Sunday 3rd March - Bishop's Installation Service ***Invitation Only***. See opening times for details.

A sermon on Inclusivity, one of the Cathedral's four core values.


Preacher: The Revd Canon Dr Rowan Williams, Sunday 24th February 2019

Readings: Genesis 2:4b–9,15-end. Revelation 4. Luke 8:22-25

After this I looked, and a door in heaven stood open! (Revelation 4:1)

If only it were so. Or if only we could persuade people that it is so. That the open door in heaven isn’t just part of a beautiful but slightly wacky apocalyptic vision, but an image of what the Kingdom of God is really about. Today we’re continuing our examination of the cathedral’s values with a look at inclusivity. At first sight, it’s a bit of a nothing word. Who wouldn’t want to be inclusive? Who doesn’t want to be nice and welcoming? But inclusivity, done well, lived properly, is about more than smiling at people who come through the door and inviting them to be part of what’s going on here. It’s about how we deal with one of the biggest theological questions there is.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? I’ve been asking myself that question, consciously, since my first job on leaving university – as a night care worker in a home for people with advanced dementia. Questions about quality of life, about the meaning of suffering (if there is any), came into it too. But working with people in the last stages of dementia made me ask: what is a person? Can someone who can no longer do any of the things we normally use to describe personhood, still be a person? But if you say ‘Of course they are; you don’t stop being a person just because you become ill or disabled’ (something I believe absolutely) then what does this tell us about the kind of God who made us with the capacity to develop dementia? A creator God who wished such a fate on his creatures must be a monster, and I would be ashamed to believe in him.

At 22 I didn’t know it was OK to ask theological questions like that. Theology as I had encountered it was about becoming who we are, developing our potential, growing more Christlike. Here, I was dealing every night with people who seemed to be reversing that process: losing not just the qualities we tend to value in Christ, but the ones we tend to value about being human at all. Yet they were still recognisably, absolutely human. So too were the profoundly physically and mentally disabled adults I went on to work with after that. Whatever capacities they may have had, there were some they would never achieve, but they were still people. So, if our image of personhood being a journey to completion and fulfilment is wrong, then perhaps our image of God is wrong too?

Since then, I’ve spent much of my life working with people who find themselves on the margins in one way or another – people who have been made to feel that they don’t measure up, they’re not complete: in theological terms, people who have been told (including by the Church) that they are not made in the image of God. Take today’s first reading. It has been used for centuries to tell women that they are second-class human beings: created from the flesh of the man, to be his companion and helpmeet, as if the man is made perfect in the image of God, and the woman is an afterthought with no independent existence in her own right. And the same passage has been used for centuries to exclude non-heterosexual and non-binary understandings of what it means to be human in relationship. (It’s tempting to point out here that in our Revelation reading, not only is there an open door in heaven, but there is also a rainbow – the mirror image of the rainbow which is the first sign of God’s covenant with all people). And it’s not just tempting, but necessary, to point out that of course in Genesis there is not just one but two creation stories: this one, and the one in which God makes human beings, male and female, in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). That passage is of huge importance to a young transgender Christian I came to know very well as a university chaplain, because it seems to offer up a less judgemental, less exclusive vision of how we are created in the image of God: not either/or, but part of a great spectrum, all of which reflects something of the magnitude of its creator. If we can do that for skin colour, for example, where the reality of a spectrum is so wonderfully apparent, why should we be scared of understanding other forms of identity in the same way?

Yet it feels risky to say any of this. Risky because the Church too is a spectrum, and many faithful members of it would be – perhaps are – appalled at what I’ve just said. Risky because we do not yet speak with one voice or think with one mind. Risky because for some people the very word ‘inclusivity’ has become politicised – which is why I’m trying to take us back to theology, a theology rooted in Scripture as well as in pastoral practice. And risky because to live inclusively means having to think all the time about what we do and say – and that’s hard work. Inclusivity means having no norms or assumptions about what God’s image looks like. It means facing up to the times when we fail, both in imagination and action, because some of the people who come to the cathedral are hard work, for lots of very good reasons. People who don’t fit the norms can be difficult to deal with; they can be difficult to like. And I include myself in that too. But that’s not the point. The point is, that none of us own this place. None of us are here as of right unless we all are. Because if the cathedral is doing its job properly, it needs to be a microcosm of the Kingdom, where there is no us and no them: nobody who decides who gets to come in through that open door in heaven and who has to stay outside, because only God can do that.

We do not possess a window onto people’s souls. We don’t always know what brought them here, though we tend to hear about it if they were made to feel unwelcome or unwanted here – and there are times when all of us have probably been guilty of that. Living inclusivity doesn’t come easily. It’s much simpler not to. But if we want to build the Kingdom here, we don’t have a choice. The Welsh poet R.S. Thomas described the Kingdom like this:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Jesus was very clear about the dangers of creating an us who belong and a them who don’t. He was uncompromising about the need to question a religion which seems to want to keep some people out, whatever criteria we use to do it. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa constructed a whole theology which attempted to justify apartheid. Down the centuries, Christians have used their particular readings of Scripture to justify treating whole groups and categories of people as somehow lesser – not made in the full and perfect image of God. That is one major reason why the Church is losing what moral authority it still has among young people, who assume not only that Christians are horrible judgemental people with mediaeval views about sex and gender, but that if we call ourselves Christians and hold views like that, then Jesus must be horrible and judgemental too. So they don’t want to know him or follow him; they don’t want anything from us, because they think we’re tainted; and we’re so afraid of offending the members we already have that we don’t have the courage to say ‘No, God is not like that. Jesus is not like that’.

Jesus overturns everything we think we know about the world works; the categories and labels we stick on each other. ‘Who then is this?’ the disciples ask each other when he calms the storm. We are a long way from being able to answer that question. For this is someone with no norms, nothing against which he can be measured in a way we understand.

So who then are we? We have a long way to go before we will understand what it means to be made in the image of God without trying to turn it into a silent competition: if I am made in the image of God and you are not like me, then you can’t be made in his image too. But God does not work like that. Whether we are created male, female, black, white, gay, straight, or none of the above – whatever the capacity of our minds and bodies – all are made in the image of God; all are included within the great spectrum of the created order; all are invited to enter through the door that stands open in heaven.

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