Giles Fraser: When us-and-them can seem unwelcome

15 June 2011

AS Canon in Residence during June, I have duties that include welcoming people to the Cathedral at the begin­ning of services. While doing this last Sunday, I was struck by what a Pentecost sort of church St Paul’s Cathedral has become. Ameri­cans, Canadians, Nigerians, Koreans, Ger­mans, Italians, Poles — and no doubt people from those parts of Libya that belong to Cyrene — they make it the most extraordinary and diverse place.

“I guess most of your congrega­tion are visitors?” I am often asked, as if this makes us the spiritual arm of Visit Britain, the im­pli­cation often being that this is not a proper way to be church. Clearly, to be a real church is to be a parish church with a proper con­gregation.

What I have learnt at St Paul’s, however, is a different way of being church which cannot work on the parish model. The very idea of a settled and regular congregation does not really make sense here.

Those who come to the Cathedral wanting it to be a grand parish church are often disappointed. It is not a model we can operate. The expectations are not ones we are set up to meet. The language of “us” and “them” — a way of designating a difference between regular wor­shippers and visitors — has almost completely died out, although it used to be more prominent. In a place where 85 per cent of the congre­gation are visitors, us-and-them language is obviously nonsense.

Of course, most churchgoers would accept intellectually and theo­logically that “us” and “them” is not a Christian position. But what is harder to see is the subtle ways that we inscribe that division into much of what we do — and no more so than when we try to overcome it.

For instance, I really don’t like being overly welcomed in church. Of course, I don’t want to be made to feel unwelcome, but I am not a fan of church greeters and similar meas­ures. While having the best of inten­tions, the message that they supply is often that the greeter (as a repre­sentative of the members of this local church) welcomes you (an outsider, visitor) to “our” church. When this happens to me, a little irritated voice in my head reflects that, although I have never been to this place before, it is as much my church as theirs.

The Revd Dr Ed Condry, a Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, told our Chapter recently that he had never fully appreciated the meaning of “We are the body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” until he worked at the Cathedral. I knew what he meant.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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