May 6, 2018

Last week we heard readings on what it means to live in Christ, joined to him and to each other like one great vine growing and producing fruit. And we reflected on how Christians are called to create communities of life and inclusion, in a world that so often excludes and hurts people.

Today the same theme continues, with Jesus’ words in the gospel about abiding in love, and John’s words in the epistle about loving God by obeying the commandment to love others.

But first (and perhaps most importantly) we heard that snippet from the Acts of the Apostles – the conclusion of a hugely significant chapter – where Peter has become convinced that Gentiles/non-Jews can join the Christian community without first converting to Judaism, because the Holy Spirit is already working in their lives even before they’re being baptized. That shift in Peter’s thinking was a game-changer for the early Christian church, because it meant that there would no longer be outsiders. All who responded to the gospel message were welcome. As Paul wrote later, “Now there is no longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

That’s the theory, the theological ideal..

But Christians being humans, and human nature being what it is, we haven’t done a very good job over the centuries in welcoming all. We’ve often been far more interested in judging who’s really in, and who’s not so welcome, not so good, not so worthy. Unlike Jesus, who got into trouble for sitting down with sketchy, disreputable people, Christians have often been quick to judge and exclude others.

In my own lifetime and experience, I’ve witnessed my denomination excluding women from ordination, divorced people from remarrying in church, and gay and lesbian people from both ordination and church marriage.

What would it look like for a church to be authentically welcoming? In the Anglican cathedral in Coventry, England, a statement has been posted on its website and in its service booklets that has come to be known as the Coventry Welcome (although apparently it wasn’t written by anyone in the cathedral), and I want to read it in full here:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, gay, confused, filthy rich, comfortable or dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to wailing babies and excited toddlers.

We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing’, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian that the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas 10 years ago.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, hockey dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians and junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organized religion’. (We’re not that keen on it either!)

We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost in the park and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters…and you!”

Now that is a welcoming community! – if they can live up to that statement. That is the sort of welcome Jesus extended to the people he encountered. It’s radical hospitality.

Could we at St Aidan’s post a statement like that and seek to live up to it?

It’s not just about being friendly to whoever shows up on Sunday mornings, it’s also about the beliefs we hold about people who are different from us, and the extent to which we can share the full life of the community, including the sacraments.

One issue that our diocese is looking at, before the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada votes on changing its laws next year, is the marriage of same-sex couples in church. Are we willing to be a community that offers the sacrament of marriage to couples who want to commit themselves to each other in faithful love, regardless of their sexual orientation?

The Diocese of Toronto has asked that parishes have respectful conversations about this – not debates with motions and votes, but conversations, listening to each other. So next month, on three Wednesday evenings, I’ve invited some married Christian couples of the same gender to come and just talk to us about their experiences – their faith, their relationship, their church’s attitude, their joys and their struggles. And I invite you to come and listen, ask questions, and share your own thoughts.

We might then choose to designate ourselves officially as a welcoming and safe congregation for the LGBTQ community. We might then be a little closer to being able to post that statement of welcome on our website or in our service booklets. We might even be able to say, “Now there is no longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female, queer or straight; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Amen.