All are welcome; but some are more welcome than others

There are a lot of different churches out there, with different theologies, priorities and prejudices. One thing that has united every one I’ve ever been a part of, though, has been the desire to see more people walking through their doors. For some it’s all about new faces and new salvation; for others it’s about a long-overdue return to the congregations of the golden years of yore; for still others it’s about getting back those faces that were once familiar but, we fear, are now drifting away into the enticing vacuum of all the other opportunities available to modern families on the average Sunday morning. I have participated in special welcome events, seen advertising online and on billboards, been ushered in by the promise of coffee and doughnuts and ignored other than a silent nod in the general direction of a tattered service sheet or a photocopied explanatory leaflet. What I haven’t seen, in any of these churches, is the Perfect Welcome. I think it probably doesn’t exist. But, as British Quakers walk cheerfully into Quaker Week 2022, culminating in World Quaker Day, I want to think more about some elements of what genuine welcome feels like to me.*

1. There is no golden key. Welcome will not look the same to everyone. We talk about welcoming young families, as though all young families are alike – but of course we know that isn’t the case, any more than all black people, or all women, or all people who wear hearing aids are alike. We have some experiences, some needs, some prejudices in common, but you cannot say that if you have successfully welcomed one family into your community you just need to do the same thing again and it will work for everyone. If only.

2. Let your yay be yay. If you say you welcome people, you really have to welcome them. All of them. Sometimes the person who walks in will be fashionable, friendly, funny, and a ready-made Godsend for every committee you need to liven up. More often, they might be grumpy and listless, or tricky and uncomfortable, or noisy, rude, a bit smelly… The list goes on. As I write this I can picture someone ticking every one of these slightly jarring boxes. As I write this I am aware I tick some of them myself. Do people’s hearts sink when I walk in the room? Do they also think that they wanted new people, but not new people quite like this?

3. Having children’s meeting is great, but it isn’t everything. I am in awe of people who run Sunday Schools, Messy Church, Children’s Meeting, or whatever the child-focused activities are called where you worship. Making the complex both comprehensible and fun is a gift that should never be taken for granted and takes huge amounts of both energy and precision. But having a children’s meeting is not the same thing as welcoming children. Having a children’s community, where they know this building and these people are as much theirs to enjoy as they are everyone else’s, is better. Being flexible and adapting to the children you have is vital. Are some too old for children’s activities, but not yet able to participate in “adult worship”? How can you continue to stretch and sustain them? Are some younger and more wriggly than you think they should be when they’re ready to join the stillness of the adults? Is that something you can accommodate too? Think as well about what you will do with those children and their carers when the children’s group finishes. Will dad be on his own, ignored over coffee because everyone else is chatting inside and doesn’t want to be where the kids are letting off steam in the garden? Will the children be let out before notices so mum never hears other ways to join in the community? Will there be so many disapproving looks and comments about noise and the number of biscuits kids can put away that granny leaves straight away instead of waiting to speak to friends if she has little ones with her? If this is your only experience, if the way you join the community is always as an Adult With Children, I’m afraid it gets pretty wearing pretty quickly.

4. Ask questions. If you don’t know how to involve me, then ask. If you want my kids to feel at home, ask them (not me) what they need. If you want me to come back, ask. Ask what I can give. Don’t assume you are putting too much on me because of the age of my children; but don’t assume you’re not either. I may be missing worship because I am overwhelmed; because other activities with my children clash this week; because actually I just don’t fancy it today. The temptation is to guess which it is and act accordingly, because that’s what it was last week and so that is what it must always be. But we are all different, with different experiences and wants and needs and gifts, and different pressures at different times of our lives, or our days, or our months. Only when we are all welcomed and included and celebrated and listened to equally will we all genuinely be part of this wondrous community of God.

5. Be proud of your treasures, and willing to share them. Confession time: I hate bringing friends to Quaker meetings for the first time. I mean, I struggle with bringing them to The Vicar’s church – what if they ask me why things happen and I don’t know the answer? What if they judge the liturgy or the vestments? What if they hate the music? – but I really, really struggle with introducing people to Quakers. I sit on the edge of my seat, unable to centre down, unable to worship or to pray myself. Someone stands to minister and my heart sinks, because it’s the someone who always says things that then need interpreting to make them less offensive, or the one who always comments on how nice it is to see young people (read: people under 50), or the one who says what a joy it is to have new people there because they may delay the inevitable demise of the Society of Friends. Welcome, and no pressure…

I don’t like bringing new people to Quaker meeting because, although this community means the world to me a lot of the time, I still find it hard to believe that others, without my emotional baggage, would value its treasures. I find it hard to trust that they will see what I see. And that lack of trust makes it less likely, not more likely, that they will find what I am unconsciously hiding.

How can I overcome this reluctance? I don’t have ready answers, or I’d be doing them already. But I can make some guesses. Every Meeting is different, just as every Friend attending is different. And we cannot share what we cannot see and celebrate for what it is. It’s time to put down those apologies and uncertainties. Time to put down the lines about “sorry there aren’t more people here this week”. Time to stop explaining how we only have children’s meeting once a fortnight with an apology and a shrug. What we do have is amazing, and it’s filled with hope. We love it enough to keep coming back, week after week, through the dark times and the stress and the shared lunches and the giggles and the committee meetings and the cleaning the toilets and the worship that reveals the depth of our humanity and the height of our potential. What we have deserves to be shared with pride and joy and maybe [whispers, backed by dramatic music building to a crescendo] maybe, just a little enthusiasm.

But what if they do like it? What if they really like it, and they join in and everything, but they don’t really get it? What if they’re not quite like us and they bring something entirely new and it changes everything? What if we have to change with them? What do we do then? It can be really hard making reasonable adjustments: changing meetings to online to account for someone’s low energy levels; starting them at 8pm to allow for another having to juggle bedtimes as a single parent; always having to plan a long way in advance to allow things to be translated, or very quickly to fit in with changing shift work patterns; explaining the details of what’s going on, every time, rather than relying on the assumption that we all know the backstory because we’ve all been here forever and done all this before. It’s hard. But do you know what’s worse? Not making those adjustments. Sitting in a bubble where everything stays the same and wondering why nothing is growing around us. Sticking to the comfortable and living with yourself, knowing who you drove away. Knowing that if you don’t make those changes and willingly adapt your treasures as new people share them you are really not welcoming them at all. Because real welcome is something that takes all of us, with all of our hearts open; it cannot just be pretty words.

*One thing I have to fight against, writing this, is the same thing I have to fight against whenever I write about Quakers: defining things by what we don’t do, or don’t say, or how I don’t want to be welcomed. (Here’s a more positive view of why I’m a Quaker.) It’s hard, nailing down the positives in a situation you usually only notice when it goes wrong.


Reader, I Married Him: Living with Christian Unity

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

John 17:20-21 (NRSV)

Fifteen years ago, my mother had a premonition that I would meet my future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: the World Gathering of Young Friends, a week-long gathering of young Quakers from around the globe; or an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”, which brought together young people from throughout the UK, from different Christian denominations, to talk about our differences and learn from one another in community.

At the same time, in a far away county, another mother had a very similar premonition: that her son would meet his future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: attending the Catholic World Youth Day as a very interested Anglican observer; or attending an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”.

As will be of no surprise to anyone who knows either of our mothers, it turns out they were both entirely right, and my future husband and I did indeed meet on that beautiful, far-flung Scottish island, and have been talking about our differences and learning from one another in community ever since. I had never been to Mass. He thought he knew all about silence as worship already. I stood firm in the interpretation of Quaker communities as a priesthood of all believers, and saw Catholics as bringing goddess-worship back into the Christian fold. He believed in the literal and perpetual virginity of Mary, and not in the ordination of women. It was, shall we say, a bumpy ride to learn to listen to one another with love, with respect, with acceptance without agreement. Now, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I am trying to put into words some of what this process has taught me, some of what I would rather ignore, and some of what I can’t avoid, despite my firmest intentions, because every time I try, it beats me over the head and refuses to give up instead.

Unity takes practise. The order of our social engagements in that rosy, hazy summer struck me much, much later. Both of us arrived in Scotland fueled with the enthusiasm of months of talking about and experiencing our own faith with others – those with similar ways of practising that faith, and those with very different ways of doing it, who still broadly came under the same banner. We had spent time exploring what was significant to us and explaining it to others, across language barriers, cultural expectations, and experiential divides. Our tongues were already in the habit of finding new ways and new words for old and comfortable traditions. Not such a leap, then, to move on to rockier, scarier terrain with those who did not already share that mutual language and tradition.

Conviction without condemnation. In a world of post-truth, and convictions that are made or broken on the back of one throw-away tweet, it is a constant struggle to hold to your own convictions, speak them and share them with others, without inviting or offering condemnation. To be able to say “I think this, and you think that. We utterly disagree, and that’s OK.” To be able to learn from each other, to share cultural understanding and religious heritage, to be able to learn more about your own faith when exploring it through the eyes of others, seeing it for the first time: this is a gift, and a route into deeper understanding. Be warned when taking this route, though. There will be stumbles, false starts, and dead ends way up in the mountains that you find only after days of climbing. You will at times be surrounded by rocks and razor-sharp drops. You will bruise your wrists from swinging, alone and surprised when you thought someone else was securing your rope. You will hurt each other. Sometimes you will hate each other. And all of that is part of a journey to a summit that really is worth every year and belly-deep gasp for breath it took to get there.

Find your balance. Everything needs balance, structure, stability: from see-saws to ecosystems to marriages, they only work if they have both solid foundations and equal amounts of give and take. In my household, it’s all about balance. We have two cats: one is named Fry, as in Elizabeth, a prison reformer strong enough to be put onto a £5 note, and a Quaker; the other named Ambrose, after an equally impressive Saint, who had a habit of speaking truth to power, as well as being patron saint of domestic animals. We go to church one week, Quaker Meeting the next. We go away on church Pilgrimages and on Quaker residential events. The Paleontologist joins the choir; I join Area Meeting trustees. It’s all about balance. And also, maybe, just a bit about general absurdity and the triumph of hope over experience.

Be patient. Be very, very patient. Sometimes things will be very important to another denomination, and no matter how hard you try, it will be nothing more than minutiae to you. Exhibit A: arguing over how improper it is to put Jesus in the crib before Midnight Mass. Exhibit B: a stand-up row involving such jargon as Sufferings, Right Ordering, QPSW and AMs. (I feel like someone should put together a Venn diagram showing who may understand the significance of both those sentences. There’s a part of me that is very afraid the overlap may be rather lonely, though.) Whether you understand it or not; whether you agree with it or it makes your teeth scream on end; you need to dig deep, keep your cool, and, if you’re anything like us, leave the other one to it and go sort out some washing up.

Fifteen years has not been enough to work out how to do all this without hurting each other sometimes. A lifetime may not be enough. Life could have been easier for me if I’d met a nice young Quaker from a similar tradition; or for him if he’d married someone more naturally prepared for the role of Vicar’s Wife. I could have continued unswerving on a path I trod and loved when walking alone. He could have shared his vocation with someone who knows how to behave around bishops and doesn’t leave out some sections of the Creed. It could quite possibly have been easier. But it would have been infinitely less fun. Less like a blindfold rollercoaster with the car attached backwards by mistake. And in the end, it would have left me less aware of myself, and my faith more faltering, more superficial, and far less full of convincement.

A view of Iona Abbey and St Cuthbert's cross, looking out over the sea
Iona Abbey: home of prayer, spirituality and, as it turns out, match-making