A friend asked the other day if we let “agnostics / failed Catholics/ theologically sceptical exiles” into our church. The answer is, “Yes, I do.” But that question and its answer raises a whole bunch of other questions such as:
What is church?
Are all churches the same?
What is expected of me, if I enter a church?
I probably haven’t time at the moment (Christmas is creeping up on me!) to deal with all those questions, nor the more that will doubtless occur to me as I write. Nevertheless,it’s worth saying to anyone who is thinking of approaching a church that this is probably a good time of the year to do so. There are likely to be people there for whom Christmas is the time when church draws them even if it doesn’t at other times of the year. If it’s a first time, or a first time back after a while away, perhaps you won’t feel as conspicuous.
There remains though, the general question. Turning up to a church service must be quite daunting for those trying it for the first time or after a long break. You may not know what is expected of you. Do I stand or sit? And if I sit, where? (There are churches where people seem to think they own the seats they normally sit on. I was asked to move twice when visiting a church a couple of years back. In my less patient younger days, I’d have gone altogether. Regular churchgoers, please note. If a stranger comes, he or she’s a guest; let them sit where they want; offer them the best seat if there is one, and particularly if it’s the one you normally sit in!) What’s this bowl that’s being passed around with money in it? (I try to remember to say when visitors are present that it’s one of the ways we help fund the church’s operation but they are to feel free to let the plate pass by.) Passing the peace – What on earth is that? (You’re pretty safe at one of my services, I don’t do that!) And this book, with all these songs in to tunes I’ve never heard except maybe one or two from school days – what’s this about? (I’ve often thought that asking people to sing hymns of faith on their first visit to church is like getting married on a first date.) So, yes, you’re welcome, even if we don’t always make it easy for you. And that’s our problem and one we have to deal with. Are we happy to entertain not only you but your doubts and questions? The truth is that not all of us are, but many of us are more than happy to do so and are finding new ways to make that possible. The truth is, you see, that many of us have doubts and questions too. Our traditional pattern of Sunday services don’t provide the best way of dealing with those doubts and questions so often we tend to keep them to ourselves. But, again, some of us are working on that. At one of my churches we have meetings called “Around the teapot” which allow and encourage people to be open and honest in a friendly and accepting environment so that we can enrich each other with our thoughts. It’s something I’m trying to do more of. I’ll return to this subject, I’m sure but for the time being can I extend an invitation and welcome to anyone nearby to the churches of which I’m a minister. But can I ask you a favour? Please can you tell me what would make it easier for you either to come in or to feel comfortable if you do? And if you have questions, please ask me? I may not have the answers, but I expect that I will enjoy exploring with you. For now: Happy Christmas, whether I see you in church or not.