‘All are welcome’ and ‘come as you are’ can’t enable a safe community if they mean, ‘come and say and do whatever you want’: we’re only able to create a safe community if we have boundaries. Below I explore some of the issues and ideas, with some questions to discuss this in your context. I don’t ‘have all the answers’ and share this with a hope of helping to open the conversation…
I love being part of church that says, and deeply means, ‘all are welcome’ and ‘come as you are’. It is my, and our, delight to welcome people and see them flourish and thrive as they realise they can truly be themselves in the church community, and bring their gifts and ideas and their whole selves to that community. However, this also means we meet some ‘interesting people’ – for example, some who have sought us out to ‘set us straight’ (literally), some who have tested the extent to how they can behave before we have to intervene, and some whose beliefs vary very much from ours and we are challenged with ‘if all are welcome, why is my view, my behaviour, not okay here?’
In publicly stating that we’re an inclusive church, we’ve realised we need to define what we mean by inclusion and to realise that it is fine, even necessary, to make some clear boundaries.
Here I’m going to explore some of these ideas and what we’ve been doing in our context in case that’s helpful. I realise that to live is to learn, and I’m happy to learn from you if you’ve found other or more helpful approaches.
At the first church meeting when we decided to register as an inclusive and affirming church and be more open and clear about this, someone raised the issue that this surely meant excluding people with the opposite view. Where would be the space for those who believe the bible is opposed to homosexuality to come and share their ideas? (interesting how we would not even contemplate making that same space for people who believe similar things about people with other protected characteristics such as ethnicity…). We decided that day that to be a safe place for people who are LGBT+ actually did mean that from now on, as a church, we wouldn’t be engaging in those debates. That the space for those conversations would be private conversations with specific people on the leadership team, and not ‘open season’ for people to come and discuss with people of the church community.
We recognised that day that we were ‘drawing a line in the sand’ and staking our identity as a church. And that by saying, ‘we’re inclusive and affirming’, we were also saying, ‘this space has conditions’. Although ‘come as you are, behave how you want’ would be offering a kind of freedom, it would also be offering a kind of unfettered chaos of behaviours which just isn’t safe for anyone.
But maybe it’s also true that the church is never really a place/community without conditions anyway. I am writing now about churches as public spaces, not just meaning ‘traditional church buildings’ but the space, wherever it is, that the church community gather.*
In every space we enter, there are rules. Most of society knows what behaviour is expected in certain spaces – e.g. a shop, a hotel, a cafe. We know that stealing items, damaging property, being rude to staff, throwing furniture, deliberately making a mess, being obtrusively loud, for example, are not the ‘social code’ for these spaces.
Churches have often tolerated bad behaviour and not been clear about what is required. This ranges from homophobia, racism, and sexism, to general condescension, rudeness, and behaviour designed to ‘get my own way regardless’. Churches, and other organisations which largely rely on volunteers often have a notion of ‘niceness’ as equating with ‘goodness’ (the two are not actually synonymous), and consequently struggle to address negative, destructive or discriminatory behaviours.
The general negative behaviour is another paper! But in the discriminatory behaviours, we have also needed to be clearer.
One issue was that we had an instance of people joining our community specifically to integrate into it in order to then ‘show us our error’ by, for example, instructing gay people that they ‘should become straight’ (which is just too many sorts of wrong to contemplate). And other instances of people making what became unreasonable demands or exhibiting truly awful behaviour and still demanding to be ‘included’ regardless.
Whilst both types of behaviour are extremely sad, and both responded to, we hope, with kindness and forbearance, we also had to respond with clarity. Our community is not here to be trashed. The people in our community are not here to be abused, made unreasonable demands of, or tested to the limits. By all means have your difficult conversations with the leadership team, we are not trying to silence people. But we will not have our community of people trashed, damaged or abused.
This is so very hard. It hurts to even write it. I know how it sounds and I hear the protestations for they are also my own: ‘but surely someone who behaves like that most needs that safe space?’, ‘but surely that person is also damaged and needs your compassion?’, ‘but surely your community should be able to help and sustain someone so damaged?’
Whilst part of my heart still responds with, ‘yes, of course!’, I am afraid that the answer in honesty is sometimes needs to be: ‘no’. Whilst those in leadership have given huge amounts of time to those people, our church community is a diverse and beautiful mix of people, many with their own vulnerabilities, which can be safely shared where people also operate in that context of creating safe space for each other.
In behavioural terms, it is to say that surely a china shop should be able to welcome a bull. We would not expect that – we would say – ‘but the bull will necessarily break things’. Exactly.
Like every other place/space that welcomes the public, I believe churches need to be clearer about what are effectively ‘terms and conditions’ but which we expect people to just ‘know’. Some things seem clear to people, and other things are assumed and we wish they weren’t (like, ‘I must wear posh clothes to church’, or ‘I will have to give money’ – neither are true).
The things that are important and apparently not obvious, we need to make clearer.
We decided we needed to make clear what we mean then by those phrases, ‘all are welcome’ and ‘come as you are’. We have developed a kind of simple ‘terms and conditions’ poster, so that it’s clearer what we mean by those things. It states what we mean by our love of diversity and then suggests that someone struggling with this can talk to one of the ministers. Because ‘you are welcome’ doesn’t mean, ‘welcome to behave how you want’ or ‘come and say what you want’, if what you want to say or do is detrimental or un-accepting. The love of diversity is about welcoming and loving diversity which creates a safe space for us each and all to be diverse. We aren’t a safe space if ‘any behaviour goes’, because that isn’t safe, and could even be damaging.
In addition to our own poster, we also display the posters from the Birmingham Methodist Circuit on Positive Working Together, showing the ‘shared commitment’ of how we commit to behaving in church life**.
We have needed to make clear that our church folk – members, visitors, friends of the church – don’t need to explain or justify themselves, and that if there is a debate wanted, then there are certain people to approach who will have those conversations with you, not just anyone you meet at church. To this end, we suggest that anyone at church who is asked to explain themselves or their views on inclusion, can instead point people to the poster as it explains what we mean as a church and offers someone to contact if you want to discuss that.
We have needed to make clear what we mean by ‘safe space’ – it sounds a bit obvious, but behaviour in a safe space needs to be safe behaviour. This has led to some difficult conversations at times where we’ve needed to make clear what is and is not acceptable in church community life. For example, racism and homophobia will always be challenged and never be tolerated, you will be offered a conversation with someone specific, but not to ‘vent views’ in church life or at individuals or groups.
These conversations have often taken considerable time. Sometimes people with damaging behaviour have no idea that they are upsetting others or no idea/pattern for behaving differently. Their behaviour may even be militantly attempting to support inclusion by being negative to those who struggle with it. It becomes complicated when someone is feeling confident in the community, beginning to thrive, and then starts to use that strength to cause damage to others. Initially there will be conversations explaining this, and the Positive Working Together sheets* being known and always on display does give a shared reference point for challenging negative behaviours. Sometimes people are not aware, and can cooperate in changing that behaviour to again be part of creating safe space for each other.
Occasionally, and sadly, we have sometimes needed eventually to suggest that a different church may be the place for a person to find their home and space to grow. We do welcome all, but we can’t actually welcome all behaviour. This is heartbreaking. We genuinely want to include everyone, but sometimes, in somewhat extreme circumstances maybe, it just isn’t possible. Belonging is a ‘2-way street’ – it isn’t just about a community offering belonging, it’s also about learning to be in that community in a way which doesn’t damage other people in it. Be that community a street, work environment or a church. Sometimes behaviour can create safeguarding concerns in preventing safe space, which also needs to be considered seriously.***
Whilst it’s reasonable to expect that churches should be able to cope with difficult people, the need for clear boundaries is real for all communities. It is naive to assume that ‘everyone knows’ what is expected, so let’s be clear. Some people just don’t know how to be with other people in a way that is not damaging, and yes, of course the church should offer a place of healing. But I would argue that even in the process, the place for venting or exhibiting poor behaviour is not among other potentially vulnerable community members, but with people who have offered that space and who may indeed signpost someone to more expert help on particular things if that is required.
This is where we’re ‘up to’ and it’s not perfect. But working out not only what those boundaries are, but how to make those boundaries clear is an ongoing process. There is a boundary for inclusion – the person is always included, but their behaviour needs to learn to ‘fit with’ creating a safe community. It isn’t behaviour with no consequences – which isn’t to say that someone can’t change or find a way for different understandings – but whilst they are doing that journey, it may not be appropriate to say whatever they are thinking in church groups or meetings where it could be triggering for people and not be in line with the church’s passion for, and stance on, inclusion and diversity and creating safe space. The space for grace and change does not mean space to abuse or damage.
Some of the ministry team are happy to offer to have discussions with people who struggle with our perspective on inclusion and diversity. There are people who genuinely want to discuss things to increase their understanding, but we don’t want the church congregation put in the position of having to justify or explain themselves, so making clear where those conversations can be had is important. Again, we are not trying to silence people, but conversations need to be in appropriate places with people ready to have them.
Someone once asked me if they could come to our church and be themselves, behave exactly as they liked. I said absolutely not. They said, ‘but you said you’re an inclusive church!’ I explained that there are still boundaries – come and be yourself, but at the same time, love of diversity means there is kind of a ‘behaviour boundary’ – for example, we will not tolerate homophobia, discrimination based on disability, racism, sexism, other discrimination, and not nastiness, bullying, or other toxic behaviour. The person laughed – used to churches which refused to welcome them because of their sexuality, that’s what they meant, but although my answer was slightly facetious, it’s true – our church community is not a safe place if anyone can come and behave however they like. We don’t all have to agree about everything, but we do agree about how we behave and where, and how, we broach the things we struggle with.
Boundaries are integral in creating safe space. It is in safe space that people can thrive.
– Ruth Yorke
To ponder or discuss:
- Think of a time or context when you’ve felt really free to be yourself. What did that feel like? How did it affect you?
- How would you/do you approach the dilemma of being inclusive, when that seems to mean excluding some people?
- In every public space there are either explicit or ‘unwritten’ rules about how we are expected to behave. If you were writing those for your church, what would the important things be? How could you make those clear?
- How do you feel about churches displaying what are effectively ‘terms and conditions’ for being part of the church community? When could that become excluding rather than about creating safe space?
- Who are the people in your church community who would be available to have those potentially difficult conversations with people who currently have non-inclusive views? Whilst some people may just appear to want to push their views, some people may genuinely value an open discussion – who would you signpost people to in your church community?
- Do you know the places/organisations local to your context where you can signpost people for additional/expert help and support?
References/notes/additional suggested resources:
*I am writing about church communities as that is the context for me, but I imagine similar issues may arise generally in faith groups and in various communities trying to be inclusive.
**Positive Working Together resources from the Birmingham Methodist Circuit can be found here: https://www.birminghammethodistcircuit.org.uk/circuit-teams-training-and-resources/positive-working-together/
Positive Working Together information and documents can be found here: https://www.methodist.org.uk/for-churches/guidance-for-churches/introducing-positive-working-together/
***Information here on Safeguarding in the Methodist Church:
Suggested additional reading:
https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/21753/conf-2021-27-the-theology-of-safeguarding.pdf see section 6.3 (pp. 361ff.) I found this after I had written several drafts of this piece and it summarises the issues and things to consider expertly.
https://inclusivegathering.org.uk/i-you-we-making-space-for-one-another-at-igb/ A really helpful piece explaining how creating a truly, radical inclusive community, requires us to acknowledge our own needs, the needs of others, and that shared inclusive space can only be created if we are prepared to adapt and lay aside some of our preferences to create a ‘we’ space which works for a whole community.