Welcoming together

by Jonathan Pye.

Because September marks the beginning of the Connexional Year, it is often a month of welcome services for those starting new appointments in the life of the Church. Such ‘welcomes’ are times of both anticipation and greeting. Our modern English word ‘welcome’ derives from a combination of two Old English words – “wil-”, indicating desire or pleasure, and “cuman”, meaning come. So, “wilcuman’’ originally meant “it is good you have come,” and ‘welcome’ still retains this same basic meaning.

‘Welcome’ is, however, much more than simply a ‘social’ greeting. It is something deeply theological, rooted in the traditions of both Old and New Testaments, and often linked to ‘hospitality’ – open-ness to the stranger, the new-comer, those who come among us. In the Old Testament, we read of Abraham greeting three strangers as he sits under the oak trees at Mamre, setting before them a veritable feast, not just water and bread, but a calf and curds and milk. As Megan Warner in the recent book, Who is my Neighbour?, reminds us:  ‘Abraham…plays his role according to the hospitality code of his day, but he plays it lavishly.’[1] In response, Abraham’s guests also play their role lavishly, and in the exchange of gifts comes a response so extravagant that Sarah laughs at the audacity of it. That is the quality of welcome we are invited to make to others – one that is lavish in its generosity, that goes beyond formality to become open-handed and open-hearted, and invites open-handedness and open-heartedness in response.

In the New Testament, Abraham’s story is echoed in the Letter to the Hebrews, where the list of hospitable virtues in Chapter 13 begins with the words, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it…[2] Those virtues, with the ministry of hospitable welcome prominent among them, echo through the history of the Church. They over-rode, for example, the rigours that those early pioneers of monastic life, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, imposed on their own bodies, so that however frugal their own diet, there was always food to set before guests; however committed to silence and solitude, they remained open and welcoming to strangers and to engagement with them. This, in turn, influenced Western monasticism, and in St Benedict’s 6th century ‘rule’ for monastic life, hospitality, founded on the belief that in welcoming others we are welcoming Christ, lay at its heart. In his book, Colonies of Heaven[3] Ian Bradley helps us to listen to the distinct message of the early Celtic and Anglo-Saxon communities and to apply their ethos to contemporary Church life. In contrast to today’s individualism, Bradley points us to their communal life and how it produced a model of ministry that was collegiate and communitarian rather than individualistic, in which a radical hospitality and ministry of welcome became the under-pinning, distinctive feature of their life together.

In an age when we are often tempted to forget that, ‘the Church is an essentially provisional community[4] we too frequently turn our gaze inward to maintaining the institution rather than outward to welcoming the angels whom God sends among us, in whom we encounter the Christ who walks with us on our shared pilgrimage. The revival of pilgrimage, as Bradley notes, has been one of the striking movements of recent years. Whether physically journeying to places like Iona or Lindisfarne or, further afield, to the old pilgrim routes of medieval Europe, or much more locally where ‘pilgrimage’ may be expressed though ‘prayer walks’ around a local community or Circuit, or even walking quietly and devotionally around a labyrinth, however expressed pilgrimage is always essentially a communal venture carrying the connotation of walking with others. It is this commitment to ‘walk with others’ that lies at the heart of welcome, for genuine welcome consists not of words alone but in the commitment to companionship and to working out a more communal form of ministry.

At a time when the demands on the currently diminishing number of ordained ministers are all too clear and the risk of isolation, burnout, stress and sickness are ever present, and when many in secular employment are facing similar stresses, that sense of mutuality of ministry in which we walk alongside and minister to each other in the Body of Christ is perhaps more important than it has ever been. This time of year is therefore both an opportunity to say to others, ‘We are glad that you are here’ and to show the generous hospitality that expresses welcome as the sign of our commitment to journey together.

[1] Carter R, Wells, S (eds.) (2018) Who is my Neighbour? The Global and Personal Challenge. London: SPCK, p. 125.

[2] Hebrews 13:2

[3] Bradley, I. (2000) Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Models for Today’s Church. London: DLT.

[4] Ibid., p. 235

One thought on “Welcoming together”

  1. When the prodigal (= lavishly generous) father welcomed home his humiliated and contrite son who had spent all his inheritance partying, he gave him – another party! We speak of Holy Communion as ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet’ and surely this is a warmer prospect than golden crowns and glassy sea and all those prostrate cherubs and seraphs.

    I guess we don’t get to choose who we sit next to.


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