As I reflected on this, I realised that the key word for me was ‘acceptance’. I feel welcome when I feel accepted.Sadly this is not always the case in churches. All too often we become places where only people like us are accepted and welcomed. If you fit the profile, you get welcomed – if you don’t, you don’t.
I have lots of experience of this.Some years ago I worked as an outreach worker with churches who have run-down social housing estates in their parishes. I would go and spend a few months at a time in those churches and their estates. Often the church congregation were quite respectable and middle class which created a social divide between them and their neighbours.
So on my first Sunday in the church, I would turn up unannounced without a dog collar, on my motorbike, in jeans, leather jacket and biker boots, and just sit in the congregation to see what kind of welcome I would receive.Sometimes I was welcomed, but more often I could sense the unease, fear or disapproval which my arrival provoked. In one church, the vicar then preached on the project we were about to start and said that the Bishop had appointed “an especially rough priest to help us – he’s the one in the leather jacket who looks more likely to pull a knife or sell you some crack”. All eyes turned to look at me.
In contrast, when I reflect on Christian ministries where I have experienced exciting, dynamic expressions of the Gospel, they have all had a common characteristic. They have been communities of radical, loving, acceptance.
I think back to the Youth Fellowship which I was part of as a teenager. It grew from just a handful of teenagers to a group of over 50 – meeting each week for worship, prayer and Bible Study. It was a group of radical acceptance drawing together teenagers from different schools, different backgrounds, and different life experiences – from the ‘posh’ kids at the fee paying day school to the local comprehensive to those who had dropped out of school completely, working on market stalls. Alongside one member who is now a University Professor in Philosophy was another who, when she first came, had a ‘Saturday job’ as a prostitute. It didn’t matter who turned up – they were accepted and welcomed.
Then I think of the outreach meetings in ‘Walled City’, Hong Kong, where heroin addicts came because they had heard of a god called Jesus who helped drug addicts. They often arrived strung out or high, in tatty clothes having done whatever it took that day to get their next fix, and within minutes they were each embraced in the love of God by 3 or 4 helpers and ex-addicts who would be praying with them in a powerful and personal way. Such radical acceptance often brought hardened violent men to tears as they experienced the love of Christians and of God.
But then I contrast that with a conversation on Facebook last night with someone who has just left the church. For her, the final nail in the coffin was the Church of England’s response to the Government proposals for same-sex marriage.
“For me this was the final straw, I've now left the church… It's not that they don't approve of me that I mind so much but that they have to lie about me and the danger I represent, that they ignore all my answers to their theology and then claim the theology hasn't been done, that they make assertions even the church lawyers know are wrong... and then pretend it's the official position of The Church. I feel as if I’m looking at an old Politbureau photo where politicians who had fallen out of favour were just erased from the picture by those who had the power to do so. I cannot cope with a church that believes this to be an acceptable way of engaging with its own members.”And when I replied with a lame “Well said” she responded, “Benny, we always say it well, it's what we've all done for years. It makes no difference though. Those who have the power keep brazening it out and keep getting away with it. It's spiritually deadening in the extreme. I'm lucky, I have not lost my faith. But I have had conversations with at least 3 people recently who have lost theirs over this. We're not supposed to be stumbling blocks to people's faith - in reality, these people are a whole mountain range.”
I was deeply saddened by this conversation because it exposed just how unaccepting the Church of England is, and our real failing is that we don’t realise how wrong this is. When I went to churches to help them relate to housing estates, most of them recognised that their reluctance to welcome was a problem – their problem! When it comes to the Church of England and sexuality – we think that this ‘unacceptance’ is a virtue! We call it standing up for the truth when it is nothing of the sort. We claim to ‘welcome’ LGB&T people but then push them away with our patronising, demeaning, unacceptance.Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are heavy laiden, and I will give you rest” while we, the church, place burdens on the backs of gay people which are too heavy for any of us to bear.
Radical acceptance is what marked Jesus out – more than the healings and the miracles, it both encouraged and challenged those around him. It brought the crowds to hear him and drove the religious institutions away.
I feel welcome when I feel truly and genuinely accepted for who and what I am. When we come to God, we find ourselves accepted for who and what we are. If that is good enough for God, who is the Chruch to say (or act) otherwise?
PS. If - like 1,000's of others - you don't feel that the Church of England's response on same-sex marriage speaks for you, why not sign the petition "Not in my name"