Some while ago, I appointed myself as Welcomer at the mass I usually go to: what this means is that I arrive a bit early to hand out mass books. (Having to get to church on time has always been a strain for me: my grandfather's description of our family's churchgoing was "Once a week and late at that!")
Most people seem pleased to be Welcomed, I find, though some defiantly look away. And I remain a little diffident, as I know that there are even priests who are not in favour of Welcoming.
Anyway, my diffidence is mitigated by an article I have just read, which - kind permission of both author, The Rev. David Deboys, and publisher - I set out here:
Why do we do what we do? Why do we believe what we believe? What is the inter relationship between experience and belief? These are not small questions, but I want to focus them on one particular issue: how we welcome people into church. My answer, simply and starkly, is that welcoming people into church is a gospel imperative. Not to welcome people is a denial of the Gospel. I want to engage with these assertions from family experience and from theology.
Our perceptions are coloured by our experiences. I moved to my present parish in west London on the Feast of Christ the King, 2008. A family member moved to another part of London at around the same time. For six Sundays she worshipped in a well-known parish church. No one spoke to her. No one said hello. No one made the slightest attempt to make her welcome. She was very upset by her experience. She was seeking a place to worship and become part of a community. That wasn’t on offer. Her experience has reinforced my theological commitment to making.
It seems to me that the New Testament bears the scars of the rejection of Jesus. Carol services will often climax in the reading of the first chapter of St John’s gospel. Verse 11 reads: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” There it is, no welcome. Indeed the lack of welcome leads to the Calvary of rejection and Crucifixion. And the first Christians, in deliberate counterpoint to that, stressed welcome. The note of welcome permeates the New Testament. The two on the road to Emmaus find that the stranger in their midst is none other than the risen Christ – but they would not have discovered this if they had not welcomed him into their home. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses the need to welcome strangers (13: 2): “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
But welcome in a twenty-first-century parish needs some subtlety. I have no truck with buttonholing those who cross the threshold. Our welcome must be genuine, but allow people to melt away quietly at the end of the service if that is their wish.
At my church of St Barnabas in Ealing we have introduced a team of badged welcomers to befriend any newcomer who is loitering after the service, or who actually stays behind to share coffee. However, this takes us back to the question that needs to be asked: what undergirds our welcome of other people?