Enough with the "All are welcome"

It’s on all the church signboards and church ads: “All are welcome.” It’s in the refrain of a sappy little song that some congregations have even incorporated into their Sunday liturgy: “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”

Oh, come on.

If “all are welcome” is going to be more than a tinny little self-congratulatory slogan addressed to everyone in general and no one in particular, there has to be a little more on offer.

While driving around on errands this morning, I was listening to Diane Rehm talking to the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. Bishop Budde explained that many Episcopal congregations, averaging about eighty to ninety members, come to be like an extended family, and it’s very difficult for a newcomer to break into a family. There are always signals about who is in and who is out of the group.

Being less charitable than Bishop Budde, I would suggest, after thirty-five years as an Episcopalian, that many Episcopal congregations function less like families and more like private clubs. They do not solicit new members, and anyone presumptuous enough to try to join must be examined and vetted by the Membership Committee before admission.*

If all were really welcome in the Episcopal Church, for example, some effort would be made to explain the liturgy and the ceremonial and the Prayer Book to newcomers. In his three years as priest at the little church of Bemerton in Wiltshire, the poet George Herbert was at pains to explain to his congregation, Izaak Walton tells us, “why the Church did appoint that portion of scripture to be that day read; and in what manner the collect for every Sunday does refer to the gospel, or to the epistle then read to them; and, that they might pray with understanding, he did usually take occasion to explain, not only the collect for every particular Sunday, but the reasons of all the other collects and responses in our Church service; and made it appear to them that the whole service of the Church was a reasonable, and therefore an acceptable sacrifice to God.” He explained as well the hymns and psalms and prayers and the calendar of the church year. His congregation must have been better instructed than most current Episcopalians.

If “all are welcome” were more than an empty slogan, newcomers would receive more welcoming hospitality than the watery coffee (simultaneously weak but bitter) provided after most Anglican services. They would be engaged in conversation. They would be informed about programs and activities of the congregation. They would perceive some personal interest in them beyond their possibilities as pledging units. They would get some follow-up attention from clergy and lay people—a call, a card, an email. They would be greeted warmly if they ventured to return.

If “all are welcome” meant something beyond the People Like Us at church, it would also mean something about the congregation’s reaching out to People Not Like Us, expressing some purpose beyond that of a private club meeting once a week for mediocre musical performances, a quietly endured homily, and bad coffee afterward.

It would mean what Bishop Budde called being “a public church” rather than an extended family. But this is not something that Episcopalians or the other mainline denominations have been very good at it. Perhaps that explains something about their decline.


*I may have mentioned in a previous post the experience my first wife and I had one winter at an Episcopal church in Syracuse. It was frostier on the inside than on the outside. When Elaine joined in the singing of the hymns, members of the congregation, who appeared to prefer enduring the music in stoic silence, glowered at her. After the service, no one spoke to us. We greeted the priest at the door; when he asked if we had signed the visitors’ book and we said we had, his fund of conversation was exhausted. An extreme case, but you may have encountered the like.



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