Who is welcome?

I want to pick up again on a comment that has been left by Helen on a previous post. She said:

Is it necessary to explain who you welcome? Should a church not welcome all? If you list welcoming gay people then you would need to list disabled, addicts, people of other ethnic backgrounds……..etc all who feel alienated towards christianity often. Is all not enough? St mary’s feels currently a place of welcome to all.

I think it is worth carrying on this discussion and those questions are worth answering.

My initial response is that lots of institutions are quite good at saying that they welcome everyone. However, that isn’t the same as actually making changes which will actually make everyone feel welcome.

There is a difference between gay people and the groups that Helen identifies – this is that some parts of the church actively, loudly and belligerently campaign against the human rights and well-being of gay people. Even though churches may not have a great heritage in some of these other areas, I don’t think that there is any similar campaign against disabled people, addicts or people of non-white ethnic groups. It is quite different and I often feel puzzled that straight people can’t see the difference.

That isn’t to say that there are not issues to think about for all those groups though. Just looking at the list that Helen thought of, I think it is worth making the following comments.

Regarding disability issues, I think that rather than say, “The Disabled Are Welcome at Our Services” it is probably actually more welcoming to make clear statements about accessibility and to continue to try to eliminate both physical and non-physical barriers to participation. Our current access situation is available here, though it does change from time to time. It used to be the case that disability was an impediment to ordination. It isn’t that long ago, for example that an attempt was made to bar someone I knew who had a history of epilepsy from priesthood in our church. Things have changed considerably in these areas though now, thank God.

With regards to addicts, I think that the situation is mixed. Churches are not always terrible places for people with addictions. Some indeed make space available for 12- step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous etc. However, some care does need to be taken with how one speaks of such groups – as they are anonymous, they often don’t want it to be advertised that they are meeting, preferring to go under names like, “The Thursday Group” or something like that. I don’t know whether people who live with addictions are more or less alienated from church life than from other institutions in society, but I’d be interested to know whether there has been any research on this.

With regards to people of different ethnic backgrounds, there are certainly things to do. I often speak of us being an internationally gathered congregation and have made particular efforts to make sure that different ethnicities are visually pictured on the cathedral website. So, although the student group pic has lots of white hands on it, this marriage one has African hands and the children’s ministry page has Asian hands all covered with sticky paint. Again, I expect that these ways of representing the common life of a congregation are as important as any statements about who may or may not be welcome.

Incidentally, coming to St Mary’s has disabused me of any prejudice that a congregation which is explicit about its welcome to gay folk might find it difficult to welcome African folk and particularly Anglicans from Nigeria. We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord.

There are other groups who might traditionally feel unwelcome in church. Two come to mind particularly – those who are single and those who are divorced.

One of our statements about ourselves here at St Mary’s says this in response to some of these issues:

We are young, we are old. We are straight, we are gay. Some are single, some are married, some are partnered, some are single again. We are men and we are women. Some live alone, some live with others. We have different abilities. We have different understandings of the truth. We have all kinds of different reasons for choosing to make this our spiritual home.

I enjoy leading a church which is happy to make such statements about itself out loud and post them explicitly for all to see.


  1. “some parts of the church actively, loudly and belligerently campaign against the human rights and well-being of gay people. Even though churches may not have a great heritage in some of these other areas, I don’t think that there is any similar campaign against disabled people, addicts or people of non-white ethnic groups. It is quite different and I often feel puzzled that straight people can’t see the difference.”

  2. As a queer person, I am very, very, intensely hesitant to walk into a church that does not explicitly state they are welcoming to GLBT people.

    This is due to the fact I was escorted out of a church by the Armorbearers*, straight through the front door over which a banner said, “All Are Welcome”, because I had come out at the prayer group earlier that week as queer.

    I was told not to return until I had repented.

    (And three months later called up by one of the pastors and scolded for not paying my tithe after being physically removed from the building.)

    So, I think you will understand why I don’t always believe when a church says “All Are Welcome” and am frightened to cross the threshold (let alone approach the altar for the Eucharist!) without the explicit welcome.

    *Armorbearers in some evangelical and pentecostal churches are kind of a cross between executive assistants, security guards, and ushers. They are (in my experience) always large, burly males.

  3. David Bayne says

    We must be doing something right. If the email I had earlier in the day wasn’t a spoof, the SEC has just been solemnly anathematised by the Byzantine Catholic Patriarchate (founded2011) for being inexcusably nice to homosexuals. Be fair, Kelvin, I am trying…………………… Who muttered “very”?

    Having had a look at the welcome pages of a number of Church websites (including my own) I take your initial point. “All” is perhaps insufficiently comprehensive for those who have been specifically excluded from the Church in the past. The challenge will be to find a form of words that expresses an unqualified welcome without being off-puttingly prolix. Verse 3 of John Bell’s “Jesus calls us” might cover it………….or not?

    • Yes, I’m going to blog about that anathema later, I think. But I was disappointed to find that we were just one amongst many churches so anathematized.

      Now, I think the verse of John Bell’s hymn that you are thinking of goes like this:
      Jesus calls us to each other:
      vastly different though we are;
      language, colour, class and gender
      neither limit nor debar.
      Join the hand of friend and stranger;
      join the hands of age and youth;
      join the faithful and the doubter
      in their common search for truth.

      So, just to be clear, are you wondering whether one can manage to convey that gay folk are welcome without saying so? If one actually said that gay and straight folk are equally welcome at church, who might we be frightened of frightening off? Wouldn’t it be a curious message if it were somehow possible for us to speak of language, class and gender and not be able to speak about sexuality? Wouldn’t that convey an unfortunate underlying message?


      As I said earlier, it isn’t just a gay thing either. Statements by churches giving a positive welcome to those who are divorced are also sadly rather rare.

      And other things.

  4. David Bayne says

    Hmm……. The version I know goes:

    Jesus calls us to each other:
    found in him are no divides.
    Race and class and sex and language –
    such are barriers he derides.
    Join the hand of friend and stranger;
    join the hands of age and youth;
    join the faithful and the doubter
    in their common search for truth.

    Why fillet the original, I wonder? Sensitivities about race and sex, I suppose.

    Your objections to the suggestion reinforce my point that it’s difficult to find an all-embracing form of words without resorting to a long litany of people to whom the Church (or some part of the Church) is or has been horrible – “it isn’t just a gay thing.”

    On the other hand, Mary Sue’s appalling experience does give me pause to wonder whether it is worth spelling-out those groups. Trouble is, if you offer an explicit list, there will always be people left out…………………. More work to be done.

    As for the anathema, it’s rather disappointing to find out how far down the pecking order we come -the Pope got his marching orders as far back as May.

  5. That’s interesting, David. I don’t know which of the versions of the hymn came first nor who rewrote one in favour of the other. (It might have been John B himself, I don’t know).

    Mary Sue’s experience is unusually vivid, but the sentiment behind it not particularly rare. Having said that, I would say that things are changing. In some places, it is Evangelicals who are changing their stance more rapidly than anyone else. Very many Evangelicals, particularly younger people just don’t have a strong view about this and, I suspect, find it hard to see what their older leaders are going on about.

    There are consequences to teaching people to read the Bible for themselves, after all, and people can work out for themselves that the anti-gay readings of the Bible don’t really stack up and that they don’t make much sense in the world they now live in.

  6. william says

    Would you be happy with a welcome which read “Sinners welcome here”?
    All of us surely would be welcome there.
    I look forward to such a notice being placarded at St Mary’s, the next time I pass by!!

  7. Rosemary Hannah says

    I wonder why am not totally happy with William’s suggestion – I think I can best answer as Aslan tells one of the Pevensie children: ‘You are sons of Adam and daughter’s of Eve. That is shame enough to bow the proudest low and glory enough to lift the humblest head.’ That is not an exact quote. I think William’s suggestion is unbalanced. Those in the church are both saint and sinner, each of them. Moreover I think there is a big danger those outside the church will misunderstand it to mean that those already in the church are not sinners.

  8. Francis says

    Sadly it is not just the preserve of the evangelicals to be unpleasant to homosexuals et al. In a so called and self proclaimed “friendly” Piskie church in Deeside, Aberdeenshire I was told that a member of the congregation could not manage to make his communion on Sundays at which I was present as he loathed homosexuals.
    The implication was of course, poor him….
    And what did the priest say, who encouraged me to come….nothing but looked away

  9. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the idea of using ‘sinners’ as an all-encompassing word because it implies a need to seek forgiveness. I don’t believe, and I don’t think the ethos of St Mary’s does either, that being LGBT, or indeed being disabled or being female or being an ethnic minority, are sins for which we need to be forgiven. I could find that sort of welcome at a lot of churches, and it would be enormously different from the sort of welcome that is being talked about here.

  10. william says

    A perceptive comment,Beth – “implies a need to seek forgiveness”. Didn’t Jesus say that He had come for such? If you are implying by your statement that you do not feel such a need, then Jesus had something to say about that as well!
    If we are part of the Church of Jesus Christ then I think such a welcome notice, as I suggested, is most apposite. These are precisely the people whom He will bless.

  11. I seek forgiveness for my sins, William. I don’t seek forgiveness for being gay, because I don’t believe that that is a sin: I am as God made me. If a church views my sexuality as a sin, I am welcomed not as a child of God who is loved just as I am but as someone who needs God to fix her. And as the Church as a whole has a long and chequered history of believing exactly that, I see an enormous difference between a church that welcomes sinners and a church that welcomes gay folk. It’s the difference between feeling marginalised and excluded, and feeling loved and valued and included.

  12. Amen Sistah!

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