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.

How to be single at Christmas

I find myself wanting to write something about being single at Christmas. After all, I’ve got some experience to draw on. There was a time when I used to find being on my own at Christmas a tricky thing to think about, but these days its one of the times of the year when I genuinely think I can be thankful for my single status and would prefer to sit down to a nice Christmas dinner on my own than to be a guest any number of other people’s tables.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve been learning.

If you like being with others on Christmas Day and others invite you to join in then go for it. However, decide some time before the big day what you want to do and stick to it. If you don’t want to be with others then make your mind up to resist all invitations. Don’t be frightened of saying to people that you like your Christmas and you wouldn’t want to miss out on it. They will look at you in awe and wonder. They may tell you that you are brave. Smile in a knowing kind of way and murmur, “No, I’m vulnerable too sometimes” and this will confirm them in their view that you are more valiant than Braveheart or the Bruce.

Being on your own at Christmas is one of those things that can seem daunting. However, if you make it through and enjoy it, think how pleased you’ll be. Remember the first time you went to see a film on your own, or sat down in a restaurant on your own and got a kick out of it? (Not achieved this yet? – stay tuned and I may write about it in the new year).

If you don’t want to be on your own, but find that you will be, do some planning before the day. You might like to volunteer to help other people out. You might opt to work if your place of employment offers work on Christmas Day. Otherwise, make some choices and decide to do something that reflects what you would most like to do if given the gift of a bit of time to yourself.

I work a lot over Christmas doing what I love – celebrating in sign and symbol and razzmatazz the good news that God is come into the world. If you’ve never gone to church much at Christmas, don’t be shy. There isn’t a congregation the length or breadth of the country worth its salt that wouldn’t welcome you in to whatever they do. Cathedrals offer lots of special things at this time of the year and are very used to people coming on their own. One of the reasons that Cathedral congregations are perceived to be doing relatively well at the moment is that single people are welcome through the year. Its a place where it ain’t odd to come on your own and you can choose whether to scoot out of the door the moment the organ plays at the end or hang around and chat afterwards. Safe topics of conversation are – the weather, the music and how glamorous the Provost looked in that cope. If you really want to blend in, seek out some of the servers and ask them to show you some thurible tricks in a quiet corner.

When it comes to spending Christmas Day on my own, I tend to make sure that I’ve got good food in. I also am apt to buy a couple of treats in case I want entertainment – a DVD of an obscure film that no-one else would want to see, a salacious book (other than the Bible) and a pot of Waitrose custard are all it takes to make me sure that I’ll be OK these days. Nice magazines and mud-based face-packs for a sneaky spa afternoon are optional but highly desirable.

Be assured that you don’t have to play by anyone else’s expectations. If you want pea and ham risotto rather than roast a whole turkey for yourself, who is to stop you? And risotto is such comfort food at this time of the year. But stir it slow now,  stir it slow.

Decorate as much or as little as you like. I tend to like a minimalist Chirstmas with trees firmly in place and decorated at church but not at home. However I knew someone once who did out his whole house in pink feather boas and twinkling lights just to celebrate the birth of the Bethlehem babe.

In all your planning, remember the golden rule of coping at Christmas on your own: It is your choice.

Make it.