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Does “Othering” Exist in Our Church, and Does this Lead to Exclusion?

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by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds

As Director of Lay Training for the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, my team will shortly be rolling out unconscious bias training throughout the Diocese which is likely to have a huge impact on many church communities.  I’ve been to some localities that are diverse, vibrant and integrated with superb relationships based on egalitarian inclusion as we learn, one from another, what it is to be made in the image of Christ.  In other communities I am aware that women and men still form complementarian societies despite some of those women holding entire communities together in their voluntary and/or professional lives.  Yet others are diverse but somewhat segregated with a sense of very genteel yet tangible white superiority. For some unconscious bias training will feel good, affirming, expansive, full of grace and truth. For others, it might be somewhat painful as being faced with one’s own unconscious bias’ often is. Yet it brings light and growth to the open-mind and open hearted.  No doubt there will be those for whom it is enormously threatening whereby the basis upon which much of their understanding of the world and human relationships is built is shaken, with their personal convictions and faith/belief systems feeling profoundly challenged. It can be terrifying to have the walls of one’s castle levelled and to find that the world outside is nothing like the one we have created inside where we live in a hall of mirrors with ‘people like us’.

I myself can recall a time when as a lay person I witnessed people from different sections of the community being discriminated against overtly.  I recall both a Ugandan and a person with dyslexia being taken off the readings rota because people were not patient enough to listen through another’s accent or to take the odd malapropism with good humour, given that in the main it was very clear what was meant, as we all had the readings to hand. The individual’s themselves dearly wanted to read.  I also recall a time when members of the LGBT community were removed from the church rotas simply for coming out – single/celibate or not.  It was with a wry smile that I noted that leaflet distribution and toilet cleaning was never a point for such sanctions, and how I wish I were writing that for dramatic effect.  Maslow’s hierarchy of church rotas, perhaps?

So I have to ask myself, what will I do if it transpires that lay people (i.e. ordinary folk who go to church to worship and leave again to serve God in the world by living out their faith in works of service both within and beyond their faith group) come to me to describe the kinds of exclusion I’ve noted above? How, as lead for Lay Training, will we enable all lay people to find not only their God-given vocation in life both within and beyond the church, but the place in which they are free to explore and develop it whichever community they originate from or belong to?

There are now many places in the church that are open and inclusive. Many Evangelicals are owning their tribe again and declaring that LGBT exclusion, for example, is not a specifically evangelical trait, but a conservative one (it’s just that some evangelicals also happen to be conservative). There are churches that are moving away from ethnically based identities and choosing instead to integrate Iranians with UK born citizens, Pakistani with white English Christians and better still those that hold half a dozen ethnic backgrounds within the folds of it’s skirts.  Some have even moved beyond the basic hearing loop, ramp and toilet for those with mobility challenges to develop new ways to worship and provide hospitality for those for whom the traditional service is not accessible, and I must say I’ve been really impressed by this Diocese’s Disability Forum and Officer, and their wide-ranging commitment to enabling those with Different Learning Abilities, for example, to be fully included as leaders and creators of worship.

But as was the case with slavery and gender, as the pendulum swings towards the liberation of a minority or dis-empowered people group, there is an equal and opposite reaction from those for whom a power base is challenged or dearly held beliefs are rocked. We have seen something of the rise of white supremacy in the US and Russia.  We hear strident voices on our own shores and for some Brexiteers that the shores that require “shoring up” is indeed all about the fear of being ‘taken over’ by ‘others’ whomever ‘they’ were perceived to be.  I wonder if we can’t be somewhat heartened by the fact that the tide is at least turning? For when the tide turns the waves coming in hit the waves going out and the sea looks a lot choppier than it actually is. To put out in one’s boat requires the knowledge that we can trust that beyond these choppy waters calm is on the horizon – and there the rolling sea will take us ever deeper into this journey we call faith, and the One for whom we long – and to whom we all belong.

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