One of the things about this current COVID-19 situation is that I am watching more television than I normally would. I am not sure if that is a good thing or not!
Among the various offerings of increasingly repeat broadcasts was an episode of Songs of Praise last Sunday (available online here for one month) in which Aled Jones visited Strawberry Field in Liverpool and explored the theme of inclusion. It considered socio-economic differences, people with additional needs (learning and physical disabilities) and transgender people.
One of the interviews was with a Methodist Local Preacher in training (the Methodist Church recognises the calling of non-ordained people to preach and lead worship) in Oxford who is deaf and uses sign language from the pulpit: the first completely deaf female Local Preacher in the UK.
It was a moving experience to hear the testimony of people who have, in the past, been excluded from ministry or who have had to hide significant parts of who they are in public to be accepted but today feel able to take an active role in Christian ministry.
And yet, and yet, during the programme the worship song Let us build a house where love can dwell, by the American hymn writer Marty Haugen, was sung. The hymn is positive and forward-looking and reminds us that there is still much to be done in the future. We aspire to be a Church that truly welcomes all, but we are not yet there. In Church more than anywhere else we actually approach God as equals to have a personal relationship with Him.
The Anglican priest Ken Leech who died in 2015 had a ministry in urban London parishes afflicted by poverty and confronted issues of racism and drug abuse among others. In his book Struggle in Babylon: Racism in the Cities and Churches of Britain he writes this:
In worship human persons stretch out their hands and hearts towards God. They do this as a community of equals; redeemed sinners bound for glory. In worship all distinctions of race, class, wealth and so on are done away. Worship cannot be Christian if it is not established on this egalitarian basis. Such worship is a subversive act, rooted in the values of equality and community, the very values that racist philosophies and practices deny.
Ann Loades, who is Professor Emerita at Durham University, in her commentary on this writes that ‘our deep-seated and gut-wrenching terror of those unlike ourselves have to be dealt with inside our ecclesiastical communions before we have the slightest hope of being believed outside them, if baptismal glory, and ourselves being given a new identity in Christ are to mean very much’.
This does not just apply to issues of race. It applies to anyone who is a minority or just different to us. We do not know what to think or how to talk about difference very often. But the good news is we can begin to address this. Scottish minister Nigel Robb, who works with those with dementia, says that, ‘the naming of the illness and the admission that it frightens and concerns us, reduces some of its power to subdue and render us passive and inactive in response… ignorance and fear are perhaps the greatest enemies'. And at present, The Methodist Church in Britain is engaged in conversations that will be difficult for some about what constitutes a marriage and our stance as a Church on same-sex marriages.
In 2018, Frodsham Methodist Church adopted an Inclusivity Statement that begins ‘We welcome everyone whether you are single, married, divorced, widowed, gay, confused, rich or poor. We hope that you feel able to belong, whatever your gender, sexuality, mental health, physical health, ability, race or ethnicity’.
What is even more radical about Christianity is that Christ not only came for us all, but he came especially to lift up those who are oppressed and marginalised. As Mary, the mother of Jesus, says:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-54)
So, in my view, the message to those currently in the Church is this: let's embrace these difficult conversations that are taking place, whether they be on Songs of Praise, in our churches or anywhere else.
And the message to those who are outside the Church, or who are looking in, is this: you are welcome! The Church is not perfect, but it is a place where all can feel welcome; and all can have a personal relationship with our Creator. In the words of that hymn:
Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive;
built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome,
all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.
Marty Haugen (Singing the Faith 409)
These are not just words to sing, but things to do.
 Leach, K.. (1988), Struggle in Babylon: Racism in the Cities and Churches of Britain
 Loades, A. (1995), Spiritual Classics from the late Twentieth Century
 Robb, N. J. (2017), Dementia Services Development Trust Pamphlet
 In 2014, Frodsham Methodist Church also explored the theme 'Is our Church dementia friendly'
The reflections here are written by members of our congregation.