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.


Is it possible to respectfully disagree?

The world is full of people shouting at each other, each utterly convinced that they are right and their opponent is the devil incarnate. It is so tempting to do, isn’t it – to indulge that volcano in your tummy, to not try to understand, to not stretch out your hand and risk it being bitten off, to not have to undo your own prejudices and fears and doubts by holding them up to scrutiny. When that thing that you are speaking about and opening up about is a fundamental part of your identity, it is even harder to allow others in; others who disagree, who cannot see what you are so passionate about; who do not know that when you are asked to justify yourself you do it with a pounding heart and fear in your bones and a dry mouth that will not let you speak. I do not know why, but one of the things I feel that way about is human-driven climate change. It is not something rational, for me; it is as driven by my faith and my heart and my churning stomach as is the belief that every one of us is equally loved and equally precious to God. 

I doubt I’m the only person on this side of the debate who struggles to understand the opposing perspective, even if others are less irrationally emotional about the whole thing. So, I tried to find out what the other side of the debate actually is. Here are five questions, asked of a friend I trust and respect who happens to fundamentally disagree with me. My own responses follow as well.

  1. How would you describe your own view of climate change? 

C: My view is that the climate is almost certainly changing, but that this is probably mostly natural, and that at present we have no way of determining the long-term trend.  We might warm up or we might have another ice age.  We are overdue an ice age, given the general climate trends of the quaternary.  It seems unlikely human activity has no effect, but I don’t think it is likely to be the main controlling factor.

Me: I believe that humanity is causing the climate to change dramatically and dangerously, at an unprecedented rate. Would it have changed anyway, without human intervention? Of course, eventually. The climate is not something that is static; the earth has gone through cycles of dramatic warming and dramatic cooling before. What is different this time is the speed with which we are destroying what the earth has taken millennia to create; the devastation that is likely to ensue; and the overwhelming arrogance of a species that believes itself to be impervious to its actions when that is patently not the case.

2. What are the main things that make you think this way about it? 

C: My family are mostly scientists who are fairly sceptical of it, and a lot of the science doesn’t seem to be really sound: for instance, no-one seems to have come up with conditions that would prove that it isn’t happening.  A lot of the data seems either badly worked out statistics (you have to use a particular non-standard moving average to get the hockey stick graph, for instance), overstretched proxy data (tree rings), changes or recalibrations in the way things are measured, or interpreted in the light of a curious assumption that the climate doesn’t naturally change. 

I’ve done enough geology and palaeontology to be sure that assumption is false – indeed, glaciers have advanced and retreated in historical time – and as it is difficult to tell the difference between overnight and half a million years in a lot of “fossilised” data, we don’t have much idea how quickly some of the changes typically happen.  Moreover, so far, a lot of global warming predications haven’t been fulfilled, and they are having to try to come up with explanations regarding why not.  This doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong overall, but it does mean they are very far from being able to claim that it is more than a theory.

I don’t believe the majority of scientists agree on human caused climate change, I think that anyone involved who says, “Hang on, might we be wrong about this?” is pushed out of climate science – cannot get grants for research, for example.  This casts doubt on all the normal processes of checking such as peer reviewing.  I would actually be more likely to believe it if they came across as agreeing less, because I would be happier to trust the integrity of the processes involved.

Me: It starts as a family thing for me too. The first time I remember hearing about climate change was when I was back at school, and it was called the greenhouse effect. A biology teacher I loved very much (I sort of had to – he was my dad) told us then to put money on it being a white Christmas in 2010, because by then, the climate would have changed so much that it was pretty much a certainty. 2010 came eventually, even though to the schoolchildren he was speaking to it felt like a lifetime away. In the intervening time, he had died and I had become a mother. And, for the first time in my memory, that Christmas there were inches of snow on the ground.

It isn’t just sentimentality, though. He may have started me down this path but continuing along it was my choice. The majority of the world’s scientists believe that the probability of climate change being a consequence of human action is so high as to be almost certain – the IPCC put the probability at 95%. I am not a scientist; I am a teacher. As such, I would be frustrated if a room full of scientists who had never taught literacy were to come into my classroom and tell me I’m doing it wrong; and I’m not about to do the same thing to them. That is what peer reviews and citations and transparency of funding streams and expected outcomes are for. If, with all those safeguards, a particular community overwhelmingly agrees with each other – quite a feat in any community at all – then I am happy to trust the agreement they have reached.

3. What, if anything, would make you change your mind about it? 

C: The global warming people coming up with conditions that would prove they were wrong, and then finding that what happened were the conditions that proved they were right!  Actually, “proof” in the strict sense is probably not entirely applicable to this type of weather forecasting.  But a combination of taking alternative theories seriously, of having good scientific evidence for the correctness of this theory rather than the others, perhaps combined with odds and ends like being able to predict the weather for next month/year on the same model (!) would convince me that it was more probable than not.  It is difficult to give an exact set of conditions on something like this, because there is no knowing what evidence might turn up or what paradigm shifts might be involved in coming to a better understanding of climactic patterns.

Me: This is a fundamental part of what makes me who I am, and letting that go would be very hard for me; I am honest enough to admit that my emotions, as much as my reason, would have to be involved for me to change my beliefs. If the climate stopped changing whilst human action remained the same, that would probably convince me! Alternatively, if we were to genuinely reform our actions, as a global community; to take responsibility for what we produce and reduce our emissions to actually meet the requirements of the international agreements that have been signed into law; if that was to happen and there was no change to the climate, then again, that would go a long way to changing my mind.

4. What, if any, connection is there between your faith and your view of climate change? 

C: I’m not sure there is one.  My faith dictates a certain relationship to the Creation – that we should aim to be stewards rather than consumers – but that is to do with what is to be done in response to human knowledge of what is happening and what is needed.  It requires me to think about what I am dealing with and how I should rightly deal with it, it doesn’t offer information as to what is happening or detailed commands as to how to engage with it!

Me: This earth that we live on is precious, fragile, and not ours to destroy. Whether we see ourselves as stewards asked to care for creation by God, or use the more bohemian phrase that “we do not own the earth; we borrow it from our children”, in essence we are saying the same thing: that we are tasked with sustaining something now that will in turn sustain others in perpetuity. My faith tells me we are all part of one living, breathing body, stretching into the past and into the future. The threat of climate catastrophe, to me, is a threat to that body; to the chances and choices of many who are alive today, and all who will live in the future.

5. What question should I have asked that I didn’t, because my own bias meant I didn’t think of it? 

C: *Giggle* Probably, “How does your view on global warming affect your view/practice of ecology?”  It means I’m less bothered about CO2 emissions and keener on things like not allowing chemicals to get into the atmosphere that wouldn’t be there at all without human activity (e.g. CFCs). CO2 has always been there, and is an essential part of photosynthesis and therefore of almost all ecosystems (not that we want to suffocate anything – you can have too much of a good thing)!  Chemicals that aren’t usually there are a totally different matter.  I’m also more concerned about a range of things like preserving habitats and species, and sustainable practices, for a range of different practical reasons, rather than having a single focus on one issue.  Of course, the reason I think it matters does come back to the fact that my Christian beliefs give us a duty of stewardship and not possession.

Me: My view of ecology is informed by the same pressure of emotion and drive as my view of climate change, and stems from the same roots. Single use plastic that is abandoned in oceans or shipped to countries in the Global South for “recycling”; pesticides that decimate the insect-life we rely on to keep the eco-system alive; constantly rising emissions that cause the atmosphere to heat unnaturally quickly and will lead to the tropics becoming too hot for humans to live in within the next 100 years; to me, they are all linked, and all deplorable.

Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay