Inclusivity: Stuart Williams’ departing message to our pupils

July 19, 2019

At the end of the academic year, the whole school gathered in the Greek theatre for a school service where Bradfield stalwart Stuart Williams delivered an inspiring message and call to action to our pupils.

I’ve recently been reading a book by the American novelist, John Irving. One of the pivotal characters is Miss Frost, a tall, broad shouldered librarian with very small breasts, large hands and lurid, painted nails.

We meet Miss Frost in her forties, but eventually learn that she was educated at a minor boys’ prep school where, as a teenager, the small-breasted forty year old was three times boys’ Wrestling Champion of New England. Miss Frost is a transsexual.

Over the Easter holiday, I had lunch with two transsexuals, one in their twenties, the other in their late fifties. Reflecting on this and on my current reading, I find myself thinking on the words of St Paul: “there is neither Jew nor Greek … there is not male or female, for you are all one in Christ.” For Paul, the resurrection people is a single people united in the risen Christ, and all distinctions are dissolved in him. I guess we find such ideas difficult.

 

“I look to you to seek out and build a yet better world.”

 

We quite like distinctions. Historically, we have placed great significance on difference: difference in colour, in race, in religion, in gender, in class and in sexuality. We have built walls across society and given differing status to people on the different sides of those walls.

In today’s second reading, US President Ronald Regan stands at a wall, at the Brandenburg Gate, at a time when a physical wall made a profound difference to the lives of Berliners either side of it. That wall separated Berliners: West from East, Communist from Capitalist, prosperous from poor, free from oppressed. If you tried to get across that wall, you were likely to be shot and killed.

Thankfully, the Berlin Wall is now gone; it is a dim memory. Demolition started two years after Regan called for its destruction in the name of freedom, prosperity and peace. Berlin is now a unified city and all its citizens stand together as fellow Berliners. However, there are non-physical walls that still divide and these walls are often very, very powerful.

Tearing down walls

The story of Malala, who was shot on her way back from a school exam, reminds us that in many parts of the world there is a wall excluding women from freedoms taken for granted by men. In 2017, public disorder in Charlottesville, Virginia reminded us that there are many who will not allow the racist wall between black and white to crumble away. In March this year, 49 people died in mosques in New Zealand as terrorists sought to shore up the wall defining Muslims as enemies of the west.

I want to talk today about the importance of recognising the existence of the walls remaining in our world. I want to insist that it is no good pretending they are not there. I want to encourage you to see these walls, to confront these walls and to deny these walls all power. They have to be torn down, brick by brick, until they are no more, till they are horrid memories, like that wall which divided Berlin. The people who must tear them down is us. You and me.

 

“If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity… if you seek liberalization… tear down [each] wall.”

 

I have lived much of my life in a divided world; it is getting better, but it is still tough for too many people. I look to you this morning to seek out and build a yet better world, to actively carve out a society as open and free as united Berlin. The battle is a real one.

We are appalled by the treatment of Malala but we cannot be smug in Britain, for we live in a society where women are much less likely than their male counterparts to have careers in science, engineering and maths. Ours is a society where the top paid man at the BBC in 2017 earned over £2 million and the best paid woman a little under a quarter of that sum. Ours is a nation where only 29% of those with seats in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies are female.

It is bad for women. It is even worse when it comes to race.

Only half the companies in the FTSE 100 have non-whites on the board. There are only five BAME Chief Executives, three BAME CFOs and two BAME Chairs – that’s two out of 100 chairs in a country where about 20% of the population is non-white British.

 

The walls dividing society will only come down when they are confronted and denied by each one of us.

 

Things are this way in a country where the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting the unfavourable treatment of women in the workplace, passed into Law almost 50 years ago –  and that was five years after the Race Relations Act outlawed discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins”.

These fifty years of failure must surely be a most potent reminder that those walls which cut across society will not be dismantled by the Law alone, will not be taken down by parliament and the courts, but will only fall when pulled down by ordinary people. By you and by me.

It was only when the people took chisels and hammers to the Berlin Wall and started chipping away at it, piece by piece, that it became clear that Wall was going for good and never coming back. The physical reunification of Berlin was guaranteed by the actions of ordinary people in the street.

I’m saying, first, we must not be deluded. Ours is a divided society. Second, it will remain divided until we see with clarity how things are, and take our part in confronting injustices. We must not sit back thinking that Law is a sufficient response to any problem; we must instead push forward ourselves, empowered by the Law.

Discrimination still goes on

In 2010 the Equality Act was made law. It prohibited discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and a few other things. It did this a decade ago; but last time I went to the cinema, I found myself watching a public service advertisement warning people they are breaking the law when they mock the disabled, revile black people or abuse lesbians. That advertisement is necessary because the Law has had limited effect.

Discrimination still goes on. Gays are bashed; Muslims are derided; geriatrics too often treated with contempt. The walls that separate may have been made illegal, but they still stand high for some, and we have to come to terms with the on-going battle we must all join as soldiers of justice, if those things which separate us are to be torn down on our streets, in our shops and offices.

 

Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate… Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

 

This point was brought home to me at the end of last year, when the four bishops of the diocese of Oxford sent out a letter setting out their expectations of inclusion and respect towards LGBTQ+ people within the parishes of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckingham. The letter met with a strongly hostile response in some churches. Over a hundred priests in the area came together and wrote back, to record “grave concern” at what had been said by the bishops.

The respondents took exception to the bishops’ wish that no one should be excluded, or discouraged, from receiving the sacraments. The respondents were determined to prop up a wall separating people of supposed good standing from those in the LGBTQ+ community who, in their view, placed themselves beyond the reach of God’s grace by behaviour and lifestyle.

Hope for the future

Happily, some walls are crumbling. The divide between disabled and able bodied is diminished; we rejoice when we see disabled athletes participating in Paralympic sport. We have become used to gender blind casting in the theatre and the wall that separates races is frequently breached by inter-marriage. There is some good news out there.

However, we must not be blind to the fact that this is at best half the story. Some people may no longer be confined by walls that used to divide; but there are still a very large number of people and places for whom, and in which, old barriers remain real and potent.

 

Unless you consciously include, you will unconsciously exclude.

 

Nowhere, I suspect, is this more true than in those matters of gender identity with which I began.

Recently, I was at a dinner party where many round the table expressed the view that the growth in numbers identifying as transgender reflected some sort of contemporary fad. They seemed to think people are being caught up in a trend and jumping onto a bandwagon of gender fluidity. For most round the table, the trans identity simply lacked validity.

Such denial becomes toxic when a trans person looks to use a shop changing room or a public washroom. Suspicions are aroused and walls quickly put in place. The trans person finds they cannot try on clothes or take a rest break in a place they feel at ease.

The two transsexuals I had lunch with at Easter are already living difficult lives. To wear a dress whilst doing battle with body hair and stubble speaks to me of inescapable personal necessity and not experimentation or faddishness. To insist they use male restrooms is to put them at inevitable risk of derision and of assault. Yet many of us would prefer not to confront the attitudes that misjudge them and pretend instead that transsexuality is not our problem.

So the point I am trying to make this morning is that walls of prejudice and division must not be left for the Law to address on its own. It isn’t good enough for us to take comfort in the existence of the Equality Act and reference the protections it provides; for the reach of the law has proved terribly, terribly short when it comes to individual lives.

In 50 years, the ambition of the Law has not been fulfilled when it comes to equality of pay and opportunity in the cases of women and ethnic minorities. Its ambitions, when it comes to the Diocese of Oxford and the restrooms of West Wales, are probably even more hopeless.

It is only people who can make a real difference in such circumstances. The walls dividing society will only come down when they are confronted and denied by each one of us.

Inclusion not exclusion

At the beginning of the year, the Headmaster addressed the staff and cited the words of Stephen Frost, a globally recognised expert on inclusion. Frost’s line is a simple one: “Unless you consciously include, you will unconsciously exclude.”

The potency of this advice must not be ignored. To reach out to include another is to reach across some wall and knock a brick from an evil structure. A failure to reach out? Well that failure leaves the wall unchallenged, secures an evil structure and perpetuates exclusion.

At the dinner party I mentioned, I was faced with a clear choice. Do I challenge those who deny the trans community legitimacy? Do I stay silent, or do I speak out? Am I a courteous guest, or do I make waves?

Every bit of my upbringing tells me to keep the peace. To be polite. To be gracious. To say nothing. To let it pass. And then I paraphrase Pastor Niermöller:

“First, they cheated the women, and I did not speak out

Because I was not a woman.

Then they excluded the blacks, and I did not speak out

Because I was not black.

Then they mistreated the disabled, and I did not speak out

Because I was not disabled.

Then they dismissed the transgendered, and I did not speak out

Because I was not transgender.

Then they turned on me…”

The destruction of the walls that divide society is not someone else’s job; it is not the job of politicians; it is not the job of lawyers; it is not the job of pressure groups or agitators. It is my job. It is your job. It is the responsibility of every one of us.

If I crave a decent world, I must respond to Regan’s demand. I must come here to this gate. I must open this gate… I must tear down this wall! I cannot leave it to others.

If you, with me, seek liberalisation, you too, must come here to this gate. You too, must open this gate… you too, must tear down this wall!

Unchallenged, injustice stands fast forever.

Amen.