Welcome

Published 18th March 2015 by lucy moore

Lucy’s got her head down writing the last book (for the mo) in our series on the core values of Messy Church: Messy Hospitality.
Here’s a sneak preview of the start of one of the chapters, as the Church of England seems to be thinking about ‘welcome’ at the moment. It’s only in draft form so our editor will probably weed out all the over-the-top bits in the final version!
I went to a church on a Sunday morning with my husband. There was a long-pinned-up notice on the noticeboard with the service times on and a big (Very big. Very heavy. Very black.  ) wrought iron gate that was standing open. There was no other sign of life. The big (Very big. Very heavy. Very defensive.) wooden door was closed. Well, it was winter. We were a few minutes early but only about five or ten minutes before the starting time of the service. I put my hand on the door handle, wondering if I should push or pull, wondering whether it was locked anyway and that I would just look a wee bit silly for even trying it. But I’m a grown-up! I’ve travelled three continents! I’ve been a Christian all my life! I can do this thing! The door opened (o joy, o miraculous relief, thank you, Lord) and we walked in, closing it carefully behind us ready for the next people to worry about.
Two people were busy sorting out the coffee by the door – not serving any, just getting organised. Several people were already sitting down in the chairs ready for the service with their backs to us. There was a pile of books and papers on a small table nearby that looked like the sort of kit you need for a service. Was this what was needed for today? Or would it all be on the screen? One of the coffee people half turned and half smiled at us then turned back again to her conversation. I reached out my hand towards the books. Someone materialised, hovering protectively over them and I snatched my hand back, like a shoplifter caught in the act. She stared at something beyond my shoulder and held out a double handful of books and fliers, saying in a voice that brooked no argument. ‘Can you share.’ Paul sniggered quietly behind me as we ambled past another couple of half smiles that obviously interrupted more important conversations and pre-service jobs. I looked in mild panic at the choice of seats. Some had cushions on: was this the local equivalent of staking your claim on a sunbed with your swimming towel on holiday? Some had elderly people in who were staring at their feet, straight ahead or were deep in conversation with each other.
Fortunately, we didn’t make for the seats on the left – this, we later discovered from a friend who had made the mistake on their first visit, was Where Some People Always Sat, where the hearing loop works, where the radiator is situated and where, had we sat in them, there would have been very English, very non-confrontational but oh so coercive,  almost inaudible but just audible enough mutterings about the true and established ownership of those seats until we, as our friends ended up doing, would have felt compelled to ‘move lower down, my friend’. We sat and peered round to check what we should be doing. The minister arriving in a swoosh of robes passed us, noticed us, paused in his rush to the vestry, smiled warmly and welcomed us as if he was delighted we were there before dashing off to get the service started. And so we began.
This is not much of a story, is it? It’s not terribly funny or memorable. Nobody was aggressive. We didn’t run away from the church screaming ‘Anathema! Never again!’ There was nothing that left the other members of the congregation shocked or appalled or calling for change. They didn’t even notice. But if I hadn’t been a Christian already, and a Christian who feels quite passionately that Christians should be at their local church unless God has explicitly invited them to go elsewhere, if I hadn’t got a bloody-minded streak in me that knows no church is perfect and sometimes you have to change things from the inside, if it hadn’t been for the minister and his wife who chatted kindly to us afterwards… would I have gone back? I think not. And yet this is a church that describes itself as ‘very welcoming.’ Frankly, nobody in it, with those two honourable exceptions, demonstrated that they have a clue about welcome. This defensive cry of ‘We’re very welcoming!’ sounds like someone in a doctor’s crying, ‘I’m fit as a fiddle!’ when their skin’s gone green, one arm’s fallen off and there’s an axe stuck in their skull. Saying ‘But we’re a very welcoming church’ just means we never get to do anything about the fact that we’re not, we’re really not. A vague smile from a distance does not make anyone welcome, however much it cost the person smiling. A person handing out books is not some insignificant jobsworth who can do their job as grumpily as they want, but a Peter entrusted with the keys to heaven, the first indication of what sort of a church this is. For us on the visit above, she was more of a Gandalf faced with us, the Balrog, on the Bridge of Khazad-dum: ‘YOU – SHALL NOT-  PASS.’ 

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