Image by Jr Korpa
By: Andrew Rampton
As Christendom began to visibly crumble in the middle of the twentieth century, mainline churches began to worry about their future sustainability. The steady maintenance of parishes was no longer assured as attitudes toward institutions like the Church changed dramatically in just a couple of generations. With this reality came an emphasis on evangelism, not only around the world, but right here, at home. Suddenly, sharing the good news of the Gospel with neighbours and making a compelling case for Christ in the world was not only a baptismal obligation but a matter of survival for parish churches.
This need to make new friends with people without much previous exposure to Anglicanism, or to Christianity at all, prompted discussions about hospitality in our churches. Much of the focus was, and still is, on hospitality in our worship. Sunday mornings are often seen as the front door to the Church: the logical place where visitors would make their first stop and where we would have a chance to make our first impression on them. Hospitality became paramount.
The concern about hospitality went beyond a friendly face at the door, bulletin in hand, welcoming visitors with directions to the washrooms and nursery. The content, structure, and presentation of liturgy became a concern. Is the way we do things easily understood and participated in by visitors? Conversations about relevance and accessibility prompted self-reflection by the Church in a way that had been uncommon for a very long time.
Questions about whether or not worship was relevant and accessible quickly moved to whether or not our beliefs were relevant and accessible. For Anglicans, these two questions are almost inextricably bound up together. The Anglican Church of Canada offers, as a primary source for our beliefs, that “our beliefs are articulated in our liturgies.” We want visitors to feel welcome and comfortable. Even though we don’t often say it out loud at a first meeting, we also hope that those visitors will stick around and become members of our parishes. These desires mean that the relevance and accessibility of Anglicanism and Christianity as presented in our worship becomes a serious, ongoing concern.
Some hospitality-minded Anglicans worry that some of what we believe might be confusing, challenging, off-putting, or just plain weird to a visitor. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” outside of the context of Christian worship is rather a wild proposition. In church, it is perfectly normal on a Sunday morning to hear about virgins giving birth, angels appearing with news about babies that will topple tyrants, shepherds slaying giants, miraculous healings and exorcisms, and a man, who is also God, rising from the dead. Yet all of these things are distinctly the stuff of fiction and cinema anywhere else. We worry that visitors are going to hear this and find it so off-putting that they’ll never return.
The most common response I have encountered to this concern is to try to minimize the parts of our belief and worship that we think will be controversial or challenging. Creeds get altered or omitted entirely because there’s just too much to wrestle with in there. Confession and absolution are passed over briefly, if they are mentioned at all, because we’re certain nobody wants to hear or talk about sin. Mention of the saints, our ancestors in the faith, is expunged because introducing guests to our dead-but-not-dead aunties, uncles, and grandparents in Christ is just too complicated. Communion is presented as a purely symbolic, memorial act—a view of the sacrament that the Anglican Communion has entirely rejected—because we’re terrified of frightening visitors with the suggestion that God might be present, active, and at work in our midst right there on Sunday morning.
I am not suggesting that visitors to our worship need to be immediately flung into the deep end of the Anglican pool. That is not hospitality either. I am suggesting that being less than our whole selves, less than honest about who we are and what we believe, is not a good way to welcome a new friend or neighbour. This is true even if we tell ourselves we’re doing it for their comfort. There is a critical difference between not throwing someone into the deep end of a pool and pretending that the pool doesn’t have a deep end at all.
If, in meeting new friends and neighbours, we cannot be honest and open about who we are and where we stand, how are they to truly know us? If our responses to their questions are always some version of “Whatever you like,” it begins to ring insincere or even impossible. It begins to sound as though we may have secrets to hide or carry shame about our own tradition.
Most of us have had the experience of meeting a new person who is exceptionally guarded, seems desperate to people-please, and to ingratiate. These mannerisms often trigger suspicion. If another person—or a church—does not appear to have substance or is unwilling to let us see where they stand, we have trouble discerning where we stand in relation to them. And if we want to build bonds of care, love, dignity, respect, and friendship across the space between us and the other, we have to know where that space is and what it looks like.
To be hospitable is to share what one has with guests. We can acknowledge that our ways may not be what our guest is accustomed to, but do our best to share with them the beauty, truth, and goodness that our tradition holds. There may be difficult conversations about the parts of our tradition that are challenging or seem strange. We can be honest about the fact that not all Anglicans agree on the best ways to live this vocation and that there are parts of the tradition we, ourselves, struggle with.
Hospitality in worship is offering guests our whole selves, not a diluted, faded version of Anglican Christianity. We must do this knowing that not everyone will understand or enjoy every part. We must trust that if we stand with open arms and hearts bared in true, honest offering, God will fill the space between us and them, soon making us one.
Andrew is the rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg. Christian liturgy and worship practices are a keen interest, as are ecumenical and interfaith relationships. He served as the Christian representative in the London Public Library’s interfaith discussion panel series Abraham’s Cafe in 2018.