by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
A few weeks ago, in the middle of an afternoon social event for retired clergy and their companions, I noticed a small number of people had wandered out of the house and were standing just outside the front door. The weather being unusually damp for Manchester(!) the house was fairly packed, but the reason for their exodus was not overcrowding. This particular group of guests came into that most modern category of social pariahs; they were the smokers. They had understood, without a word being spoken, that their welcome did not include the ability to light up in my hall, dining room or study.
The notion of “welcome” is rightly finding its way to the centre of current discussions of Anglican theology. It’s a good, strong and soundly biblical concept. It takes us well away from the politically fashionable but profoundly unwelcoming notion of “tolerance” – a word that it’s worth remembering the bible uses only occasionally, and then in a deeply negative context.
The verb “welcome” sets up a distinction between its subject, “the welcomer”, and its object, “the one being welcomed”. In the ubiquitous road signs, “Anytown welcomes careful drivers”, for example, there is a clear sense that the one issuing the welcome is both a separate entity from the one being welcomed and may also determine the limits and boundaries to that welcome. Yet for Christians, what must come first and be paramount is God’s welcome, made flesh in Christ. The nails that once held Jesus on the cross now fix God’s “welcome” sign to the doors of heaven, from where none can displace it. It’s a welcome with no condition attached other than that we accept it and allow both it and him to transform our lives.
The Church, as God’s church, should seek to place no greater limitation on its welcome than Christ himself does. When we welcome, that welcome is not simply ours but is our attempt to convey God’s own welcome to others. Moreover, in our initiation liturgy, something beautiful happens. We say to the newly baptised, “We welcome you into the fellowship of faith; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.” From the moment of baptism the ones being welcomed have changed into those who are no longer guests but fully part of the “Body of Christ”. They are now numbered among all who proclaim and incarnate God’s welcome, not simply the recipients of it. We cannot claim the right to say to those welcomed in baptism, “This is our house; you are welcome, but only on our terms”, any more than they can demand to impose the same requirement on us.
Yet as we move from the Church as a metaphysical entity to more local expressions, from denominations to house groups, that welcome will necessarily be constrained in various ways. The particular boundaries to welcome of the Church of England are set out succinctly in the Oaths and Declarations made by clergy prior to taking up any new ministry. They put forward the delicate balance between our inheritance of faith and the requirement to proclaim it “afresh” in the new and previously unimagined circumstances of each and every generation. We who must personally make the oaths and subscribe the statements are not required to interpret them in any more specific way. Much is properly left to our own consciences and integrity, as we are challenged to live out and issue our welcome within our local circumstances.
More locally, we have, in the Diocese of Manchester, churches that offer a particular welcome to those who need or want to worship in languages other than English. We have churches that hold activities that especially welcome those with dementia. And of course we have the full range of Anglican churchmanship across the piece. What our welcome can’t do is offer everything, to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Some very specific welcomes, for example to those whose names appear on the Sex Offenders Register, may need to be particularly tailored to the most appropriate environments.
These constraints however are entirely missional. More specifically they are about how we configure ourselves for mission in our own immediate situation, recognising that the missional contexts of others will differ from and, by God’s grace, complement ours. To this end we might seek to embrace the notion of “mutual flourishing” that respects the welcome that others are able to give to those we do not ourselves reach.
“Welcome” then, is an extremely valuable concept, well worth further exploration. The key is to remember that it belongs first to God and then to the whole of the baptised. We may need to tailor it to our specific missional context, but in doing so we do well to keep in mind and in prayer those who are living out God’s welcome in other places, yet are joined in Christ with us.
Cartoon by Peter Steiner – Man Standing At the Gates of Heaven