I spend a fair bit of time with teenage boys, and was one myself. Let me return to those lads staring at the ceiling. Part of the answer to their apparent detachment was that they – and the girls – should have been at the door, greeting people, handing out newsletters and hymn books, finding seats for visitors, pointing out the toilets/washrooms. Yes, some of them would feel awkward doing that, but if you are part of the team you are part of the community. Welcoming could be a ministry they undertake as part of the confirmation programme.
Even when no-one is there but the One in the Tabernacle, a Church should feel like a place of welcome. I sometimes feel a little over-welcomed at Canterbury Cathedral when I just want to dive into the dark, quiet crypt for ten minutes. There is a certain nervous zeal amongst the welcomers when I enter wearing my day-glow builder’s jacket for cycling. But no question of turning me away because I look like a manual worker.
For good reasons the church porch may be the only space open outside service times. Does it speak of the life of the parish? Can the visitor discover what’s going on and who is responsible for different activities? If I’m in town to visit my relative in hospital, can I see the contact details for the chaplains? Is there a written introduction to the church and parish? In more than one language? Can a wheelchair user see the sanctuary and tabernacle if the main church is locked?
This is all part of ‘do these Christians love one another?’ It is the body language of the parish, absorbed before the newcomer has set foot in the church or joined in Mass.
They say body language conveys more than the spoken word, but one Mass when one of my children was really vocal, an old lady looked daggers at us, or so we thought, till she came over after Mass and made a real fuss of her.
She was blessing our marriage and our child.
A visitor to our parish once complained that he could not pray seated near us when one of the children was too enthusiastic for his liking. He could have sat elsewhere. Such attitudes drive people away; there was the parish priest at a seaside town who told us he expected young children (ours would have been two and four years old) to stay in the porch. We stayed in church, they were quiet, and he complimented us afterwards – but we would not have wanted to worship there regularly.
For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh.