In her wonderful book Take This Bread, Sara Miles describes a conversation she had with one of the priests at her Episcopal church. Sara was new to the church, an atheist who was knocked on her ass by something greater than herself when she wandered into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal in San Francisco a few months earlier. She asked the priest about the Nicene Creed, which seemed to her “like saying the Pledge of Allegiance in second grade.” The priest responded with remarkable honesty: “It’s basically a toxic document, set up to standardize belief and overturn heresies and draw a sharp line between us and them.”
This is something that religious folk have spent a lot of time and a great deal of energy doing over the centuries—drawing sharp lines between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” One of the most persistent stumbling blocks to dynamic faith is the continuing attempts from all sides of the faith spectrum to codify, systematize, and clarify that which, by its very nature, is resistant to all of the above. As Miles notes, each “think[s] they can control God like a piece of technology and that they’re the only ones who have the secret code.” But, of course, the divine is not manageable and cannot be domesticated.
One of the many things I love about the Episcopal church is that its altar is open to everyone. I’ve often told visiting people from churches and denominations where this is not the case, when asked whether they can receive communion at my church, that “if you have a pulse, you can receive communion at an Episcopal church.”
My friend Mitch, who is the rector of the small Episcopal church I attend, finds ways to remind the congregation of this on a regular basis. Last Sunday he read the following from the bulletin of an Episcopal parish on Martha’s Vineyard, brought to him by our junior warden who spends a good deal of the summer there. It strikes me as a model of how Christians should put out the welcome mat—for everyone, just as Jesus did.
We Welcome You Here . . .
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, straight, gay by God, filthy rich, dirt poor, or no hable ingles.
We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, who are skinny as a rail or who could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or can’t carry a note in a bucket.
You are welcome here if you are “just browsing,” just woke up, or just got out of jail.
We do not care if you are more Catholic than the Pope or haven’t been to church since Joey’s baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over sixty but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.
We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, and junk-food eaters.
We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.
We welcome you if you are having problems or if you are down in the dumps or if you do not like organized religion.
You are welcome here if you blew all of your offertory money at the dog track.
We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or need a church because Grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced, or both.
We offer a special welcome to those who are in need of a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throats as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.
We welcome tourists, seekers, and doubters, bleeding hearts . . . and especially you to a church called GRACE!
Now that sounds like a church that even Jesus would feel welcome in.