Wednesday, July 2, 2014


I've been wrestling with the idea lately that the "theology of inclusion" rightly valued and espoused by my tradition is incomplete. While its spirit is commendable - the courage, hospitality, generosity, and vulnerability required to welcome strangers move us nearer the heart of the Gospel through an active "seeking and serving of Christ in all persons" - the theology of inclusion is incomplete because it presumes the position and power - the status - of the one who throws the party, the one who includes. So long as you are one of the captains picking teams or the bouncer at the nightclub, a theology of inclusion works pretty well. In such instances, a theology of inclusion can buttress the souls of those with the power to preach it, because it lends a nobility to their inclusion of those whom, it is implied, the ones doing the including have the power to exclude.

That Episcopalians would make such presumptions of power and position is understandable: 27% percent of American presidents have professed to be Episcopalians, easily the highest percentage of any single denomination or religious tradition (the Presbyterians are next closest, at 18%). Moreover, the Church of England, to which American Episcopalians are deeply historically indebted, has long had the luxury of assuming when she prays, "God save the Queen," she is praying for an Anglican. Of course, as an evangelical friend helpfully reminds me, Episcopalians do not hold the trademark on the presumption of power, so an imagination truncated by the presumption of power is not the exclusive property of Anglicans. The fall of Christendom, therefore, is a refreshing and challenging reality for us all.

For all of the above reasons, it is not hard to see how Episcopalians came to embrace the theology of inclusion reflected in the bumper sticker mantra, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You". To be sure, and as I have written above, a generous welcome reflecting God's own generous disposition toward ourselves and all people is surely a good thing; the question is whether our singular emphasis on welcoming in relationship to other people 1) requires a privileged position and 2) has allowed us to develop the capacity to be welcomed as generously.

A concrete example of what I mean on the point of inclusion: I was recently appointed to a task force charged with exploring a national professional organization for Episcopalian campus ministers and our Lutheran partners in ministry. As the conversation developed, it was decided that the group should not be limited to Episcopalians and Lutherans, though this will be our de facto core community, at least starting off.

With the decision to include members of all faith backgrounds in place, I did some research to see if such an all-inclusive professional organization already exists. It does. They're established. They do good things, including many - but not all - of the things we hope our group will do. Subsequent to this discovery, I had a fruitful conversation with the chair of the task force, wondering if Episcopal campus ministers should not simply be encouraged to join this larger organization. My friend of the task force said he'd found himself wondering the same question, though the decision was ultimately made to move forward with the project.

As I have seen the implementation of the group that resulted from the work of our team, 1) I have no doubt that this is a good thing for Episcopal campus ministers, 2) I am proud to have been a part of the society's founding, and 3) I don't think there's any reason to preclude the possibility that this group joins a larger group at some future date. In short, I see great pastoral value in working with the positive energy God has given the Episcopal Church in this moment, and I am glad for the space in the process to name as a question whether, for Episcopalians especially, it is sometimes easier to include than to be included. I think there is great long-term promise and hope in this question, and, as my evangelical friend noted, not just for Episcopalians, but for the whole Church.

In Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the authors suggest numerous and helpful practices toward what I'm calling a theology of included, developing the capacity to be welcomed when we, like the disciples Jesus sent out in pairs, go to places depending on the generous gifts - and inclusion - of others. One practice they suggest is participating in a Bible study led by a person with less formal education than yourself. Another practice for which I am grateful is participation in liturgies of traditions foreign to me, even to the point of perceiving the holiness of them. By these and other practices, we identify and confess those resources that have become idols for us, proof of our presumption that the privilege of including others belongs to us, and we ask God to open us to receive the hospitality of Christ on a stranger's terms.

Therein, I think, is the Christological significance of a theology of included: that we cultivate an openness to have Christ be strange to us and, therefore, to surprise us in ways that disarm us, much as when Jesus took off his outer robe, stooped down with the towel, and washed his disciples' feet. Like Peter, we confess that such love can be hard to receive. Thankfully, our difficulty in imagining being loved with this love does not prevent Christ from so loving us.

Having picked at my tradition some at the outset of this post, I want to end with an example of a lived theology of included, owing much to the Episcopal tradition. Two Mays ago, I traveled with a small handful of students to the homestead of the Two Bulls family of the Lakota people at Red Shirt Table, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We met and camped there, on the edge of the Badlands, at the invitation of the Two Bulls family and with 650 other young adults, as part of the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust. The family patriarch, The Rev. Robert Two Bulls, Sr., is an Episcopal priest.

In the course of our four days on the land, we learned that the open invitation of the Two Bulls family to those of us who met them there had not been made without cost to them; some of the Lakota people objected to a generous welcome of mostly white strangers onto what they regard as holy land. Strangers who may or may not come with a living knowledge of the many ways the American government has over and over again broken trust with the Lakota people and devastated both their land and their way of life, the hopes they had had for their future. The kindness and steps toward trust made possible over those days overwhelms me still.(1)

Pine Ridge taught me that a theology of included can imagine reconciliation in the absence of power and also innocence. Indeed, a theology of included imagines times when the virtue of humility is joined by well-earned guilt, requiring generous forgiveness. Surely an Episcopal Church seeking to build on moments like Pine Ridge toward diversity in local congregations will need to practice being forgiven. Thankfully, our difficulty in imagining being loved with even the love that forgives does not prevent Christ - and our sisters and brothers in him - from surprising us and so loving us.

(1) The astute reader will rightly point out that my experience at Pine Ridge was exactly made possible by a theology of inclusion. I think this point helpfully clarifies the larger thrust of this post: namely, that a theology of inclusion needs a theology of included, and a larger Gospel context in which we live into both sides of hospitality, because God has made us friends. It is sometimes easier to be generous than to be wrong and in need of forgiveness. We need both to be God's People.


  1. This is a very insightful and important concept. There is such a vast difference in saying, "We're glad to welcome you into our space," and, "We humbly ask to be allowed into your space." The world is made up of myriad beautiful and amazing people, and most of them are not like each other. That you recognize these differences and the role that power belonging to people like you has played in the lives of people unlike you is crucial.

  2. I love this and feel as though this is a critical shift in our thinking that our denomination must make.

    I, too, pilgrimaged to Pine Ridge with a small handful of students and young adults from Arizona. I would argue though, that although the meeting was made possible by a theology of inclusion; the relationship between the Lakota people and the Taize community was built on their experiences of living into both sides of hospitality. The meeting was made possible by the relationship that was created over the course of seven years and many reciprocal visits to each of the communities. Many people from the Lakota Nation traveled to Taize and which resulted in an extension and acceptance of an invitation to the Pine Ridge Reservation to the Taize brothers, and on it went for many years as they developed a relationship and ultimately prepared for the meeting. One of the most moving moments for me was on the last day, a Canadian woman stood up and said, "Thank you for trusting our good intentions, when in the past our presence has only lead to harm." Reconciliation takes time and can only happen when we do just as you describe. I am grateful for the model of the Taize's pilgrimage of trust on Earth as an example of how to live into it.