches was bad. By 'theme' churches I mean congregations that follow one theological tradition whether it be liberal, Catholic, evangelical, or whatever. In my preaching and teaching. I stressed tolerance, inclusivity, and open-mindedness. This did not mean that we couldn’t have strongly held views of our own, but that we should also be accepting of other people’s strongly held views.

In my own ministry, I began from the assumption that the Creeds were true and that I did not have to cross my fingers when saying them and that the Bible was reliable and, therefore, should be the basis for my preaching and teaching. Liturgically, I worked with a Catholic approach centred on the Eucharist. I encouraged people to think and to discuss without dividing and separating. How successful or otherwise this approach was is for others to judge, but I felt it was right and provided the foundation for mission and Church growth. My overwhelming concern was to ‘invite, welcome, and include’ those outside the Church.

When I came to Hong Kong, I brought these principles and attitudes with me. The worship at Christ Church was very similar in focus to how it had been at Banchory. That is, a fairly conservative liturgy, Catholic in nature, centred on the Eucharist. Christ Church itself was, by tradition and choice, open and liberal in attitude so in many ways it should have been business as normal in my own ministry. Increasingly, however I have become concerned about the way an emphasis on inclusivity can be used as a cover for blandness and indifference.

I still believe passionately in being inclusive in our welcome of people. I also believe in tolerance and openness to one another. The problem I see with this approach, however, is the way it leads to an abandoning of aspects of the Christian message that sound exclusive or may be thought to put people off and also in the way it can result in a modification of our view of God. (See my series on Changing our View of God). In my own spiritual life, I think I avoided this, at least to an extent, by continuing to believe in the Bible and the Creeds, but I am not sure I was very successful in helping others to avoid it.

Furthermore, in a congregation that is not particularly focused on teaching and faith, and which is not especially motivated to meet together for Bible study (see my recent post on Buildings), tolerance and acceptance can be no more than indifference and apathy. That is, we get on with one another not because we respect each others views and opinions, but because we can’t be bothered having any views or opinions of our own, and still less bothered in finding out about other people’s.

It is easier in a theme church because everyone is left in no doubt about the terms on which they are there. If you are part of such a Church there are certain things you must believe and do – or not do – to be accepted as part of the community. The challenge for me is to know how to accept diversity and, at the same time, to encourage spiritual growth.

A feature of Hong Kong life is that many people are members of social clubs. This is because of the size and nature of the places where people live. Clubs make it possible for people to socialize and have access to facilities that there just isn’t the space for in high rise apartments in a crowded city. Each club has their own identity, but you don’t have to sign up to any statement of belief to belong to one. You just pay your monthly membership fee. I am very worried that both here, and elsewhere in the Christian world, Churches are just becoming clubs. There is a vague spirituality about them, but as along as you pay your fees no-one is going to question or challenge you.

This fits well with the social climate and mood of the day where judgement is out and acceptance is in and where all values and beliefs are relative. Christians are being seduced by it, which is why we prefer a Benevolent God who always loves us and forgives us to One who may occasionally disapprove of us and what we do. I think we have to face up to the extreme selectivity we are engaging in when we follow this line of thought. We stress Jesus’ eating and drinking with sinners and constantly tell and re-tell the parable of the sower, but keep quiet about Jesus saying he came to bring a sword and to divide families. And parables about eternal punishment rarely get an airing.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to return to the days when Christianity was more about fear than forgiveness. I am increasingly challenged, however, to find a way in which both themes can be kept together. I am especially challenged when I see individual Christians and, indeed, whole congregations not really thinking it matters what you believe or do as long as you get on with one another.

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