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.


I’m a Quaker; this is why.

It should be said much more often than it is that inviting questions when you haven’t worked out the answers yet is a Bad Idea. I learned this the hard way a few years ago, when I said on Facebook “I’m a Quaker; ask me why.” When someone did just that, I tied myself into a Gordian knot of “well, I suppose some people say…” and “I don’t mean you can’t” which confused everyone concerned and in no way answered the question. This week being Quaker Week, I’ve decided to have another go. So, in a slightly more premeditated way, here is my answer: this is why. It’s a different answer to the one I would have given 15 years ago; a different answer, no doubt, to the one I will give in 20 years time; but it is as true as it can be right now.

Lights and darkness, hope but not too much hope. A candle burns in a bedroom window, surrounded by lighted windows and a starry sky. In its reflection, the candle has just been blown out.

Loyalty. The Quaker community has been a constant throughout my life. As I have moved around the country, new Meetings have welcomed me into membership and joined the chaos of my family life. Quakers introduced me to my husband; gave me my first kiss; made me believe that there were others around me who valued me just as I was; gifted me with friends without whom the world would be a darker place and I probably wouldn’t be here at all. There are prophets in this community who dare to say the things no one wants to hear; lone tigers who do terrifying things against everything society and their quieter minds are telling them; people who shape the norm and people who shatter it; people I love and people I honestly can’t really stand. Every one of those people has an equal place and an equal voice and without any one of them, this community would be poorer. They took me in and made me strong enough to take on a world I would often rather avoid. They have loved me and my children, baby-sat for us, driven us around the country to gatherings and weddings and conferences, and quite frankly, have dug themselves far too deep into the centre of my being for me to just get up and walk away.

Challenge. There is beauty and peace in worship that consists mostly of silence. It isn’t easy, though. It’s very hard to hide when all there is is you and a Light that is digging around in all the dark corners you haven’t hoovered for quite some time and were really hoping no one would notice. I frequently go into Meeting with a Big Question I want answered: you know, “what should I be doing with my life?” or “how can I make world peace happen by lunchtime next Tuesday?” I usually come out with no answers at all, but more questions; or answers to questions I hadn’t dared to ask; or instructions that go beyond anything I want to admit to. In decision making I find myself going in the opposite direction to my expectations; in daily life I am suddenly, utterly convinced with no premeditation or control that this is what Needs To Be Done.* And then I have to live with that knowledge, that decision, that call, and try to hold on to that certainty when the clouds of the world roll over those beautiful starry skies and I cannot remember, quite, what it was that I saw there.

Discipleship. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” (Always in a soaring melody, for me, never spoken.) To me, the stripped back act of discipleship, of following the summoning and the footsteps of Jesus, is about talking the talk and walking the walk and living a life that rings true, resonating through my bones and becoming a conduit for a Love far greater than I am. I find the strength to yearn towards this through the stillness of Quaker worship. I’ve tried other styles of worship; I find them moving, energising, interesting, intellectually stimulating, educational, tedious and baffling, but I do not find them to be a way to the still small voice that lies in the midst of chaos and noise and walks the straight path through me. If I spend too long away from that deep pool of stillness I get cranky and lose my way. Much like I do when I haven’t eaten, or haven’t slept. All these things are equally fundamental to my being.

Action. Quaker is a doing word. It is about seeking opportunities to serve our society, making tea and keeping the buildings standing and caring for each others’ health and well-being and taking care of all our resources; it is taking a proactive role in our local communities; it means playing a role in politics, in social witness, in showing how business and ethics can work together to make the world more peaceful, more sustainable, break out of the current mould. It means finding the paths you are meant to get involved in and jumping in with two left feet if that’s the only way to do it, rolling up your sleeves, getting muddy and tired and lost along the way and knowing you are doing it for all the right reasons. It is saying that faith without works or works without faith are both meaningless, as each informs, drives, sustains the other. It is saying that even when these ambitions are achingly out of reach, the very hope of trying is itself an action.

Are Quakers perfect? Of course not. A worshipping community is like any other kind of family. Some are full of light and love and silly in-joke moments. Some are filled with darkness, forbidding silences, fear of crossing the threshold because there is nothing left within them of the goodness they once aspired to. And most are somewhere in the middle, with times of brilliance, and times of apathy, and times when you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, but somehow, everything is just uncomfortably askew. It’s in those trying moments that worship binds us together, striving to live God’s love in a world that really, really needs it. And it’s in the moments that we shake each others’ hands when we disagree, when we agree, when we celebrate and grieve and struggle together, that we are closest to Him.

*This has been, at various points, praying, moving house, teacher training, calling my Mum, and any number of other things at other times.