“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.
We all love to feel welcomed. Many of us love to be hospitable to others – offering a warm welcome to our homes, putting people at ease, entertaining guests around the dining table.
The offering of hospitality has always been a great Christian virtue. Indeed, in the ancient world, some cynical writers even went to the extent of saying that if you wanted a free place to stay, pretend you are a Christian, because you are sure to find a place to lay your head among the members of the church!
In a church like St Mary’s, where not a Sunday goes by without newcomers and visitors joining our services, the importance of welcome cannot be overstated. Many people who I meet as they join the church speak of the warmth and ease of the welcome they receive – not too pushy but never ignoring people. Many others I meet in the neighbourhood say similar things about the welcome they receive when they attend a baptism or a funeral. We do well at putting many people at their ease.
Welcoming others is a great way of being God’s grace and blessing to others. As the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen says, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” This is something about what it means to be an inclusive church. St Mary’s is already a church like this and we should be thankful for it.
Nevertheless, from time to time, it is still good to check out whether our welcome is as inclusive as it could be. Even though we have a lift to assist those who cannot manage our challenging steps, is the lift well signposted in the churchyard? Even though we are a diverse community, are we as welcoming as we could be to people who come from cultures where books and reading are not regular activities, or who are members of a minority ethnic community? These are questions worth asking from time to time. What are the invisible doors that prevent people accessing our church community, despite the strength of our welcome?
So that’s what we’re going to do. At the back of church from the beginning of September, there will be a “Welcome Suggestions Box”, into which you can put your comments and ideas about how we can improve our welcome or where you think our ‘blind spots’ are. We truly want to hear your views.
But we also want to ask for your help. For a number of years now we have been well served by a faithful team of welcomers, who have served us on a onceamonth basis, offering a warm welcome, giving out service books and helping people before, during and after worship. We now have a new Welcome Team Coordinator in the person of Carol Bailey and Carol and I would like to make a few changes to our welcome arrangements that we think will help more people feel like they might want to be a part of our team of welcomers and stewards. These changes include:
- Moving to a rota that doesn’t require a once a month commitment, but invites more of us to take part in welcoming on a rota that offers more flexibility in busy lives and therefore a chance to have a bigger welcome team. Carol will produce a rota.
- Looking at new ways of creating a more definite ‘welcomer’ role, alongside the more practical stewarding role. To have people whose specific role it is to welcome newcomers both before and after the service.
- Offering the opportunity to have special welcomers on baptismal Sundays, so that our baptism families can have a dedicated welcome.
So we would love to invite anyone who feels they could play a part in any of this to do so. Please contact Carol if you would like to play a part in entertaining angels who come to worship with us Sunday by Sunday. Her email address is [email protected] . If she or I approach you directly to ask for your help, it is because we see in you the gift of hospitality. Please do consider joining our welcome team. Training will, of course, be given.
As Carol takes over, we would like to acknowledge the service that the wonderful Diana Goodwin has put in over many years in coordinating the welcomers and stewards. She has been an absolute brick and we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. Thank you Diana for all the angels you have entertained over the years!
Canon Simon Butler