A good question: Are all welcome?
Jesus invited everyone – but are all equally welcome in church? Our panel considers the question which is the theme of the United Reformed Church’s involvement in Greenbelt festival this year
‘Enter at your own risk’
I have never met a United Reformed Church congregation that will claim it excludes anyone. Consider the numerous mission statements of congregations across many church traditions: the strap-lines can be compared to those of supermarkets offering shoppers heaven on earth with an ulterior motive. Notwithstanding the plethora of good intentions, exclusion happens. Too many can cite examples of exclusion and unwelcome. While the mantra sounds good, we continue to struggle with welcome and its implications. We struggle to internalise welcome as a habit and live it out. Perhaps we should be more honest about welcome and welcoming. Could the following examples of straplines for churches, be nearer to where we are? ‘Love risking: would you be willing to receive us? We are looking for adventure and need your help to practice giving and receiving.’ Or ‘Enter at your own risk: church community trying to live out the Jesus way.’
Among the challenges of our ‘all are welcome’ good intentions is one stumbling block I have noticed as a visible minority in the URC. It is around a default and/or unconscious habit of churches seeing their role as primarily that of ‘doing the welcoming’ (as hosts), creating space(s) to include. The danger is that welcoming becomes a one-way traffic. Such traffic is easily clogged up with insider road signs, accidents, spillages, misreading of signage, rage, polluting smog and constant/distracting repair work. And the likelihood of locking out Jesus in the stranger/the ‘other’ of our communities becomes real. This is besides the fact that any sense of collective mutuality – the important habit of giving and receiving – is lost as we exert energy to be proper and correct. …
Michael N Jagessar is a member of the United Reformed Church’s Global and Intercultural Ministries team
‘We have fallen a long way short of Christ’s welcome’
In the Gospels, we encounter a Christ who turned no one away, who sought out and spent time with those on the margins, whose harshest words were reserved for those using religion to divide and exclude. It follows then that we, the Church, are called to offer a radical welcome to all, including and perhaps even most especially the oppressed and underprivileged.
Sadly, we have always fallen a long way short of this. I speak from my own experience as a woman and a lesbian, who, along with many others, has suffered at the hands of the Church. For LGBT Christians, coming to terms with one’s God-given sexuality in the context of the teachings and traditions of the Church can be an excruciating experience. Many are faced with a death-dealing ultimatum; to pervert, deny or repress their true natures – a situation which often ends up harming others as well as themselves, or to break free from the Church and perhaps also their faith in God. It is unsurprising that in such circumstances feelings of powerlessness and shame lead many young people to take their own lives. In this, the Church has blood on its hands, and much to repent of. How can we have so catastrophically misrepresented God’s love? …
Cara Heafey is a nurse and a member of Cumnor United Reformed Church, Oxford
‘Disabled people can find church disheartening’
God knitted us together in the womb and loves each of us without limit. As Jesus said: ‘Everyone who acknowledges me before other people, I also will acknowledge before my Father.’ A banquet for all, then, in heaven. So, what will that table look like? Perfect people, making perfect conversation? We know that Jesus rose from the dead with his wounds. The risen body of Christ did not need to be perfect, did not need to be whole.
There are 14 million disabled people in the UK and two million autistic people. What does welcome mean, for those groups? And what does it mean for us as the welcomers, the leaders, the disciples? Autism is a sensory and social processing difference, a permanent brain design. Generalising, we are born with a brain that takes in a simply breathtaking amount of detail. Our brains are designed to communicate with autistic people, not non-autistic ones. This means that there are differences in spoken language, body language, eye contact and culture. We are usually very literal, logical and rule-based; often kind, honest, loyal, gentle and creative. Thirty per cent are part of the LGBT community. We are wonderfully varied as a set of autistic people.
Arguably, Jesus’ friend Nicodemus was autistic. Approaching Jesus in the quiet of evening, he misunderstood Jesus’ words about being born again, taking this literally. When Jesus was in trouble, he reached for a rule book. At the tomb, he staggered up the hill with a socially inappropriate load of spices. Still autistic, after years of knowing Jesus. No cure, no pity. Just being himself. …
Ann Memmott is the author of ‘Welcoming Autism People in our Churches and Communities’ (Diocese of Oxford, 2015). She is autistic and disabled
‘Class has hidden rules’
In 2008, the Revd Derek Rigby, the leader of Trinity Methodist Church in Prestatyn, let his beard grow for three days, put on a wig, dirtied himself up, drew tattoos on his arms and put on lager-soaked clothes. He then sat in the porch to his church as the congregation arrived for a Sunday service and settled on a pew in the church, drinking from a can of beer.
None of the congregation spoke to him. He then took off his wig to reveal his identity, before delivering a sermon. He said: ‘It was interesting to see the reaction from people – I was totally ignored.’
A recent survey on the topic Church for the poor asked: ‘What do you feel most hinders you becoming a church for (and of) the poor?’ One of the greatest hindrances was ‘middle-class barriers’.
Some of the comments from the survey illustrate the issue: ‘middle-class white Christianity – based on intellectual activities – Bible reading, preaching etc. We get the Bible concept of remembering the poor – but expect them to fit our idea of what church should be like.’ ‘Because the poor generally look and speak differently and often behave differently, our congregation is not sure how to interact with them.’ ‘Entrenched attitudes among the comfortable.’ …
Geoff Knott is the founder of Word on the Streets
This is an extract from an article that was published in the July/August 2017 edition of Reform