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Enough with the "All are welcome"

It’s on all the church signboards and church ads: “All are welcome.” It’s in the refrain of a sappy little song that some congregations have even incorporated into their Sunday liturgy: “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”

Oh, come on.

If “all are welcome” is going to be more than a tinny little self-congratulatory slogan addressed to everyone in general and no one in particular, there has to be a little more on offer.

While driving around on errands this morning, I was listening to Diane Rehm talking to the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. Bishop Budde explained that many Episcopal congregations, averaging about eighty to ninety members, come to be like an extended family, and it’s very difficult for a newcomer to break into a family. There are always signals about who is in and who is out of the group.

Being less charitable than Bishop Budde, I would suggest, after thirty-five years as an Episcopalian, that many Episcopal congregations function less like families and more like private clubs. They do not solicit new members, and anyone presumptuous enough to try to join must be examined and vetted by the Membership Committee before admission.*

If all were really welcome in the Episcopal Church, for example, some effort would be made to explain the liturgy and the ceremonial and the Prayer Book to newcomers. In his three years as priest at the little church of Bemerton in Wiltshire, the poet George Herbert was at pains to explain to his congregation, Izaak Walton tells us, “why the Church did appoint that portion of scripture to be that day read; and in what manner the collect for every Sunday does refer to the gospel, or to the epistle then read to them; and, that they might pray with understanding, he did usually take occasion to explain, not only the collect for every particular Sunday, but the reasons of all the other collects and responses in our Church service; and made it appear to them that the whole service of the Church was a reasonable, and therefore an acceptable sacrifice to God.” He explained as well the hymns and psalms and prayers and the calendar of the church year. His congregation must have been better instructed than most current Episcopalians.

If “all are welcome” were more than an empty slogan, newcomers would receive more welcoming hospitality than the watery coffee (simultaneously weak but bitter) provided after most Anglican services. They would be engaged in conversation. They would be informed about programs and activities of the congregation. They would perceive some personal interest in them beyond their possibilities as pledging units. They would get some follow-up attention from clergy and lay people—a call, a card, an email. They would be greeted warmly if they ventured to return.

If “all are welcome” meant something beyond the People Like Us at church, it would also mean something about the congregation’s reaching out to People Not Like Us, expressing some purpose beyond that of a private club meeting once a week for mediocre musical performances, a quietly endured homily, and bad coffee afterward.

It would mean what Bishop Budde called being “a public church” rather than an extended family. But this is not something that Episcopalians or the other mainline denominations have been very good at it. Perhaps that explains something about their decline.


*I may have mentioned in a previous post the experience my first wife and I had one winter at an Episcopal church in Syracuse. It was frostier on the inside than on the outside. When Elaine joined in the singing of the hymns, members of the congregation, who appeared to prefer enduring the music in stoic silence, glowered at her. After the service, no one spoke to us. We greeted the priest at the door; when he asked if we had signed the visitors’ book and we said we had, his fund of conversation was exhausted. An extreme case, but you may have encountered the like.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:46 PM | | Comments (14)


I guess because I live in Florida, where it seems that no one is actually "from here" (except my husband), churches here of various denominations seem to be more welcoming than I was used to up North -- even the Catholics, who tend to view outsiders with suspicion. I've done a lot of church shopping lately and people have always introduced themselves to us and invited us to more things. Then again, some people like the "private club" feel; I admit I miss my old church at home, where midnight Mass at Christmas was like a family reunion.

I've found Quakers, who commonly display the "All are welcome" message on meetinghouse signs, to be a little socially awkward but always very welcoming.

I was also listening to the NPR interview, which included a letter from one Episcopalian who was upset that all were welcome and heartily wished a return to castigating and casting out gay and lesbian attendees. I loved the bishop's response (actually quoting someone else), that in that case the church would have to stop baptising them.

Usually, Prof. M., I generally agree with you. This post was different. This is one of those Weblog posts that so directly addresses my own experiences and observations that I found myself nodding through it. At some point, we should talk about our Episcopal church-experiences. I will buy the hot, strong, good-tasting coffee.

A good point nicely developed, John. My wife and I lived in a small town in North Carolina (Louisburg, home of far more tobacco plants than humans) for nearly a decade. Three of the five community congregations sent around welcoming committees, but the two churches we visited were as cold as ice when we showed up. The Episcopalian vicar was downright rude when I civilly greeted him after the service and asked a couple of neutral questions. I suspect the welcoming committees were seen as a civic responsibility, and the people who led them may well have formed a minority opinion in dealing with outsiders.

When we moved to Pennsylvania, I was surprised at the amount of outreach. We found the Brethren in Christ and Church of the Brethren congregations to be very welcoming, but several United Methodist churches went out of their way to follow up with new members.

When we were transferred to Kentucky, the place we lived before we moved to Pennsylvania, we received visits from ministers after we visited churches. There didn't seem to be welcoming committees -- the ministers just stopped by without notice. Sometimes that was awkward -- I remember talking to one of them while I cranked applesauce in the kitchen. But it did give us an opportunity to know the ministers better, even when we didn't end up choosing to go to that church.

One policy I liked was at a church in Pennsylvania, which roped off the back three pews until just before the service, so latecomers -- and last-minute visitors like us -- could be seated unobtrusively.

The most useful greeter at a church, in my experience, is a helpful usher who can seat a newcomer in a spot that won't offend someone who usually sits in that location. Churches whose liturgists say things like, "we will now read the responsive reading, Psalm xxx on page xyz," are also more helpful than those who give no cues from the pulpit, even if there are bulletins.

The least helpful churches seem to be those that think displaying the words of a hymn on a screen is all that is needed. I prefer to see the notes to the music so I'm not guessing what the next note will be.

Anon, when we moved to Houston, all of the churches for miles around visited more than once. It became a matter of, "If this is Tuesday, it must be the Baptists..." My (then) husband took to offering them a beer.

Eve, I love this solution!

Oh, Dahlink, offering beer to a visiting Baptist just makes them all the more determined to save your soul!

And, you know what? I miss the Canon. I hope things are joyous for him and the Bel Air Episcopals!

Eve, I also miss the Canon, and others who have come and gone in our virtual neighborhood.

Eve, Dahlink... ditto.

Happy New Year, Eve and Laura Lee! And the Canon, wherever you are ...

It may be that you are insufficiently appreciative of what you have, Mr McIntyre.

I was recently invited to a festival of lessons and carols arranged by an Anglican organisation I have been able in a very small way to help. As a non-believer my experience of the service must, of course, have been superficial: the sense of continuity in an ancient and beautiful church that still carries part of its Saxon predecessor in its walls; the sonorous majesty of the Authorised Version; the pleasure of communal singing.

There were parts of the service in which it would certainly have been blasphemous for me to take part, and during which I maintained a discreet silence. But I heard again the great, glad tidings; I heard again of the hope for peace and goodwill; I heard a group of good people, thankful for their comforts, asking God’s help as they seek to bring comfort to others. And I felt the warmth and generosity of their welcome – the welcome from those who knew me and those who didn’t, from those who knew I was no Christian and those who had no reason to know.

And if their God was among them – and they seemed convinced He was – He gave no sign that He was unwelcoming of an atheist in His house.

I recently moved and was heartily welcomed by St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. I feel very much a part of the St. Luke's "family" but also feel that we are open and welcoming. I thank God every day that I have my new church and that I remain connected with several former churches. Happy 5th day of Christmas!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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