The future of diversity and inclusion in churches – adaptation, discomfort, enrichment. Conversation between Sue Miller and Joanne Cox-Darling

Gender Diversity Leadership – continuing the conversation 

A conversation arising out of the conference Gender Diversity Leadership run by SWF in summer 2015. At that conference a number of practitioners were asked to be part of a panel in which they responded to questions around the conference themes. The final session of the conference was entitled ‘Adaptation, Enrichment, Discomfort?’ Panel members were asked for their reaction to the use of these three words in relation to the future of diversity and inclusion in the Churches.

Jo Cox-Darling was part of the panel and her responses are outlined here in conversation with Sue Miller.

Sue Miller is the Susanna Wesley Foundation’s Principal Research Associate
Revd Dr Joanne Cox-Darling is Co-ordinator (London Region) for the Methodist Church’s Discipleship & Ministries Learning Network.

I was grateful to the conference in opening up many of the issues surrounding gender and leadership in an interdisciplinary way.  I am also grateful to earlier contributors (Sharon Ferguson and Mercia McMahon) who have begun to raise questions about transgender and transsexuality in the context of worshipping communities and theological responses.

I have been asked to offer some reflections about the future conversations on the themes of this conference.  I remain challenged about the need for research and language to be less about the binary positions, and more about the spectrum.

What would be a good starting point in exploring the spectrum here?

Well first, to think about the use of the word ‘Trans’ in our everyday conversations:


But also:


Second: it is clear that the church is not having the same conversations as are happening in society at large: more within academia about what is happening between the binaries of these definitions.  The real and present danger of this is both missiologically and theologically problematic.  Not engaging in this way continues to mean that the church is increasingly irrelevant to the mores of wider society, seemingly desperate to exclude people from full participation, rather than discover, expose and expand the queendom of God.

If the Church is to become more relevant and credible to wider society, how best do you think we can face this challenge and its theological and missiological implications?

I’m both a practical theologian and a preacher, so my response comes in three stories on the themes I have been given: adaptation, discomfort and enrichment.

I have been struck by the recent revelations regarding Rachel Dolezal, outed by her family as Arian, and yet attempting to live out her life as transracial.  The media is still reeling from the discovery, and have played a significant role in her recent resignation from the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).

Is this adaptation at its best?

Or else, in the words of the Huffington Post, ( the worst of white power, invading the space of the oppressed minorities?

The very same white power and supremacy which leads to police officers straddling a teenager in Texas, or a young adult joining a bible study in Charleston.

What do you think we can learn from this story for our own churches’ understanding of cultural identity and adaptation?

Rachel’s story certainly challenges categories, but it also asks deep question of cultural identity, inculturation, mental well-being and psychology (an interdisciplinary silence in our conversation this week) and whether it is possible or desirable for cultural synthesis – a fruit salad, soup or fruit bowl – to occur in society – and on whose terms that is achieved.  I don’t know what I think, or what I’m supposed to think about this, but I’m convinced that this is a crucial conversation about cultural identity and adaptation.

How do you think discomfort affects cultural understanding and identity?

I am led to a story much closer to home.

My husband Jayson is transnational.  He is an Australian Aboriginal, and British Citizen, defining himself as black mixed race.  In a recent event to which he took part, criticism was raised that the contributors were all white.  In private, comment was made that even if he chose to be mixed race, he could still choose to be white.

Except that that choice was taken away from him and numerous others through a governmental policy to wipe out the black gene pool in Australia – a policy which was still in existence until the 1970s.  It takes four generations to “breed out the black”, with my husband being proof that two generations and a British winter can have a sobering effect on personal identity.

In a UK context, he is told that he does not know what it is to be a victim – but this surely raises questions of your cultural paradigm.  He may not be victim to racial profiling in UK border patrols, but he grew up on an Aboriginal community, persecuted by politics, prejudice and even the weather.

In transnationalism, where do people belong? Or find their identity?  What happens when identity becomes more than the perceptions of skin colour and accent?  Who had the power to say to one group that they don’t belong, do not have a similar experience, or are not valued by another group?  This is a place of discomfort of history and personal identity, and not easily reconciled in a different cultural paradigm.

I think we can agree that there are many parallels with Jayson’s experience in church contexts which many feel have systematically excluded or castigated different groupings, yet simultaneously continue to struggle with negative perceptions of the Church and a drop in church membership.

And where else do you see discomfort as a woman and in your own professional and personal context?

Even closer to home, a further discomfort comes in the lack of universal experience even of gender.  I am 19 weeks pregnant, and thus re-learning a female body in an entirely new way. A body loved and loathed in equal measure.

Hormones racing
No longer bleeding
Breasts that hurt to cuddle people, and I become grateful to my evangelical male colleagues for the Christian side hug.

Where I surround myself in pillows in bed.
Where elastic seems to have become my best friend

I wear a badge on the tube, because chivalry needs a hand sometimes
No word for that except ‘a condition’.

The very things that enabled me to exist as a female young leader and academic, are frayed as I am now encouraged and assured that my participation in academic and ecclesial community is now primarily about motherhood – actually being an alienating experience for me and for the people around me (not least because of all the pillows.)

Which all in all means that in our work on the human ‘condition’, we’ve a very long way to go.

But as a practical theologian at heart, someone who loves the stories people share, excited by the potential in the room to share our stories freely and widely. To begin to be more authentic, at least together

And for the third and final aspect of this conversation – how do you see enrichment from your faith perspective?


Thus I turn to the enrichment provided by Brene Brown and her academic research which exposes the reality of sharing the vulnerable stories of life in order to enable human flourishing as connected, communal, courageous and creative.  These stories redeem us as broken and hurt beings.  In some small way they begin to redeem the church, in its fallibility and fragility.  These stories liberate the power holders from the narrative.  After all, fear and shame never have the last word, whoever sets the agenda, controls the policy or hosts the pulpit.

The human condition can be more connected, courageous, creative – and vulnerable.
It’s the stuff of Christ’s incarnation
It’s the work of grace
It’s the move of the spirit outside of structures and policy.

She has a habit of springing up if we dare to look.

This conference has encouraged us to dare to look.  I hope that we can all be more vulnerable and more courageous as we continue to notice the Spirit in our midst, and the potential of investigating beyond the boundaries.