St John's The United Reformed Church in Northwood

Radical Welcome

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt - Exodus 22:21

What makes a welcome radical?

Along with many other congregations of the United Reformed Church, we are thinking about what it means to extend a welcome that goes beyond pleasantries but which at the same time avoids invading the privacy of those who step through our doors. We want to be a church that is person-focused, not issues focused. People can grow, issues generally don’t!

We understand that for many people the idea of coming to church seems to involve signing up to a whole set of beliefs and dogma, most of which feel to have little or no bearing on real life. Quite how this perception has emerged is both puzzling and frustrating; you couldn’t wish to meet a more real and grounded people than those who worship regularly at St John’s and many other churches like it. But the truth is, and we know it, we have not adapted quickly enough with the times.

Working to a radical welcome agenda programme is about trying to close that gap in perception...but there is more involved than doors wide open, no questions asked.

Questions can be intrusive and quite often accompanied by elements of judgement, no matter how subtle. The hidden agenda far too often has been that you are welcome as long as you sign up, eventually, to the way we do things around here!

Radical welcome turns this process on its head, inviting those behind those doors that so often seem intimidatingly closed, to reflect upon their own identity and to ask questions, not so much of the visitor but of the host. Who are we, what are our expectations; do we really present ourselves and our faith in a way that makes the Church accessible and attractive...real?

Christ made time for the stranger, quite often shunning the familiar and the acceptable...sensing perhaps that it is in the presence of strangers that we can deepen our own sense of identity, growing in knowledge not about others but of others...and there is a qualitative difference here. To grow in our knowledge and love of Christ brings him into the orbit of our own living. Simply to know about him, keeps him at a distance, as remote as a dust laden book on the shelf. Safe but sterile...a plaster saint.

I have begun to think more and more as we have explored the notion of radical welcome that it is also about welcoming each other back to a plain of reality…where we can be real and honest with each other. Perhaps part of the radical welcome programme is about those who have already arrived, opening up a bit more and revealing something more of their own journey. How many congregations are in truth a gathering of strangers, albeit polite and deeply kind strangers? How many of us feel and trust we can be really honest about who we are and what faith really means to us...or doesn’t!

It is a long time since the Honest to God debate, sparked in the 1960s by the then Bishop of Woolwich, John A T Robinson. He puts it like this:

...unless we are prepared for the kind of revolution of which I have spoken it [Christianity] will come to be abandoned...we have to be prepared for everything to go into the melting - even our most cherished religious categories and moral absolutes.

Time has moved on and while some of that debate seems curiously old hat, it’s remarkable that still that gulf exists between what is said privately and done publicly…a gulf that when you stumble upon it catches your breath. Radical welcome is in part about bridging this gulf…about being a Church where we can be honest, without having to look over our shoulder, or listen out for gossip, or establish a commission on heresy.

No questions asked would be one way of approaching it...but surely we want a church where we can ask appropriate questions, not because we are nosey or prurient but because we wish to better understand and better serve…to have a knowledge of, that allows us all to grow in our knowledge and love of God. There is a danger that no questions asked simply amounts to indifference or disinterest and that’s hardly a positive!

I am of a generation that has watched in disbelief as the Church has marginalised, excluded, condemned and written off staggering numbers of people…and we are still at it. The Radical welcome programme is a wonderful opportunity to set ourselves against this trend, without apology or awkwardness. It is early days, but in a world where it is now clear that searching for God is a major aspect of human behaviour and healthy personal development, I believe we have a duty to recover lost ground by presenting ourselves with a voice that is rational, compassionate and above all, non-judgemental. God can do the judgement bit without our help, or hindrance.

I recall some years ago stepping out into life in New York City…a place I regard as one of my spiritual homes. I recall Kosuke Koyama, the Professor of Religious Studies at Union Theological seminary greeting those of who were studying there as European Fellows. He said: "Remember you are NOT aliens as our airport immigration signs like to tell you...you are our overseas visitors, we need you here...you are welcome"

In his seminal text, Three Mile an Hour God, he writes:

Whether we like it or not we are living increasingly in an international, intercultural and interreligious world. Our life is constantly sandwiched between that which is familiar and that which is unfamiliar.
The movement from hostility to hospitality, from the fear of the unfamiliar to the joy of familiarity - this is the ecumenical movement, this is the movement of Jesus Christ...The movement between the unfamiliar and the familiar is called the movement of love. If we just stay in our familiar zones, love becomes weak from lack of exercise. - (Three Mile an Hour God, Biblical Reflections, Orbis 1979 p75)

We have embarked upon an exciting journey at St Johns and we share this journey with our friends of St Martin’s Church in South Oxhey... and countless other congregations within the United Reformed Church. You will find if you visit us that our doors, our hearts and our minds are open…but we know the future depends upon bringing new insights and new experiences to bear. If you are reading this and wondering about joining us...we hope you will and that you will bring to our table gifts and faith, that will lead us all a bit closer, together, to life in God, and God’s life in ours.