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Leader comment: Welcome, stranger

15 December 2023

MORE than any other time in the year, statistics tell us, Advent and Christmas are when people turn up at church who do not come regularly — unless one counts once a year as “regular”. It is very common to hear this articulated as a problem, and we have some sympathy with this view. In these straitened times, many churches are organised in a way that enables them to cope, just, with the normal number of services and the normal size of the congregation. Then, along comes Advent, with as many services as doors in an Advent calendar: school carol services, Christingles, lessons and carols, crib services — and that’s all before this year’s double whammy of a Sunday/Monday Christmas Eve/Day. The pressure of work tends to lend an immunity to winter viruses to most clergy — until Boxing Day gives them permission to be ill; but not so the laity on whom so much depends. Experience teaches that the correct ratio of stewards to children at a typical crib service is approximately one to each child, and more if live animals are involved. But many of the faithful are currently either going down with, or coming back from, one of this year’s virulent bugs. Then, of course, the casual visitor can be very disruptive. They don’t know when to arrive, how to park, where to sit, when to speak/sing/be silent. And there can be so many of them to fit in somehow — or, alternatively, disappointingly few, given the number of mince pies bought in advance.

But Jesus talked often about these awkward people, telling stories of lost sheep, lost coins, a pearl of great price, a prodigal child — focusing his hearers’ attention away from the religious elite and towards his favourite brothers and sisters: those who had been neglected, or worse, cast out as beneath notice or unclean. The boast, and the privilege, of the Church of England is that its churches belong to outsiders in equal measure with the regulars. There is no religious elite.

This is often not how it seems to visitors, however. Many enter as if over the threshold of a club of which they are not members, and for which they might not even be eligible. It is vital that those familiar with the liturgy, choreography, and manners bear this in mind. Many visitors come with misconceptions about church which can be dispelled with a kind word. Or they carry a genuine hurt, which requires more time and attention. Overheard this past week: “My whole family used to be Christians, but when my grandmother got dementia, nobody from the church came to visit her.” A wise church has dedicated welcomers on duty in this season, but that welcome has to be sensitive, wholehearted, and ready with an instant act of kindness — but ready, too, to start a long and faithful friendship. Christmas isn’t only for Christmas.

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