Has the Church lost the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven? (and should we worry?)

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St Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus as promising to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven with the words: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  And with these words the fledgling Church took on the role of Gate Keepers and brought itself trouble and strife.

So the early Church struggled if Gentiles could be let in and then what of those not circumcised or those who ate certain food stuffs. Onwards there would be arguments about what beliefs were essential and which were heresy and then about which books should be included in Scripture and the language it should be read in.  Were Popes and Bishops necessary and what about women, the divorced, gays – in short there seems to have almost been nothing on which Christians could not fall out about in deciding who was in and who was out.

And whilst the Church gets on with its own squabbles, the signs of the kingdom of heaven sprout up everywhere and often unconnected to Church.  Most recently in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bomb and the attacks on London Bridge and outside Finsbury Park Mosque and the fire at Grenfell Tower, yes churches did engage well but acts of generosity, love, reconciliation and compassion flourished well beyond the borders of anything that might be seen as Church.  In these selfless acts glimpses of the kingdom of heaven were seen; the Church did not have a monopoly on them.

The rise of the “nones” – those of no religion – is not about atheism or humanism but a rejection of the gatekeeping role of the Church in what or how or where to express faith and belief.  For a growing majority acts of what are fundamentally Christian action and faith are no longer seen as needing to be associated with this thing called Church. Or to put it another way the nones no longer believe the Church holds the exclusive keys to the kingdom of heaven.

In the face of these changes some cry for a more inclusive Church but the very concept of inclusion is itself the problem.  When we have the most women, disability LGBT friendly churches in the world there will still be other groups we are consciously or unconsciously excluding.  The very idea of inclusion is the problem and not the solution. The concept of inclusion still assumes it is “our” tent albeit that we are trying to be very generous who we let in.  One way or another we are still playing at gate-keepers to the kingdom of heaven.  The problem (and the true good news) is that the tent is not “ours”, it is God’s.

Maybe, just maybe, in giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is showing that keys are no longer needed and they are given to Peter precisely to ensure they are never used.

Maybe, just maybe, the point of Peter’s dream in Joppa when the sheet of animals is lowered is to remind him to not use the keys.  Although the immediate message is that Gentiles are included too, the real implication is that there is no boundary to the kingdom of heaven.

If Peter, who the early Church so well documented as repeatedly messing up, can be included in the kingdom of heaven (and myself who has similar spiritual ineptitude) how then can Peter (or me) dare to suggest that others are not worthy to be included in the kingdom.

Some will immediately fear a free for all and want to argue that it matters how we behave and what we believe.  Of course such things do matter but it is a reminder that the way, the life and the truth are God’s not ours and that in the kingdom we are called to be servants not gatekeepers. The signs of the kingdom are radical hospitality and over-flowing generosity – who am I to fence the hospitality or limit the generosity?

Maybe, just maybe, it is only when the keys of the kingdom of heaven are lost that we can really begin to build heaven on earth.

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Thank you Norwich Pride for showing us a glimpse of life in all its fullness

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It was at one level so outrageously in your face and yet at another level so very simple and either way enough to bring a lump to the throat.  For some Norwich Pride was their chance to publicly parade their inner gorgeousness and flaunt it for all it was worth.  Others came as just themselves in all there beautiful ordinariness.

Everybody was out to show they were rainbow friendly. Shops vied with different ways of introducing rainbow colours into their displays, the police strutted their stuff with rainbow epaulets on their shoulders, parents dressed their babies to match the day’s theme and you were left feeling naked if you did not have rainbow face paint.  But most impressive of all was the all-pervading friendliness.  Stranger engaged willingly and easily with stranger.  It was the very embodiment of that wonderful phrase joie de vivre.

And when the parade moved off, the sense of joy was infectious.  Everywhere there were just people having fun.  In this relaxed, rainbow coloured, wonderfully diverse gathering of all ages, (and joy of joy so many young people), Norwich Pride gave us for a moment a glimpse of what it means to live life in all its fullness, to be human beings fully alive.  There felt to be a greater spirit of true carnival than on carnival day itself – no disrespect to the Lord Mayor’s procession intended.

As the slogan on the Stonewall t-shirt said: Some people are gay, get over it.  For these all too brief hours of pride Norwich really had got over it – this is who we are and we are proud of it.  What is the problem?

… And of course the Christians had a stall.  It was good they were there challenging the too oft portrayed negative image that many have of the Church’s attitude on this and other issues.  And clearly conversations showed that for some a visible Christian presence was very affirming and an important way of saying Christian and Gay is ok.

But of course with the Church there is always an agenda.  In a sense there is a very big agenda – The Church is struggling to truly affirm and accept the LGBT community in its midst and not a little hung up on equal marriage.  But equally would it not be wonderful for Christians to simply come and be and not on their own special stall but just there, dancing with hula hoops, offering face paint or standing alongside those campaigning for mental health issues.

Is it just about another agenda issue, another drum to be banged?  Or is it deeper and more fundamental? Is it more about the very nature of Church?  Churches draped in rainbow colours is not what matters.  Rather how can our churches, both buildings and communities, be safe spaces where all are welcome and all can dare to be themselves?  It is not just the LGBT community that struggles with Church.  Those who too often find themselves on the margins of society find themselves also on the margins of the Church, whether that be people with disabilities, mental health needs, the economically marginalised, the homeless, the over-burdened carer, the old who feel the Church only wants the young and the young who feels the Church does not understand their culture – the list goes on.

The words “inclusive” and “welcoming” have become essential church-speak but their very familiarity can blind us to the people we do not see and the voices we do not here.  They can also become the clothing that helps us turn away those we feel are illiberal – being code for those who think differently from us.  If we truly mean God loves all people sometimes that “all” can be very uncomfortable.

Can we discover a radical hospitality where the Church is known, unquestioningly as the go to place for acceptance and understand, challenging and questioning but never judgement or dismissive, honest in debate but always with a spirit of love and tolerance?

As people pranced and posed, drummed and danced, cheered and cried, laughed and loved, hugged and honked, drank and dreamed their way through Norwich Pride, there was a moment when we gained a glimpse of what that radical hospitality might look like.  As the procession poured into the park it really did feel that all, all were welcome in this place.

If only we could have bottled that moment and gifted it to the Church.

 

 

If love casts out fear why is there so much fear surrounding our debates around sexuality?

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Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality, the BBC’s Against the Law told the story of Peter Wildeblood falling in love with Edward McNally in 1952.  The dramatisation was interspersed with the stories of men in the present day looking back on their experiences of falling in love when homosexuality was still a crime.

Peter and Edward’s love affair was set against a backdrop of fear.  Every meeting was a risk, to be seen in public was dangerous and their love letters were potential hostages to fortune.  Always over their love hung the shadow of imprisonment, of being named and shamed in the press and, surely worst of all, the vile and inhuman so-called “aversion therapies”.

Fear makes people vulnerable to betrayal.  Edward is arrested and promised he will avoid prison if he betrays Peter and others that they know.  He succumbs to this pressure and as a result Peter is arrested.  He in turn is offered the same deal if he will betray others but he remains strong and refuses.  Prison and all that comes with that follows.  When finally he is released Peter refuses to be silent and becomes the only openly homosexual man to give evidence to the Wolfenden Inquiry that would finally lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Thankfully the Church of England’s General Synod has finally condemned all “cure” therapies, yet watching Against the Law was a reminder of how fear still stalks the Church.

Clergy in same-sex relationships have to keep their relationships quiet and if known, proclaim their celibacy.  Although allowed in law they know that marriage cannot be for them and applying for any new position is its own minefield.  They know eyes are upon them and there are some just waiting to bring their relationship into the limelight.

In turn Bishop’s can find themselves upholding a public line which in their hearts is not what they would wish.  They know that anything they say or do may be picked up by others and used to berate them, pass judgement on their episcopacy with certain parishes championing to declare UDI and overseas provinces speaking of the apostasy of the Church of England.

Fear means clergy cannot live and minister as they would and should and Bishop’s cannot be the true pastors they long to be.  Fear still wins the day.

St John tells us perfect love casts out fear, yet for too many love still brings fear and, as  St John also reminds us, the presence of fear means we have not reached perfection in love.  The continuing presence of fear in our debates about gender and sexuality reveals only the Church’s poverty of love.  That by the way we are with one another we allow fear still to stalk the Church is itself our own condemnation.  When a Church brings fear to love, it is wounded indeed.

Peter Wildeblood, despite all that was done to him, refused to be silent.  He would not let fear win and so played his part in ending the fear under which so many gay men had been living.  Peter’s example reaches out over the decades to challenge the Church today to let love be celebrated and relationships affirmed.

 

 

What does it say about us when we pay a pretend nurse more than a real nurse?

There is no doubt that some in Government are up to mischief in insisting that the BBC’s top earners are named – many politicians have a love hate relationship with the BBC and in particular the way it is funded. It may be a sad and unintended consequence of this rather silly policy that salaries will rise rather than fall.  It is to be hoped it will lead to more gender equality.  However, within the broadcasting industry, surprising though the salaries may seem to outsiders, none of those publicly named are being paid anything unusual or exceptional.  In earning what they earn none of them have done anything wrong or inappropriate.  At one level it is a lot of fuss about nothing.

Nevertheless any discussion of salaries does hold up an interesting mirror to our values. Football in the person of Gary Linekar (£1.75m) is valued more than News and Current Affairs (Huw Edwards £550km) whilst in turn sitting in a safe studio (like Huw does) is valued more than putting yourself in harm’s way as say Jeremy Bowen does (£150K).

It is also curious that Derek Thompson at £350k is paid so much more for pretending to be a nurse that we pay real nurses.  Is entertaining us to be valued more than those who heal us?  Money of course is not the only way of valuing people and high earners do pay more tax and the media industry does generate wealth for the nation.  Nevertheless these salaries do suggest we have grown used to living in a rather Alice in Wonderland world; an upside down world where nothing is quite what it seems.

I would not want to suggest the salaries journalists earn consciously influence the way they work nor the integrity they bring to their profession.  However, at some level, the size of salary must impact on a person’s world view, the circles they move in and their approach to living.  Consciously or unconsciously if you are earning £150k plus you will think and question differently than if your life is one long struggle to make ends meet. This is not to say one is better than another but it is about acknowledging the significance of difference and trying to understand its impact.

Today’s revelations may mean that the questioner will now sometimes also face uncomfortable questions.  Yet despite the unpleasant smell of government game-playing over all of this, there remains a deep affection for the BBC but also a nagging sense that we are living our lives with the wrong sense of priorities.

I will pay more tax to end austerity

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People are now marching to call for an end to austerity and apparently even some Conservative MPs are talking about ending the cap on public sector pay.  The latest Social Attitudes survey shows a larger percentage in those supporting an increase in taxation to pay for public services.  Sadly this survey does not ask a more crucial namely: would you be willing to pay more taxes to pay for public services?

The danger is that we all look to others to carry the tax burden – ideally of course the rich, who we define as those with more money than us.  Interestingly the Labour proposal for a new higher tax rate was set at an amount just above salary of an average MP.  How much more powerful if that rate had been set to include the income level of MPs – then it really would have been a statement that we are all in this together.

Yes those earning more should pay more in tax and yes taxation does need to be used to help with some re-distribution of wealth.  Similarly it has to be hoped the poorest can be protected from tax rises and even taken out of the lowest tax bracket.

But all of this would be much more powerful if there were more voices from people not just protesting about austerity but also saying: yes I am willing to pay more tax to end austerity.

In saying I am willing to pay more tax I know that this will mean a further tightening of belts in this household but if that means that the health service and social care can be better funded, that schools and the emergency services can be better resourced then so be it.  Sometimes we have to come together for the greater good and be willing to pay the price.

So this turkey is voting for Christmas.

Rage, rage at the revelations of that night.

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The Queen has spoken of  “a very sombre national mood” in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.  The images of the fire itself are too unbearable to watch, the glimpses of individuals still trapped in the building engulfed in flames and the heart-breaking last text and phone messages.  Then there is the unimaginable agony of those who still do not know the fate of their loved ones, hoping against hope for some good news, that they fear will not come.

Amidst the unfolding horror the best of the human spirit was also revealed in the heroic work of the emergency services and the sheer bravery of the fire crews.  The best of humanity was also revealed in the generosity of the local community, responding to the best of instincts to help in whatever way possible.

But over this scene is a growing cloud of anger.  How in 21st century Britain could this happen and in the richest borough in the country?   Voices had long been raised in warning about the safety of this housing block and we are faced with the frightening truth that may be, just may be, these voices went unheard because they came from the poorer and more vulnerable part of the borough. And to compound this, the local authority seems to have been remarkably slow in offering support and help to those affected.  In the shadow of Grenfell Tower are some of the most expensive high-rise flats in the country, built to the very highest specification whilst this tower block was seemingly refurbished to just minimum standards.  In one terrible night the inequalities that blight modern Britain have been laid bare.

Much is made of London’s international status, the wealth it generates and the super rich who move in.  Less is made of the poor and vulnerable who get caught up in the outwash of this growth, who on minimum wage and zero hour contracts, and priced out of all but the poorest housing, help sustain the city that too often ignores them.  And what is true of London is mirrored to different extents in cities around the country.

When the rich bankers got it wrong for the sake of all (or so we are told) the government immediately bailed them out taking the nation into debt.  In times of debt austerity becomes the order of the day and when belts are tightened it is too often those already struggling who find the little they have becomes even less.  Austerity does not affect everyone equally meanwhile our public services, most needed by the poorest and most vulnerable, are all starting to show the signs of chronic under funding.

When individuals are in crisis, or tragedy hits communities, again and again the local churches will be found there amongst the mix of those helping and reaching out – the Church were it should be alongside people in need.  In Norfolk it is estimated that church communities are helping feed some seven thousand people each month.  Rightly the churches should feel proud of what they achieve and the part they play in supporting some of the most vulnerable in our communities.

But the Church should also rage, rage that so many people are dependant on food banks or soup runs, rage at the treatment of the unemployed, people with disabilities and asylum seekers, rage at the inequalities that underpin too much of our society. 

We are each made uniquely in the image of God, beloved of God, a living temple to the Lord.  And when ever a fellow human being is treated less favourably than another, or some thrive at the expense of others, or the voices of the needy go unheard then a blasphemy against God has been committed and the Church cannot remain silent.

Yes the Church needs to be their helping and supporting those in need but it must also loudly challenge the social, economic and political structures that lead to such inequalities.  This too is part of bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth.  We will not always be popular, some of our friends will leave us and we will be compromised but such is the struggle to grow the Kingdom.

 Light candles, say prayers, offer comfort, donate goods, give of your time but also fight to change all that can help end this terrible plight.  Rage, rage against the revelations of that terrible night.

Choral Evensong; osteopathy for the soul

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Backs take a lot of punishment.  Bad sitting, too much standing, incorrect lifting, all take their toll.  The stresses and strains we carry work their way out in the tension in muscles and joints.  Over the counter gels and pills only go so far in bringing relief yet alone addressing the underlying causes.

So off to the Osteopath – once regarded as rather alternative, now increasingly seen as main stream.  The restorative massage, the careful manipulation, the gentle holding and the body starts to let go, to correct itself and restore balance.

As the Osteopath’s hands move with expertise the length of the spine and amidst the knots of muscle, there is a deep relaxation and a calm seeps through mind and body.  The Osteopath holds the body, gently rocking it side to side and the trust is absolute.  The only warning is a slight movement of the hand as it seeks the exact right place.  Then there is a sudden exertion of pressure and a rapid expelling of breath.  The joint clicks back into alignment, then the quiet rocking of the body continues, slowing until the body is still and the pain has been released.

Souls too take a lot of punishment.  Events that erode our confidence, damage our self-worth and build our guilt.  Mist and murk start to wrap the soul and the guiding light of God shines less brightly.  Mindfulness, mediation and prayer help a little but do not quite clear the fog.

So off to Choral Evensong – once regarded as a normal act, in recent times falling from fashion but now almost becoming alternative and growing in popularity.  A shape of music and words that echoes deep in the memory; calming in its rhythms,  restorative in its familiarity.

Swathes of scripture are heard and sung as psalmody, canticle and anthem wrapping and holding mind and soul safe and secure. Their balm eases the fog and mist that trouble the soul and the spirit relaxes and finds space to breath, lulled by gentle harmonies.  Then, seemingly without warning one chord, one musical chord strikes like lightning and in its spark the soul is illuminated.  In that moment the presence of God is neither felt nor believed but known with utter certainty, the divine light shines with a new brightness, stilling the body and refreshing the soul; a moment of pure undiluted worship.

The moment is often fleeting and impossible to describe and not necessarily to be repeated but it is enough; the divine osteopath has worked their healing touch.  Here amidst the ancient liturgies of the Church, set in prayer-soaked walls, word and music lift the veil to deep mysteries for which the soul with longing waits.

This may not be conventional wisdom, but for the healing of your soul take yourself to Choral Evensong in the setting of one of our great cathedrals.  There let words and music wash over you, let mind and soul relax and unwind and when least looked for or expected the divine healing touch may find your soul too.

Reflections on a small boy standing at the foot of the cross

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It is Good Friday Morning.  We are gathered in the Cathedral and at the foot of the cross.  Before us, beside the cross, are the instruments of the passion, dice, hammer, nails, spear and crown of thorns.  People are sitting on the floor, kneeling or standing.

Amidst our devotions a small two boy pushes his way through to the front.  He gazes at the cross and starts to approach it then turns and looks at all the people gathered around. His gaze moves between cross and crowd uncertain which is the more curious.  His mother looks on anxiously wondering if or when to intervene; her fear that in this solemn moment he will do something inappropriate.  The reverse in fact is the case for he has now become integral to the scene.

At two years of age he is the picture of innocence.  He does not understand the significance of cross and spear nor does he understand why the people have gathered around this strange scene.  For him it is just a matter of curiosity but unknowingly he has become part of the tragedy.  Despite the best efforts of his parents and of this community, this little boy will grow up and discover a world where people hurt and hate, where cruelty can too easily be inflicted on another human being.  There will be no escaping the darker side of life.  This much is certain, his innocence will be crushed.  There will be no protecting him from harsher realities.  Good Friday reminds us of what humanity is capable of; even God’s own dear Son cannot escape that truth.

At two years of age, unknowingly he is part of the tragedy of the scene but he is also part of its fragile hope. This strange object he is looking at, and which has drawn this crowd, is also the symbol of hope, and of love, that we gathered in this crowd pray he will also discover.  As yet, most likely, he has no concept of being beloved of God yet the hope is that he will grow up discovering that truth.  With the best efforts of his parents and this community, it is to be hoped he will be drawn into faith and to an understanding of the significance of this scene and why this day can be called Good Friday.  There is nothing certain about passing on faith; it is at best a parental, and this community’s, ambition.

But all that lies in the future.  Right now he is just two years of age and very curious and for we who are gathered his presence only serves to sharpen the significance of this day, its horror and its hope, the collision of love and hate, of innocence and corruption

Perhaps in his curiosity he will also wander into the Easter Garden and one day spot the footprints in the dew and discover that it is love not death which has the final word.

Footprints in the Dew

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This is one of the most beautiful times in the life of the Church as we journey through the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. Churches will be holding a wonderful range of services as well as public acts of witness and even passion plays.

There will be Passover Supper shaped Eucharists to draw us into the events of the Last Supper, the Washing of Feet as we remember Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another, and Vigils late into the night as we recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. On Good Friday the cross will have central place in many churches as we think of Jesus’ last hours on the cross and preachers will reflect on the final seven words of Jesus. On Holy Saturday many will be busy decorating churches ready for the following day and that night, bonfires will be lit and the first light of Easter will be brought into darkened churches and candidates will be brought forward for baptism and confirmation. Hardy souls will gather for sunrise and think of the first visitors to the tomb. Then as Easter Sunday fully arrives there will be shouts of “Alleluia” and “He is risen” and no doubt a few Easter Egg hunts as well.

These celebrations all seek to draw us deeper in to the events that lie at the very heart of the Christian story. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that shapes Christianity. One of the very earliest Christian creedal statements was “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. This is the distinctive heart of our faith, for us this is nothing less than the salvation of the word.

But for all the richness of the liturgies, for all the wise words of the preachers, for all the joy in the shouts of “Alleluia”, I find myself increasingly wanting to shy away from all these words.

It is silence that engulfs my soul as I watch God’s Son take a towel and kneeling washes his disciples’ feet. I gaze in awe as bread is broken and wine is outpoured and I am commanded to do this in remembrance of Him. My heart silently breaks as I contemplate the loneliness and desolation of the Garden of Gethsemane. I stand rooted to the spot before the cross, unable to meet His gaze. Then a fearsome awe seizes my whole being as I spot the first foot prints in the dew beside the now empty tomb.

So forgive me if I only whisper “He is risen” and appear a little withdrawn amidst all the celebration. As I contemplate all that God has done for me in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, I instinctively fall silent. I know it will take all my life and more to even begin to truly understand the significance of the events that we will mark in these coming days. Awe, mystery, wonder wrap themselves around me. The wisest words seem inadequate. Instead I am drawn to footsteps in the dew and know – if I can but comprehend it – that here is a truth that changes both me, and the world, for ever.

Sacred Space open to all

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It is 7.10am and it might be expected that, apart from colleagues also gathering for Morning Prayer, I will have the Cathedral to myself.  But each morning either just ahead of or behind me there are others entering the building.  Sometimes the same people but often different; all ages but often younger rather than older.  They come not to join us for the Daily Office but to light a candle or leave a prayer; this is how they choose to start their day.

Worship is the absolute heartbeat of the building.  Unfailingly, each day, every day, Morning Prayer, the sharing of the Eucharist and Evensong – familiar words that echo in and around the building, soaking the walls, scenting the air, permeating the space. It is a pattern that has been repeated for 900 years and that in its faithful repetition has created sacred space.

And into this space visitors enter, some coming deliberately and purposefully, others stumble and find themselves taken unawares.  The dazzle of the lit candles is testimony to the number of prayers/thoughts/desires offered, the written prayers but a small glimpse into all that these pilgrims are carrying.  Yet many more prayers are spoken silently into the space while sitting in a chapel, gazing at a statue, or wandering on floors made uneven by centuries of footprints.   For some of these wayfarers faith will be fully formed but for others it will be a more tender plant or perhaps riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

But where ever they are on the faith journey every visit is a valid visit, every prayer, fully formed or half grasped at, is heard and held by the One who is at the heart of the mystery of this space.  And by our smile, the kindness in our eyes, our words of welcome, the free offering of this space, we seek to affirm these travellers in their personal and private quest.

Whilst we might want to argue that every where is sacred, that God is fully present in all times and in all places, we humans have always sought out thin places which have spoken in deeper more profound ways to us.  And this Cathedral is one such significant place.

Our task as a Cathedral Chapter and a Cathedral Community is to remain faithful and unwavering in our offering of this rhythm of worship, affirming this as sacred space.  First and foremost this is always for the greater glory of God and this is the essence of it sacredness. But beyond that we do not create this space as something for ourselves, something for us to hold onto or even feel we have to protect.  We create this space to gift it to others; it is our offering to this city.

Some will not understand it, a few may mis-use it, but still freely it is offered and many, many embrace the gift.  We may in quiet and unobtrusive ways signpost towards the more that faith can offer, but never in a way that distracts from the significance of the encounter that is already taking place.  In what ever way and for what ever reason, it is enough that they come; this is why we are here.

This is not our space, it does not belong to us. This is sacred space open to all, we are but its guardians. Our welcome must be an echo of God’s welcome, who accepts each of us just as we are.