DITCHLING to BRIGHTON
The Heavens opened up just as Abigail and JP arrived at St Luke’s in Prestonville, Brighton. So good to meet up with Abigail and to have some time exploring Brighton together.
Extract from Reflections Journal – Saturday 19th August 2017
Walking down into Brighton from the South Downs Ridgeway I came upon the Chattri Memorial. The beautiful place of peace and sanctuary is nestled in an English country hillside and provided a traditional cremation for Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died in the hospitals in Brighton during the First World War. Although at first there is something almost startling about this very Eastern style structure in the middle of a very English landscape, it is in a way fitting that this remote place properly represents those men who travelled from their own remote villages so very far away from this place, and so very far away from the battlefields of Europe, to fight in the cause of justice and liberty. How we identify with, treat and respect those who are most markedly different to us is an important mark of our society and community.
I had time in Brighton to talk with Martin, the vicar at St Luke’s. We talked about church hospitality and about what happens when the stranger is ‘too strange’ or ‘too different’ for some people. Brighton is identified by many as the ‘Gay Capital’ of the UK and since the 1930’s the LGBT community has thrived here. For many ‘traditional’ churches in Brighton and other parts of the UK this has presented something of a challenge as members of the LGBT community who identify themselves as Christians have sought to integrate themselves into their local church community. For some the idea that ‘all are welcome here’ has found something of a limit when it comes to accepting people who are this ‘different’ and there is evidence that a number of churches have experienced a decline in attendance from the more traditional, conservative Christian, as they have also seen a growth in attendance of those with a more liberal theology.
A quick browse through the internet will bring up countless local church websites. Some kind of web presence is seen almost as a necessity for letting people know about who we are and what we do, and a common claim on these sites is that ‘We are a welcoming and warm church’ or something similar.
But what really makes a church welcoming and what do we mean when we make this claim? Are we happy to welcome the stranger? The individual who comes from a different culture or whose lifestyle choices are very different to ours? Are we ready to warmly greet the visitor who doesn’t know the dress code, the unwritten rules, the practices and rituals, the words to the songs, the right moment to stand up or sit down?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what we mean when we say we welcome everybody, and perhaps we need to think about whether a welcome is enough. Maybe we need to think about going further than welcoming the stranger and the different and actually commit ourselves to being churches that not only welcome but also affirm the stranger. Affirm that they, like us, are loved by God – just as they are. Affirm that even in their brokenness God receives them home just as he has received us home in our own brokenness.
Welcoming and affirming the stranger and the different in our church will be dangerous because it should mean that our church will change. It won’t be possible for it stay the same and that should be a good thing. I am not simply suggesting that we should seek change for the sake of change. Just to keep up with the latest fads or fashion, but we should recognise the importance of change to the life of our church communities. We are after all on a journey of faith and my experience of journeying is that you don’t get very far if you stand still.
Next time you are in your local church take the time to look around you. Do you imagine that the people who gathered in that place 50 years ago or 100 years ago would recognise how you do church today? It has changed. It changed the day you joined the church and it will continue to change as God shapes it.