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A welcome to all

'Hail guest, we ask not what thou art;

If friend, we greet thee, hand and heart;

If stranger, such no longer be;

If foe, our love shall conquer thee.'

An ancient Celtic welcome, found over the door of an old inn in Wales. [1]

There is a lot of talk about inclusion at the moment and what this means for businesses, organisations, schools, universities, charities and also what this means for churches. Historically, it's been a tricky one for Christians and some of us have shied away from voicing an opinion altogether whilst others have embraced it with a fervour demanding not just tolerance for their views, but wholehearted agreement. As with many things in life perhaps the right response lies somewhere in the middle of the debate.

Sometimes people do need to know they are welcome in a place so a welcome must be articulated or demonstrated but it's also reasonable to have a difference of opinion on what inclusion means and to be able to accommodate these differences constructively. I am deliberately being vague about what issues may be debatable because I want to focus more on the principle rather than a particular issue. Because the principle we should always be bearing in mind is this: every single person is loved by God.

"Every single person is loved by God."

They are loved, not because they are doing good things or thinking right thoughts, but deeply and passionately loved as themselves by God the Father of us all. That person may deny the existence of God, be in the midst of an existential crisis, behaved dreadfully and hurt many people even be practising appalling theology - yet even this will not stop them being loved by God. Nor should this stop us from loving them either.

So when we look at someone and see only what we disagree with in them, it's worth taking a step back and remembering that the person before us is a human made in the image of God and loved by Him.

I often drink from the spiritual legacy that the Desert Fathers and Mothers have left to us and I also share their desire to retreat from people at times. It's so much easier to love at a distance, to care from afar and feel passionately about Jesus when you don't have to put love into action. In my village there are a lot of houses with big gardens and people can easily keep their distance. You can also choose to hide away behind a large garden and a thick hedge. Last year one person told me that they don't socialise as 'people are difficult' so they've found it best to 'keep yourself to yourself'. They are right in that people ARE difficult and the closer you come to them the more you realise this.

In Gethsemane, the companionship of Peter, James and John just seems only to have added to the grief of Jesus. As he wept and prayed, they fell asleep. They were unreliable friends, not there when most needed. How much better it might have been never to have known they were so selfish.[2]

And yet...

Jesus did not shy from making relationships that were risky. His disciples were an inclusive collection of misfits holding within them differing political views and a variety of personal backgrounds - sparks must have flown at times between them! Yet Jesus personally invited them into intentional community with himself and each other. When they behaved badly, when they did not live up to their own expectations let alone Jesus', they were never any less loved by Him. He welcomed them into his life as companions, pilgrims and as friends.

Whether we like it or not, whether it is easy or convenient or not we are all called to be inclusive of other people. How that works itself out in your particular context is for you to discern and live out but it must be done. We are not called to safety or an easy life personally - following Jesus is about living with the risk of pain and the misunderstandings that comes with welcoming all, getting close to people not like ourselves and including them in our lives of faith as well as down the pub.

I take you back to that old Celtic welcome again. If we want transformation of the rural church - any church come to that - it's the place to start.

'Hail guest, we ask not what thou art;

If friend, we greet thee, hand and heart;

If stranger, such no longer be;

If foe, our love shall conquer thee.'

Alison Griffiths

Director: Wales and South West England

[1] from Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2 p 1210


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