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We must still be a welcoming Church

Andy Bryant finds the need to be a welcoming, accepting Church something of a challenge amid the current restrictions.

My relationship with the Church has always been a bit of a love/hate affair.  So much of Church politics, policy and practice feels life denying rather then life enhancing.  I have hung on in there because of my belief in the unconditional love of God and my longing for the Church (both communities and buildings) to be a place of unconditional welcome. 
In a world when so many people feel judged, struggle to find acceptance both from others, and from themselves, the vision remains of the Church being the one place where people can come and know they will be welcomed and accepted unconditionally.  The world needs that kind of Church. The Church rarely achieves this, but belief in its necessity for the world means it is worth struggling with the Church’s many shortcomings.
But my fear is that through this pandemic we are being driven even further from that ideal of the unconditional welcome.  Once in our cathedrals and churches it was enough to say to each visitor: “Welcome, it is wonderful to see you”.  Now that same heartfelt welcome comes with a big BUT - Please hand-sanitise, keep social distance, wear a face mask, avoid touch points, follow the one-way route, don’t stroke the cat…. The list seems to get ever longer.  And lest the visitor cannot remember this long litany of petitions then sacred space is now decorated with numerous notices and yellow tape.
I do know, of course, why we say all these things.  We want to keep the visitor safe.  We want to play our part in keeping each other safe.  We need to contain this virus.  I do not want anything we do in our buildings or our communities to risk giving anyone Covid19.  It is a nasty, vicious illness.
But knowing all that does not stop me weeping for what has been lost.  It is not how it was meant to be.  It has taken us years to rid ourselves of the “thou shalt not” culture that for too long blighted the visitor experience in our churches and cathedrals and overnight it has returned under a new guise. 
The wonderfully blurred lines between visitor and pilgrim, visitor and worshipper, have been sadly eroded.  Something significant in our mission has been lost.  We have worked hard to avoid our communities being “stand-offish” but now are learning to keep our distance.  The stranger was there to be welcomed but now we have to wonder if they have “it” – to stay safe we must be wary of the other.
Although for now we must do all these things, we must be determined that we will not let them change us.  We must not let these temporary practices speak to the wary and suspicious part of our being.  We must not allow ourselves to be more distant from one another or more hidden or create new barriers.  We must not let the virtual replace the real, nor retreat into the personal private space instead of embracing the communal and public sphere.
It is precisely because we find ourselves living through uncertain time and navigating unchartered waters that we need places and communities of unconditional welcome, harbours amidst the storm.  It is the harshest of ironies that at precisely at the moment when we most need a re-assuring hug; we are told we must keep our distance.  Having longed for the re-opening of churches, all are welcome, but only provided you are healthy and on certain conditions.  It is good to be open, but the restrictions make us less than we should be.
Every time the Church places conditions on its welcome it is, in some small way, less than Christ meant it to be, and we are less than the world needs us to be.  The church buildings are open, but it still feels that they are half closed.  We are living betwixt and between and this grey land must not be allowed to infect us.  It must not corrupt us.  We must remain open to a bigger, bolder vision and never stop from seeking to be a place, and a people, of unconditional welcome.

The picture above is courtesy of Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com

Andrew BryantCFThe Revd Andrew Bryant is the Canon for Mission and Pastoral Care at Norwich Cathedral. He was previously Team Rector of Portishead, Bristol, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and has served in parishes in the Guildford and Lichfield Dioceses, as well as working for twelve years with Kaleidoscope Theatre, a charity promoting integration through theatre for young adults with Down’s Syndrome.
You can read Andrew's latest blog entry
here and can follow him via his Twitter account @AndyBry3.

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