Saturday, 26 March 2016

Inclusivity and the Church [1]: Edward Dowler’s Inclusive Gospel?

For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to get my head around issues relating to privilege, inclusivity, and so on (and one day, mid-life crisis pending, I might even write something about how these could relate to the doctrine of providence (‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’)). While I’m seeing the need for a privileged person such as myself to check how s/he is privileged, I’m also trying to figure out how each person can still be the person s/he is without unhealthily diminishing the self and so losing his or her own identity while affirming the identity of the other. I accept I may be missing the point here, but it remains that it’s one of the key things I’m struggling with at the moment.

Anyway, I’ve just finished reading Edward Dowler’s Grove Book, Inclusive Gospel? It’s a very interesting read. Essentially, his main points are:

  • inclusivity is used (inside and outside the Church) without having been defined adequately;
  • inclusivity is effectively homogeneity, especially of thought; and
  • inclusivity as such is not found in Scripture, where instead the emphasis is on justice.

Dowler contends that justice amounts to giving each person his or her due. While inclusivity aims to treat others identically, justice allows the other to remain genuinely other. Here’s Dowler at length:

Justice acknowledges that individuals, and the various types of human community, might owe different things to different people and at different times. For example, in my ministry as a parish priest, I owe something different to the child in my congregation than I do to the paedophile in my congregation; something different to couple [sic] who are about to get married than to the person who is on the point of death; something different to the head teacher of my church primary school than to my clergy colleagues in the deanery; and so on. The virtuous path lies in determining as best we can what exactly we do owe to each of these different people and trying to act upon this as best we might. Of course, this provides no easy answers and raises many questions about precisely what is owed, and to whom—questions that cannot, as in the dreams of a utopian society, all be clearly answered from the outset. To some extent, we will always be working things out as we go along, since human beings never will create ‘systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ However, I believe that justice conceived in such a way sets a far more interesting and indeed challenging moral agenda than the rather flat requirements of inclusivity, fairness and tolerance that so dominate modern moral discourse. . . . Moreover, . . . justice is itself a gateway towards a further and more excellent theological virtue—that of charity or love, which is never less than just but, in the way of Jesus Christ, goes beyond what is strictly due to others and gives to each of us ‘more than we desire or deserve.’

Edward Dowler, Inclusive Gospel? Grove Ethics E179 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2016), pp. 25–26. (Dowler quotes from T. S. Eliot and the Book of Common Prayer.)

There’s something in what Dowler writes here that convinces me. Concepts of inclusivity, fairness, and tolerance are all fine in theory; but without careful definition, each lends itself all too easily to homogeneity where the distinctiveness of each particular person within an inclusive, fair, and tolerant society is eroded over time. Is this not what many of the great dystopian novels from We, Brave New World, and 1984, all the way through to The Hunger Games trilogy, teach us – that while idealistic conformity leads to an arguably stable society (and church?), it’s at the expense of genuine freedom and, for Christians, our God-given identities as unique people before God and for whom Jesus died?

I recommend going through Inclusive Gospel? It’s not long, it’s not expensive, and, like most Grove books, it’s an engaging read.


  1. This reference gives a unique Spiritual Understanding of the universal all-inclusive, non-sectarian non-Christian Spirit-Breathing Spiritual Way (Gospel) taught and demonstrated by Saint Jesus of Galilee while he was alive:

    1. Rather than just posting links, why don't you say why this link applies to what I've written?

  2. Methinks there may be something in what you say (and in what Dowler says). I don't think that inclusivity or tolerance in principle *need* to lead to homogeneity at the expense of genuine freedom/individuality, but in practice they all too often do.

    I'm generally in favour of inclusivity, but only if it's a genuine inclusivity than encompasses diversity and welcomes difference - which it seems to me is what inclusion or inclusivity ought to mean anyway.

    Similarly I'm broadly okay with tolerance in the sense of acceptance, but again only if it is a genuine acceptance of others who have very different views, needs and ways of doing things, along with an attempt to understand and even appreciate those different ways.

    1. It seems to me, then, that on Dowler's understanding, you're not so much in favour of inclusivity as you are of justice. Potentially, this opens up a can of worms. Taking Dowler's example of a paedophile as an, um, example, how far would we include someone so inclined within church? Or what would justice ('doing right by'?) mean for that person? In a fallen world, justice might mean allowing the paedophile to indulge his or her fantasies. Or it might mean locking him or her away forever. But in the community of the age to come that is the Church, surely something different is desirable - comformity to Christ, understood non-hetergeneously!

      Gah! This could get confusing . . .

    2. Well, I call it inclusivity, Dowler may call it justice - the joy of semantics eh? ;)

      And I agree, it is problematic when you get down to specific cases like how best to 'include' a paedophile within the church community, or what 'inclusion' (or indeed 'justice') means in this context. And I don't know the answer.

      I think it would have to depend to some extent on the individual case. There would (I think) need to be a balance struck between welcoming and including a person made in God's image though flawed like all of us, and protecting those whom that person might be tempted to abuse. But I don't know how such a balance could effectively be struck in practice. And I think that the balance might have to be biased towards those who might be abused, while still striving to treat the paedophilic person with dignity and humanity.

      Of course I agree that justice or inclusivity in Christ must mean conformity to Christ. But what that looks like exactly or how it plays out precisely in a case like this one, I'm not quite so sure!

    3. Semantics aside, basing decisions about inclusion on individual cases looks more and more like justice to me rather than an ill-defined 'inclusivity'. It also seems to me that Scripture prioritises a bias towards the powerless (so the child in our example) - but again, this is where I'd raise the question (mentioned in an earlier post of mine) of how far a legitimate bias should be allowed to become an illegitimate favouritism that prevents justice being done for the offender.

    4. I'm interested that you appear to dislike the word 'inclusivity' so strongly, or see it as ill-defined.

      I think I would define it as the principle of seeking to include (within a given community) all who come seeking to be included. It's the principle of not turning anyone away, regardless of their background, preferences, status, etc.

      Of course, in practice, like all principles it probably has to have some criteria and limits. If someone wishes to be included only so that they can destroy the community, we might have to think twice. If someone wishes to be included but has no interest in the life or ways of the community, they may be excluding themselves from meaningful participation.

      And as we've said there are cases when the principle of inclusion may have to defer to another principle, like that of protecting the vulnerable.

      But if you prefer the more biblical term 'justice' I've no problem with that :)

    5. It's not so much the word I struggle with, it's the concept or even the mantra its become. And you hit the nail on the head when you say that 'like all principles it probably has to have some criteria and limits.' A thoroughgoing inclusivity excludes genuine difference.

  3. I have been reading the gospels recently and have been struck at how unapologetically in inclusive Jesus is. Using Harvey's definition above of 'seeking to include (within a community) all who come seeking to be included' Jesus failed spectacularly to include the rich young ruler, a Canaanite woman, a guy whose dad had just died, the Pharisees, the Saducees, his own mother and brothers and an earnest would-be disciple willing to follow him wherever he went. My concern about the language of inclusivity, which as Dowler says is nowhere to be found in the Bible, is that it emasculates the gospel of its radical challenge to 100% commitment and reduces the church to a social construct that believes everything and stands for nothing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, JCL. And yes, Jesus did ignore quite a few people, it seems. I suppose the question is whether or not the Church, as the body of Christ, should be. But to flesh out a blanket term such as 'inclusivity' is not the way forward as it seems to lack any real definition. That's why Dowler's take on 'justice' is preferable.