I once saw someone walking down the street wearing a t-shirt with the caption, “Binary: it’s as easy as 01 10 11.” If you understand binary code, then you are probably chuckling right now. If you don’t, then you’re in good company: I didn’t understand it either and had to look it up. 01 10 11 is binary for 1, 2, 3. Geddit?
This is an example of what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a Language Game. Wittgenstein was a philosopher who was concerned with how we communicate ideas. He developed the concept of Language Games in his last great work Philosophical Investigations and concluded that words are like pieces we use to play a game. We arrange the pieces and play the game according to certain rules and to understand the meaning of the words, we have to understand the rules. So, if you understand the rules of Binary Code, then you get the joke.
Here’s another example: when your vicar friend asks you the question, “How do I look in this luminous orange tartan clerical shirt?” it is worth knowing if the game you are about to play is the Objective-Statements-Based-On-Observation game or the I-Am-Feeling-Nervous-About-My-Appearance-Kindly-Reassure-Me game, so that you can respond in the most helpful way.
In other words, context is king.
What has this got to do with the Church of England and “Radical Inclusion”?
During the February 2017 session of General Synod, a report by the House of Bishops entitled Marriage and Same Sex Relationships After the Shared Conversations was debated. In short, it was an attempt by the House of Bishops to get to grips with some of the many issues in human sexuality. One of the key points of the document was that the current definition of marriage as between one man and one woman would not be changed; it also raised the issue of how churches might offer “appropriate prayers” (not blessing) for same-sex couples. The debate resulting in the Synod refusing to “take note.”
Following that debate, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to all members, setting out the first principles of what they called a “Radical new Christian inclusion in the Church” for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
What should this radical inclusion look like? The Archbishops wrote:
“The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.”
Good. That’s settled then.
And so, everyone returned to their Dioceses to exercise this “radical new inclusion.” But then, problems started to arise and here is an example of just one of them.
The Diocese of Lichfield’s Bishops recently issued an ad clerum (a letter to the clergy) setting out their vision of inclusion, the basic principle of which, in their view, should be:
…that all people are welcome in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table. There is no theological problem with simply providing welcome, an extension of the welcome that God continually offers to each of us. This, we believe, is the starting point of that radical Christian inclusion for which the Archbishops have called.
The letter then goes on to set out some specifics to do with the special responsibility of welcome on those who hold licence, how intrusive questioning about orientation, practices and desires must be avoided, the sacraments and leadership.
So far, so radically inclusive.
However, others take quite a different view of what form this inclusion should look like. Take, for example, the Bishop of Maidstone who wrote a reply to Lichfield’s ad clerum expressing a number of concerns: that having a “place at the table” might imply that all are welcome at Communion, when the Book of Common Prayer draws a distinction between those who are “worthy” and those who are “unworthy”; that whilst we would not want to be intrusive about our questioning of others on their sexual orientation/practices/desires, there are some questions which, in fact, do need to be asked; that leadership may be a problem if “…active sexual relationships outside marriage…are seen as intrinsic to their identity.”
Ah, so not too radical then.
The problem is we are playing a Language Game with words like “welcome“ and “inclusion“ and this game is causing a lot of damage, especially to our sisters and brothers from the LGBTQ+ community. When they come to our Churches they hear the word “welcome“, but before long, they discover that what we mean by “welcome” isn’t very welcoming at all; that the language we use and the meaning of it are two quite different things:
Statement: “Yes, you are welcome…”
Meaning: “…in the same way that all sinners are welcome.”
Statement: “Yes, you have a place at the table…”
Meaning: “…but we’re not sure about the Lord’s Table.”
Statement: “Yes, you can be on the PCC…”
Meaning: “…but maybe not teach at Sunday School.”
It’s all well and good talking about “welcome” and “radical new Christian inclusion” but if all we’re doing is putting fresh words to static definitions then we’re just confusing the issue further and creating a space where more, not less damage will be done.
In the end, what the LGBTQ+ community wants (it seems to me – and I’m happy to be corrected!) is affirmation. They want to hear that they are loved by God and us because of who they are, not in spite of who they are. They want to hear that their same-sex attraction has equal dignity to my opposite-sex attraction, as part of permanent, faithful and stable relationship. They want to hear (like the rest of us) that their sins are convicted and forgiven, but that their sexual orientation isn’t one of them. But we are not willing, at this time, to allow the rules of our Language Game to stretch that far. Instead, we tinker around at the edges, putting old wine into new skins.
What I’m trying to say is that we need to be honest and clear about what we’re talking about when we use words like “welcome” and “radical new Christian inclusion“. What we say, what we mean and how it is received matter to the speaker because that’s about integrity and to the hearer because that’s about understanding, not to mention compassion.
If I’m not being clear, then let me put it this way:
We. Need. To. Say. What. We. Mean. And. Mean. What. We. Say.
I wrote at the beginning that Wittgenstein was concerned with how we communicate ideas; he wanted us to be more careful and less impulsive about how we speak. His most famous exhortation arose as a piece of advice to those who could not be so:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Perhaps, if we can’t stop playing games with words like “welcome” and “inclusion“, we needs to stop talking until we can.
N.B. This post is dedicated to my friend FS: keep on keeping on, Father.