Creating Marginal Community
"Inclusive" is a buzzword these days - a
buzzword for language about God ("God our Mother and Father"), to
describe people (brothers and sisters), for communities (an inclusive
community, welcoming people of all races, sexual orientations), the
Church (all are welcome).
I must admit to getting tired of it, of trying to get it all right,
of trying to not leave anyone out. Very not-politically-correct of me, I
I think I first smelled a rat about this language when a former
principal at a theological college suggested that those people who were
campaigning for inclusive language should be inclusive of those who
don't want inclusive language by backing off a bit. (Think about that
for a minute.)
Terry Veling  suggests that marginal
communities should neither be exclusive nor inclusive. He notes that
both words were derived from the Latin (claudere) meaning "to
shut". So the opposite of exclusive, meaning to shut out, is inclusive,
which means to shut in - not to include all. Suddenly the penny dropped
for me. I realised the source of my discomfort, not only in the word,
but in some of the practices of inclusivity.
Terry argues that in the inclusive model, the door is open to all
comers, but the price to be paid is conformity to the status quo,
to what is already going on.
Now, I am not trying to knock some of the excellent inclusive church
communities that there are around. They certainly provide a home for
many who can find no welcome elsewhere. But I am trying to
question some of the assumptions, to try and understand why I don't want
to belong to such a community any longer.
What if we are not looking for a home, but simply a place to visit,
or to stay a night or two? What could a new community look like if it
was neither going to include (shut in) nor exclude (shut out)?
Ken Goodlet says,
It would be a place where everyone is recognised, where
heterogeneity is promoted, where cultural differences are upheld,
and where the spread of so-called universal values are kept in check
because they tend to ignore, gloss over or assimilate difference or
I suspect there are people hearing this who think, "Our inclusive
church community is like that". And it might be. But I suspect the real
test is in whether that is what it feels like to those who have entered
the door quite recently, or whether there are some who have been there a
long time but are moving out now because they have changed and moved but
the community has not.
Setting up a space not a church?
Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild in their book Guard the Chaos
describe the setting up of their group (still going in England
eleven years later). They called it "Womenspace" because they did not
want it to sound like an organised "womenchurch". When people asked if
they could join the group, the response was, "Just come along". The
group was whoever was there that night.
I read this book five years ago (in 1997), but I remember this
section word for word because something about it sang to me. They were
talking about being a part of something without belonging to it.
Somehow this struck a chord for me. They reflected that this lack of
required ongoing commitment seemed to be important to the many women who
Somebody of course has to keep the space "open" - the venue booked,
people organised, food provided. That was the commitment Hannah and
Jennifer made - to create the space and leave it open for anyone to come
in. They comment that one of the richest characteristics of the group on
any single evening is its diversity.
I no longer belong to one "main" group, nor do I want to.
The late 70s and early 80s were life-changing times for many of us
baby boomers in the New Zealand Church - anti-nuclear protests, the
Springbok tour, confronting racism at home, coming out as lesbian or
gay. I lived in community - we lived and worked and played together. It
was inclusive, intense, it was all-embracing, it was full of love and
struggle and pain.
I no longer belong to one inclusive all embracing community like
that. Though many of us look back with longing and some grief to the
loss of that community, I don't want to go back. Life is no longer like
that. Rather, there are a number of overlapping communities of which I
am a now part. There is no longer just the one. I suspect this has
happened to many of us.
I recognise it as I go to an increasing number of "decade" parties. I
once drove to Wellington, New Zealand, to be at a good friend's 60th
birthday. She had booked a large and amazing space, bought cases of
champagne, hired glasses and invited along all the friends she had from
her many networks - work, the theatre, her reading group, her ritual
group, her neighbours, church communities, family, old friends. I
recently had my 50th birthday in very similar fashion. People came from
all over for the weekend and we had a great celebration.
Apart from enjoying it immensely, it made me realise how many of us
now have to book a large venue to have a party to which we can invite
all our friends, because our networks have grown so wide and diverse.
Some will not be surprised by the themes of postmodernity here. There is
no longer one large all encompassing answer, or group, but a
multiplicity of smaller more clearly identified but overlapping groups.
"Can all these people be our friends?" I hear someone say. I say a
loud "Yes!" They are people with whom we have shared our lives. There
are stories and events that have bound us together, even if briefly.
They are part of the colour of our diverse and complex post-modern
lives. And we are starting to realise that short-term liaisons are not
necessarily of less significance than those with a longer history, to
recognise a connection when it happens, and to value it for what it is.
What is right with a one night stand?To what extent is long life a necessary sign of healthy
productive communities or relationships? I know of many examples of
groups of people who formed and met for a gathering only once - a one
night stand, so to speak. For example, at a funeral, or after a
workplace accident, or at a dinner party. In my experience these
encounters can be as life-changing and profound as those in groups which
last a month, a year, ten years or a lifetime and which may have a more
intentional commitment to each other.
I led a workshop some time ago on new faith communities. Someone
asked how people joined communities or even found out about them. If you
are looking for a church, you know at least what to look for. There is a
building and a sign about what is happening and who to contact. So how
do people find their way to the huge variety of alternative faith
communities that exist?
A fair question, if we are concerned primarily about having more of
these communities. However, as the question was asked I realised that
increasing the number of communities was not my primary goal.
I am passionate about nurturing a spirituality that helps us connect
every part of our life and our relationships - in our families, work
places, community groups, our neighbourhoods, and our various friendship
networks. Occasional gatherings for ritual or symbolic action or parties
in these places are just as important and significant as gatherings in
more intentional "spiritual" communities.
Let's get away from the traditional separation of our "spirituality"
from the rest of our life. Forming lots of groups that continue to
perpetuate this separation does nothing to nurture a society that is
healthier and more just.
Those who know me well will notice that I make a similar point about
friendship and sexual relationships. The issue for me is nurturing a
respect for all relationships of mutuality, either in the interactions
of life companions or the chance encounter along the road (and anywhere
in between). Long-lived community in either case is not necessarily an
indication of a quality encounter, and a one night stand is not
Here is a challenge for us to celebrate and honour what is of value
wherever we encounter it.
The Church as a "club"
For some of us the Church or our community of faith is the place
where we connect all the different parts of our lives, the place where
we reflect and take stock, where we try and make sense of our lives and
of the world around us. It is where what is of ultimate meaning and
value is recalled and celebrated. It is the place where we "belong",
warts and all. We are included.
This is a very important function of the Church or community of
faith. It is to be celebrated and honoured that such places of welcome
and belonging exist in our fragmented individualistic society. However,
let us not pretend that these places are other than a "club".
They have rules of membership, a language and way of doing things
that is not immediately recognised by those who enjoy belonging and
being a part of these communities. They are inclusive - they give a warm
welcome to you to come and to join the club and then they wrap you up
(shut you in) to the warmth of belonging.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. But we should name if for what
it is. It is not easy to nip in the back door of a club and out again.
A few things that those who are not members of the club notice
when they go into a church.
- Hymn singing - often difficult and unfamiliar tunes, the kind of
music not heard at any other time on our radios except "Hymns for
Sunday Morning" (do they still have that?)
- Words not heard in any other place - Lord, saviour, Lamb of God,
heavenly king, sin, repent, Gospel, affirmation, blessed, salvation,
fellowship, the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for you
and so on.
- Kiss of peace - a time in the service when it is clear who has
been there for a long time and who are visitors, who is a part of the
club and who is not. I personally find it an embarrassment and I know
many others who dread it.
- Pews, sitting facing people's backs (we usually do that only in
the movies) someone (a few people perhaps) up front inviting others to
participate sometimes, but often with set words. No real conversation
and interaction. Even school is not like that now.
These are not necessarily negative things. If you are a part of the
club they can be what helps you to feel you belong and to feel secure.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that an open door and a warm
welcome means that non-members will feel at home and relaxed. Sure, some
people will, and might stay and learn enough to feel they can
participate and be a part of the story of that place.
In fact, these things are a real turn-off to many people, even to
those who have some familiarity with the Christian "culture". But for
the many who now have not even a residual knowledge of Christianity,
they are meaningless twaddle. They are a real turn-off to those who are
honestly searching and hide from people the jewel that may be hidden
under this strange, mildly alluring veneer.
What if you don't want to join the 'club'?
Do you have to belong to a church to be Christian? I remember asking
this in my evangelical teenage years. And I remember the answer - a
resounding "Yes!" These days I answer with a resounding "No!" What I
want to do is to
- reflect on what is of "ultimate meaning and value";
- do this with others, because I am a social animal;
- find a way of celebrating what is discovered;
- connect with others who work for a more just society;
- help others to do this too (the evangelical in me lives on).
But these days I belong to many friendship networks. Why is it
necessary to add another? I am passionate about friendship, community,
and about spirituality. Does one community or group I belong to have to
be labelled "church", "Christian", "spiritual" for this function to be
fulfilled? Or can it be woven in and out of all my friendship groups?
Like many others, I am now wary of being "trapped" into some new
group which will make even more demands on my time, commitment and
I want to be able to have the time and energy to pay attention to the
networks I do have and want to continue to nurture. I want to be have
the time and energy to respond to new connections with people I meet
along the way. Time to visit some people whose dog had been run over is
important to me (we met while walking our dogs - a brief but real
connection). I want to go to the funeral of an elderly neighbour who did
not have many friends, and who we had fought with over a fence, but who
was a real part of my life. I want time to have coffee and catch up with
a friend I haven't seen for some time.
Spirited Conversations is such an environment
Our "Spirited Conversations" gatherings happen in a normal place of
meeting that is familiar to many - a bar or a caf�. It is widely
advertised - someone turned up last month because they saw a flyer at
their dentist. It is focused on a subject people can decide if they are
interested in or not. You don't have to know anyone - but you might say
"hi" to someone near you, as you might in any caf�. You can come once,
or every time. You can eat and drink or not. You can give a koha
or not. You can participate or not.
They have been going for about three years. Anything from 12-60
people assemble there. Every one of them has been memorable in its own
way, and has caused us to think and be challenged and to go on thinking.
Someone once said that they felt a sense of incompleteness after a
meeting, that there was so much more to explore and it was not all
tidied up. However, this is the very point - conversation does not
finish on the night. It begins and may leave you with a desire to
explore further. Nevertheless, most people I have asked say that in the
weeks following a conversation they have had countless other
conversations stemming from that evening. Not many sermons have that
Walking the labyrinth
This is another example of a "low-commitment" gathering is "The
Labyrinth". It is a meditative pathway. You enter the path, wind your
way into the centre, stop and come out again. The one we use is based on
that in Chartres Cathedral, where it was designed for the pilgrims to
walk at the end of a pilgrimage in the 11th century.
You need no prior knowledge or enculturation. It can be set up
anywhere and advertised. You can enter the walk at any number of levels,
but I have not met anyone who is unmoved by the experience. "Experience
of what?" I hear someone say. Experience of your own G*d
 made self, a sense of connectedness with the created world
and with humanity, a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of the choices
that lie before you.
Seasonal Celebrations at St Matthews in the City
Another example of this type of approach is held in a central city
church which is known to have open doors, concerts, a gay Christian
community, Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups meeting there
regularly. The themes are easy to identify and connect with - winter,
autumn, spring, for example. Music is likely to be simple, repetitive,
easy to join in - or it can soar around the rafters while you listen
You are not asked to talk to the person next to you, or to give your
name - though you might say hello to people over a mulled wine (winter)
or champagne (spring) afterwards. There are strong, clear and
easy-to-identify symbols - the bounty of the harvest and planting of
bulbs in the autumn, darkness and candles in the winter. We take up a
collection and give half of it away. Mixed in with this music, symbol
and colour there is mention of G*d and Jesus and justice, and a call to
refocus, and recommit.
Once again, it is widely advertised, including in local papers. A
growing group of people are drawn to it and find it magic - an
accessible open space where those who gather can reflect on what is
important and recommit themselves to it. A lot of children are often
there and seem to find it easy to connect and relate to what is
Christchurch Cathedral is filled once a month with a similar service
for people who don't go to church, or hardly ever. The simple format
consists of lighting candles, music, water, and burning bits of paper.
After years of involvement in putting together liturgies for people
in an effort to help people connect and belong, it is a challenge to
form liturgy around those who gather, and with little expectation of
"Is minimum commitment and maximum flexibility good?"
I hear some ask if such "one-night stands" can ever be a good thing?
It goes against the grain for many of us, but this is the way many
people are looking at the world and choosing to participate in it.
I am not saying we should not have places of security and belonging,
I am just saying it's not the only thing we should have. It is different
and perhaps challenging to open yourself to this kind of possibility.
I for one find it energising, spontaneous, and serendipitous, and
many others seem to find the same. I want to see more of it.
 Communities in Australia - an article by Ken Goodlet, quoting
Terry Veling, March, 1999
 1995, Darton, Longman and Todd
 G*d - this spelling is suggested by Elisabeth Sch�ssler Fiorenza as
way of getting beyond traditional patriarchal associations of the word.