There are a few people in this world I’ve been blessed to know who offer security and belonging by their very presence. My friends Harry and Glo are two of those people. Just sitting near them becomes an encounter with our gentle God who affirms our belonging in the world. Emma Percy’s work What Clergy do: Especially when it Looks Like Nothing also made me feel that way. Her work was a beautiful invitation to let down my defences and allow myself to be authentic and malleable. I long for this to be what the church is like: “safe spaces of nourishment, well-being, maturity, diversity, and individuation. … Taking care of people, worrying about them, attending to them, healing them… relating to real people in concrete situations” .This week I was introduced to her husband Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford and a renowned contextual theologian known for drawing on multiple disciplines to develop a complex and deep ecclesiology. Reading this collection of essays both by himself and others reflecting on his work was more akin to a cerebral survival exercise. There was no coddling here. It toughened me up and was so incredibly worth the effort. Perhaps another aspect of the model Jesus set for the church: dialectical exploration.
My own wrestling with finding a place to belong in the church has often felt like walking a big spiral towards Jesus in the centre. Tracing my way around the margins; stepping into one tradition for awhile, then feeling enough discomfort to be pushed back to the edges again until I find myself in another tradition where other aspects of myself find freedom. This has been driven both by curiosity and a deep desire to be enriched and challenged by many angles, and the more practical need for paid work and following God to various opportunities. Yet this persistent discomfort has also been where I most clearly understand my calling to be one who makes space for all people to draw near to Jesus. All who are hungry may come to receive the Bread of Life. So Martyn Percy captures my heart as “[h]e calls the church…to a radical inclusivity that expresses “nothing less than the mad, passionate, all-embracing, far-reaching love of God.” The challenge however is to see this prophetic vision made manifest in outdated buildings or our cutting edge services. How might we ensure “[o]ur “faith homes” (or households—oikos) are places both of open hospitality and security [when] churches rarely, self-consciously, understand and process their identity in this way”? Perhaps if the church could accept her task to persistently gesture towards God, refracted in so many ways. What if each practice were measured not by how many people would attend but by how authentically people were allowed to stand in precisely the place where they are and were invited to gaze upon the Divine. “[C]entral to any reading of the social-sacred is the recognition that practices shape beliefs and beliefs also shape practice.” This is to acknowledge that our practices will do much work in defining God and will also shape our belief about the people around us.
“[Percy] is completely persuaded that in the end the Gospel is about inclusion.” This is one of the more difficult beliefs for people to translate into practice because our resistance to the ‘other’, whoever that may be for us, is often so ingrained in us it is unconscious rather than overt . In order to bring our behaviour to align with our beliefs, we will thus need practices that help make that shift. Sarah Bessey reflects on her journey towards inclusion. After a long journey of research, dialogue and listening, her beliefs were shifted. But then she says “I waited. I practiced inclusion from a practical sense and waited on God’s transformation for my heart along with my mind. My behaviour and practices were modified: I still needed God’s transforming power.” This beautifully acknowledges that the movement between practice and belief, whichever direction it is going, continues to be dependent on the mysterious and relational God. “Just as God abided with us, and in Christ, made his home amongst us, so are we called to form our churches into household and communities which speak of the inhabitation of God. As God occupied the world, so are we called to be occupied by the Spirit of God and the example of Christ.” Percy reflects on the practice of the role of the priest/pastor as representative of this relational God:
Thus, through a simple ministry of “deep hanging out” with the people we serve,
attentiveness, hospitality, care, and celebration, ministers often do more good for the parishes, communities, and institutions they serve than they can ever know. This may simply be through the offering of some regular lunches, simple acts of visiting, or open house for tea and coffee at any time. These are plannable events with manifest intentions. But the potency of the gestures and practices lies more in their latency, and is significant for ministry: namely, kindly presence and engagement, much as Jesus’ ministry was simply walking from place to place.
Believing in inclusion leads to practices of inclusion that then lead back to further belief in inclusion. Such practices are not just important within the church, but can helpfully blur the edges and offer a gesture to the Divine to those who haven’t been paying attention—just as one might point towards a sunset and invite another to consider its beauty. Such ‘deep hanging out’ echoes James Hunter’s faithful presence. “The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians but for everyone.”
This is certainly a risky move. To truly value inclusion means we invite people who are broken in complicated ways to join us in gesturing towards God. Their gesture, their way of testifying, may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar and demand stretching that I would rather like to resist. Perhaps this exercise is stretching because it leads me to face the truth that I too am broken in complicated ways. But I agree with Pope Francis when he says “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”  Perhaps our theology won’t be neatly categorisable, and practices will be more locally nuanced than universally uniform. This inclusive household may contain people who are just wrong. (This person will most certainly at times be me.) But I appreciate that “Percy reminds us that ‘the early church fathers, when faced with a choice of living with heresy or schism, always chose the former.’” I’m not certain this was always true, but perhaps we could make it true of the church’s sons and daughters.
1. Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks like Nothing (London: SPCK, 2014), Kindle, 14.
2. Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Secondary Indications of Emphasis: Sexuality and Gender in Martyn Percy’s Writing”, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Edited by Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle, loc 3868.
3. Martyn Percy, “Response to Part II: ‘Savouring the social-sacred’: Reading the ‘Real Church’ ”, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Edited by Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle, loc 3754
4. Ibid., loc. 3789.
5. Ian S. Markham,“Contextual Theologian: The Methodology of Martyn Percy ”, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Edited by Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle, loc 394.
6. See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Penguin Books, 2013), Google Play.
7. Sarah Bessey, “Penny in the Air: My Story of Becoming Affirming,” Sarah Bessey, June 05, 2019 , accessed June 06, 2019, https://sarahbessey.com/penny-in-the-air-my-story-of-becoming-affirming/.
8. Martyn Percy, “Response to Part III: ‘Ecclesial Formation”, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Edited by Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle, loc 5337.
9. Ibid., loc. 3754.
10. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 263.
11. Pope Francis as quoted by Gerard Mannion“Time for an Anglican Ecclesiological Revolution? Martyn Percy’s Ecclesiological Realism”, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Edited by Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle, loc 5337.
12. Gerard Mannion, “Time for an Anglican Ecclesiological Revolution? Martyn Percy’s Ecclesiological Realism”, Reasonable Radical?: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Edited by Ian S. Markham and Joshue Daniel. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle, loc. 2515.