The Church at its best is a place where all are welcome, nobody is perfect, and everyone is gifted. I know it doesn’t always seem that way but that’s only to say that Christians, not surprisingly, fail to live like their Leader (‘I love your Christ,’ said Gandhi, ‘but I hate your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’)
But let’s stick with the vision. The Church tries to live in the spirit of this piece of doggerel:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.
Churches aim to be places where anyone at any stage on or off the spiritual journey can feel at home and know they’ll be taken seriously, whether devout believer or someone putting the smallest toe in the water of faith. If the church becomes a gated community it has ceased to follow Jesus’ unfailing practice of inclusion and has instead become a sect - which is what happens to any group that sets up tight boundaries of admission and acceptable behaviour.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, wrote: ‘The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child, are of infinite worth…. The infinite worth of one is the key to the Christian understanding of many.’
You can see where this conviction comes from. It’s there in so many of the stories of Jesus whose radical inclusivity threatened the religious and political establishment of his day. Take his treatment of the ten lepers in Luke 17. The background of course was a very stratified society. The combination of Roman rule and Jewish culture had a profound impact on Palestinian society. The Roman Empire promised peace, security and a pay cheque at the end of the month - unless, of course, you were a slave, in which case you had virtually no rights. And unless you were a small farmer, who couldn't keep up with taxes and had to sell your land to wealthy landowners, and then were in their power. And unless you were a woman, in which case your duty was to marry by the age of fourteen and produce a clutch of children. After all, the first prayer in the Synagogue said 'Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has not made me a woman.'
So all was well in this society unless you were a slave, a small farmer, a woman – oh, or a Samaritan or a Gentile. This unfortunately put you beyond God's blessing, which was intended just for the Jewish people, as God had made abundantly clear in the forty years of arduous training in the desert and in the 'shock and awe' invasion of Canaan. God was a jealous God. So all was well, unless you were a slave, a small farmer, a woman, a Samaritan or a Gentile – or a tax collector (and so in the pay of the Romans and clearly taking a sizeable rake-off). That made you a hate-figure. And it didn't pay to be a prostitute, either, because you endangered the whole people before God. Even your tithes would not be accepted, so unclean were you to the righteous (= self-righteous). Otherwise all was well – except of course for the unclean, which meant lepers, women with normal or abnormal bodily emissions, women after childbirth, or anyone who had been in contact with a dead body. Oh, and those with mental illness and disabilities.
By the way, there were a few others who had a problem with the settled social order, that is, the ten per cent of people who failed to show up on the radar at all – day labourers, beggars, outlaws and robbers (sorry about that). So all was well in this ordered imperial/Jewish society unless you were a slave, a small farmer, a woman, a Samaritan, a Gentile, a tax collector, a prostitute, unclean, mentally ill, disabled, a day labourer, a beggar, a robber or an outlaw.
The glorious thing about Jesus was that he simply refused to play this game. He undermined it at every point, going out of his way to include all these social rejects and indeed to give them pride of place in the social demography of the Kingdom. Lepers were one such group. They kept their distance, living in colonies on the edge of towns, near the main routes so they could beg, but not so close that they would be offensive.
It often seems as if our society looks on people with physical disabilities or mental health problems either suspiciously (making fallacious links between, for example, autism and certain forms of anti-social behaviour) or, alternatively, condescendingly (as in ‘does he take sugar?’) Society doesn’t invite such people to its parties – they get left off our lists. But unerringly they’re drawn to Jesus. People who are excluded often recognise the one who ‘drew a circle that took them in.’
And so it was that the ten lepers made their way to Jesus. They knew that Jesus broke the rules that paralysed Palestinian society. He spoke to the wrong people (women, Samaritans, Gentiles, children, outcasts, foreigners, sinners) in the wrong places (parties, in the street, ordinary people’s houses) at the wrong times (the Sabbath for example) in the wrong way (without involving the priests). It was quite a charge sheet.
But these lepers were drawn to Jesus. They knew who would take them seriously. I dare say the Big Issue sellers have the same instinct.
This time Jesus got at least one thing right and he told the lepers to go and get their healing signed off by the priests. Jesus was recognising that healing had a social dimension to it as well as a physical one. Indeed, being accepted as a full participating member of society is a profoundly healing experience. Desmond Tutu was just a child when he went to hospital with his mother. As they walked down a corridor a tall white priest who they didn’t know came towards them. They made space for him, but he raised his hat out of respect for Tutu’s mother. Young Desmond was amazed; he had never seen a white man show any respect for a black woman. It made a deep mark on him - the prophet of justice and freedom was being formed. As theologian Hans Kung said, ‘The Kingdom of God is a healed creation.’ Healing has a social dimension and the way we include those with differences of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, mental or physical make up etc., is a crucial part of the healing of individuals and a decisive element of a healthy society.
Extraordinarily the lepers set off – even though they hadn’t yet been healed! It was only as they were heading for town that they found that their leprosy was clearing up. The thing was, they trusted Jesus. He had a connection with them that was deeper than conventional social mores. They knew they mattered to him and had a distinct identity and value. It was so much more than they usually got.
Then there was another twist in the story. One of the (former) lepers peeled off and returned to Jesus and threw himself at Jesus’ feet to thank him. And this man, note, was a Samaritan and therefore doubly a reject. Proper Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans; they couldn’t even worship on the proper mountain for heaven’s sake! But here was this outcast coming back, the only one of the ten, because he realised that being healed was something deeper than merely being cured. He saw that wholeness was different from fixing a body. At some deep level he recognised that wholeness is a complex network of factors to do with body, mind, soul, relationships, social acceptance and so on. It was that wholeness he had come back to thank Jesus for.
Jesus now completed the process. ‘Go on your way,’ he said; ‘your faith has made you well.’ The deepest healing that day was of one leper encountering the unconditional love of God, love in its pure, uncut form, and being transformed.
I once met a woman in her mid thirties. She was very small and used a wheelchair. She’d lost her sight, mainly because of ineptitude and neglect in her childhood. She was also recovering from cancer. She’d started a degree and happily met a man on her course whom she married. Tragically he died just a few years later. Nevertheless, this young woman was full of vitality and good humour. Indeed she seemed to me to be one of the most ‘alive’ people I’d ever met. Her faith had made her whole, that and her indomitable spirit which was, in turn, fed by her faith. She knew she had a place in society because she had a place in the Kingdom as a child of God. He drew a circle that took her in.
The Church has struggled to embody the radical inclusivity of Jesus just as any institution struggles to maintain the charism of the founding vision. As the Church adapted from being a movement in the hearts of men and women to being a religion with an established place in society so it had to set up structures to ensure its viability and sustainability. It’s hard to hand on a movement to the next generation; you need a recognisable framework of belief and belonging. But that’s when the trouble sets in. People start to defend boundaries and set entrance criteria. They construct ever more complex and restrictive standards of behaviour, seeking to demarcate the distinctiveness of the institution and maintain the purity of the original vision.
The walls grow higher and higher, the language of belonging ever more arcane. The end result is the tragic denial of the central message of the Founder that we are all reconciled to God and to each other. ‘The wall of division has been broken down’ (Ephesians 2.14). ‘You are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28). ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5.1). The quotes can be multiplied over and over again.
The seeds of a new world are all there in the title deeds of Christianity but it often takes time for men and women to catch up and realise what gold they have in their hands. Sometimes, as with the abolition of slavery, it’s as if there’s a slow burning fuse that takes many centuries to come to its ‘kairos’ moment, and only then is it realised that the old building of beliefs has been gutted, stripped and is derelict inside. It doesn’t need an explosive device; all it needs is a push and it’ll collapse.
Sometimes society is ahead of the Church; sometimes the Church is ahead of society. But in either case, whether recognised or not, the life and teaching of Jesus is very often the inspiration behind the forward movement of social thinking. The inclusion of every person, whatever their race, religion, sexuality or disability is one such movement. As ever, Jesus was way ahead of his time.
A young man in his twenties wrote in a Sunday newspaper about his very disfiguring disease of neurofibromatosis. He said: ‘I kind of got used to the bullying, and people staring at me. I almost felt like shouting: Bring it on! C’mon, what have you got? The more people stared, the more I rebelled. I was fighting fire with fire. The only place that didn’t happen was at church. I know this is going to sound like a cliché, but when I walked into the church it was the first time that nobody seemed to care what I looked like. Initially I went there to do a bit more rebelling, but everybody was so warm, friendly... I don’t go around shouting it from the rooftops, but I’m a Christian.’
That church was true to its Lord. They had drawn a circle that took him in.
The picture at the top shows a woman sitting on steps. Around her an empty space. Beyond that, a circle of others, all chatting with one another, but not with her.
The picture at the bottom is one of Bishop John, who was Lord Bishop of Oxford and commissioned the autism guidelines for the Church of England, written by me in collaboration with many fine others. Bishop John continues to offer wisdom and retreats.