Becoming a Welcoming Cathedral

Someone who is visiting Glasgow at the moment and who has been to St Mary’s a couple of times, said to me this week, “Well, whatever you are telling those people about Welcome, they are actually doing it.”

It reminded me of someone in the congregation who said early on in my ministry here, “You are doing something to us from the front of the church and I can’t work out what it is. Something to do with the language you use. But it is making us nicer and like one another more.”

The truth is, one of the core goals that I had when I came here was to help the congregation to become more welcoming. That was one of the things that the people who were interviewing me named as a hope when I was considering coming here.

Nowadays, people commonly say that St Mary’s is indeed a welcoming place.

Whenever I hear that I get scared that we will rest on our laurels and stop working at it. You are only as welcoming as the experience that someone turning up for the first time had last week. There will inevitably be people who do come who don’t catch the welcome that is in the air that other people feel and turning a congregation into a more welcoming congregation is one of those jobs that is never done.

However, I do think that we’ve come a long way and that St Mary’s is indeed a much better place for someone turning up than it used to be.

So what are the keys?

Well, most people would think that it starts by organising people into “welcoming teams” and launching them at unsuspecting new meat.

In fact, that’s not where I think it has to start.

Becoming a welcoming church or cathedral starts somewhere else. For me it begins with moods and attitudes and does indeed have quite a lot to do with the message coming from the front.

Have you noticed that I’ve never once used the word “Visitor” in what I’ve written above? Have you noticed that I don’t use it in church either? Here at St Mary’s we don’t have visitors. We do have people who are there for the first time and we do speak of people finding a way into the congregation. However, the V word is absent from our vocabulary at the front of the church.

There is nothing less welcoming than standing at the front of a church and saying, “Good morning everyone, today we welcome lots of visitors to St Marys”.

Why? Well, it sets up those there for the first time as aliens and strangers and it also sets up an ugly dynamic of those who are the We and those who are the Them.

I try very hard not to think like that and stop myself from speaking like that – it just doesn’t help.

For the same reason, our notices are all written in neutral 3rd person language – you don’t find groups imploring people to “Join us on Thursday for a great….”

Because there is no us and them in the kingdom, that’s why.

There are people around in church who are trying to look out for folk who might want a conversation but we also know that lots of people come to St Mary’s and don’t want to talk yet either. They’ve got to be allowed to sit behind a pillar and make a quick exit for as long as they want to.

One of the strangest things that churches do to people who come for the first time is offer them coffee at the end of the service as though that is hospitable.

Consistently people tell me that church coffee hours can be terrifying if you’ve just turned up. Putting coffee on after a service is a good idea but only if you are prepared to ensure that those who’ve been coming for years don’t use it to huddle. If they do, I’d say that you’d be better off doing something entirely different.

In some parts of the world, there’s quite an emphasis on identifying new faces with badges and pins and that kind of thing.

By far the worst welcome I ever received in a church was in a cathedral which said on its bulletin, “If you are here for the first time, please make your way to the Welcome Desk and ask for a Welcome Button (ie a badge for UK speakers). Wear the button to our Coffee Hour and everyone will know to give you a special welcome”. Dutifully I made my way to the welcome desk expecting to be given a discrete badge an inch across with a picture of the church on it. Instead I was given an enormous stick on label that covered my heart, on which they wrote my name in large black marker-pen and I was launched through a set of double doors into their coffee hour feeling that I was wearing something that was designed more for target practice than anything else. I then found myself standing around on my own wearing this large and prominent marker of my newness whilst all around me proceeded to ignore me. Five minutes later I was, predictably, doing a runner.

That was a good example of a church that had thought a lot about it and was still getting it wrong.

I can’t claim that St Mary’s is getting it right all the time, but I think we are trying to do so in ways that some people haven’t thought about. You can find out a bit of what it is like to come to St Mary’s at the 10.30 service by checking the “First time?” section on the website.

So, in short, if you want to be welcoming:

  • Don’t use the V word – there are no visitors in heaven.
  • Don’t talk about us – there is no us and them either.
  • Don’t serve coffee unless you are prepared to work hard to make sure it isn’t a collection of closed groups.
  • Do think about language.
  • Do concientize people in the congregation about what a welcoming church feels like – it is a culture that has to be built over years
  • Do presume that the website is for those who’ve never looked at it before and for those who’ve never yet turned up.

Ah, websites! But that can wait until another day.


  1. Neil Oliver says

    I admit I’ve an unusual relationship with St Mary’s as I live away from Glasgow and only visit (my word) occasionally but I think there’s still some work to do Kelvin.

    • John Oripierz says

      Sounds as if St Mary’s is doing better than the collegiate church at Romieu, in SW France, where according to the official guide “entry is through the south door, beneath an overhang from which stones or molten lead could be dropped.”

  2. I’m sure there is, Neil. As I said in the article it never ends.

    And you are very much a regular.

  3. Stewart says

    You have hit the nail on the head Kelvin. It is all about culture and attitudes. It has to be worked at and no resting on laruels.

    One example I have is my first meeting at the coffee table of a young medical student who I gave a welcome to a few years ago (not sire when possible 2007 or 2008). She was not sure about whether St Marys was for her. We continued our chat for a few minutes and I left her to make up her mind. There must have been something because she has become a stalwart of the congregation.

  4. I have to say I found it rather splendid to have the entire clergy team lined up outside the door in the rain as we pounded over from the Park & Ride the other week – makes it all feel rather special from the moment you arrive!

  5. The worst form of welcoming I have ever experienced was in the church where in place of the Peace all first-timers were asked to stand up and say a bit about themselves. It wasn’t an especially big church, and every head in the place swivelled towards me.

    • Gerry Livingstone says

      What a total nightmare! I’m afraid I would have found myself momentarily unable to stand, or running for the nearest exit!

  6. Gerry Livingstone says

    Well said, Kelvin!
    When I turned up at St Mary’s a couple of years ago, I was quite disorientated within myself. I remember feeling very welcomed by those I came in contact with, even though there was a bit of me that wanted to be the person hiding behind a pillar and making a swift exit!

  7. Helen says

    When I first came to St Mary’s a number of years ago I was not used to liturgical worship and the detailed and accurate order of service made it so much easier and more welcoming. I also at that time absolutely needed to be the person behind the pillar and the fact that no one tried to invade my space made me return.

    • Thanks Helen – oh yes, those orders of service do make a difference, don’t they? Full music and everything in the right order.

      So glad that people managed to give you the space you needed.

      Pillars are such a nuisance in some ways and such a benefit in others.

  8. Daniel Lamont says

    Spot on Kelvin, especially about the coffee. I too have experienced the American experience and that of Beth above. I am a single 72 year old and still find going into a room of strangers difficult, especially if they ignore you. ‘Coffee hour’ is usually designed for the regulars not newcomers. I think it is more important to approach them at the end of the service rather than making a fuss of them as they arrive.

  9. Pam R says

    I think the governing principle of the welcome at St Mary’s is: if you come, (even just once, and with or without an accompanying pillar), you belong. The rest follows from that.

  10. John Duncan says

    These are wise words indeed. Make people welcome by putting together a welcoming team, giving them all badges, pasting on their smiles ….. No. The recognition that welcome is a culture, difficult and painful to achieve, and easy to lose in the course of a week, is one that is all too rare. So many times have I seen church leaders ‘welcome’ visitors, and at the same time tacitly exclude them by the use of ‘us and them’ language. Thank you. I wish I didn’t live so far from Glasgow.

  11. Meg Rosenfeld says

    My husband and I became members of All Saints Parish, San Francisco not long after our first experience attending Sunday Mass in that charming little church in the notorious Haight-Ashbury district. At that time we’d been members for over 20 years of a parish in another diocese, but were beginning to stay in San Francisco on weekends. What inspired us to join All Saints as members was the receipt of a simple hand-written letter from the rector some two or three days later, saying it had been a pleasure to have us there and hoping we would come again. Neither of us had ever had such an experience in any church we’d attended. We were absolutely amazed (in a positive way!) and made up our minds then and there that we would, indeed, go back. Mind you, we were also welcomed by the official greeters, urged to come to coffee hour, and approached at coffee hour with friendly overtures from the regulars–which is not always the case in Episcopal churches, at least in California. I guess it was just the right balance between friendliness and respect for one’s privacy. In any event, we are still at All Saints, almost 20 years later, up to our ears in choir, committees, and activities. To me, it was the letter from the rector which did the trick. He (an introvert like myself) wasn’t too busy to acknowledge new people, and in a way which was totally unthreatening.

  12. I go to a church which gets the coffee just right. But I don’t feel welcome.
    I go to a church which gets the welcome team just right. But I don’t feel welcome.
    I go to a church which denies that I was born gay and have chosen to love my same see partner whom I am not allowed to celebrate with. You see? I don’t feel welcome.
    The homilies never include such exclusion. Never did they mention my being part of the Us of the parish though.
    We have regular celebrations of love but not mine.
    Many speak of going home to love one another and others exhort us to reach out and love the stranger. But I am in the midst of you and m only loves if I deny my own self.
    There is indeed much still to do.
    Welcome in our Church? Discuss.

    • I know Andrew. I know it all too well. And I know that the ease with which these loves can be spoken of here in St Mary’s in pulpit and pew is tragically remarkable in its rarity.

  13. Bravo, Kelvin. I always feel that we in the Church are standing in the place of Christ – who welcomes all. Agape, Fr. Ron, ACANZP

  14. Strangely enough about 1 hour before you posted this, I had been in a meeting in which one of the subjects discussed was getting more people to come to the church. The comments were full of “what can we do” I know that unless someone is willing to do outreach work nothing changes. I feel that as the church, St James the great, in Dingwall, will be having an open day when the refurbishment is complete, an ideal opportunity to raise the profile of the church.
    I have taken on board the difficulties of being welcoming and at the same time not being separate, as you put it us and them. I have had experience of being both, part of a group and the new face

  15. Janet Koch says


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