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Hallo again to all.

A bridal party standing in a Yosemite meadowOnce a very long time ago we attended a summer wedding on the grounds of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California. In its publicity material, it notes 'The Ahwahnee is a luxurious hotel, opened in 1927, which has provided every urban comfort in a rugged Sierra mountain niche.' Well, not quite every urban comfort, as there is no subway stop nearby and no street vendors, but the hotel itself is fitted, operated, and priced like a five-star luxury hotel would be in major world capitals.*

The wedding was held in the 'wedding meadow' outside the hotel. In keeping with the style of the hotel, high-quality wooden chairs were set up on the grass for the guests and a handsome carved wooden altar placed in the front. There followed a relatively standard service from the Book of Common Prayer, conducted by a priest imported from the flatlands by the bride's people; a string trio provided music. The groom wore formal attire; the bridal gown had a long flowing train. Wedding guests dressed as if the venue had been on Fifth Avenue in New York or perhaps St George's Hanover Square. This was a formal wedding and, save for the fallen tree next to the altar and the turf underfoot, the setting in the shadow of this grand hotel felt formal, too.

Only for a moment. At least a dozen times during the service, some stray person or hungry animal wandered through — usually in what would have been called the chancel, had this been inside a church — seemingly oblivious that there was a formal wedding under way. Just before the exchange of rings, a dozen mountain-bike riders came racing past; about a third of them guided their bikes through the 'chancel', one narrowly missing the bride's elbow. Their intent was not to disrupt the wedding, but to take a little shortcut. One tourist couple, in plaid shorts and Tilley hats, cameras round their necks, emerged from the tall grass next to where the narthex might have been and settled themselves in the back row of chairs, assuming the wedding was some sort of theatrical entertainment provided by the park.

All this village fête-like atmosphere was so distracting that we really couldn't pay attention to the marriage service, though like everyone else there we pretended that we did. We found it impossible to deal with the contextual conflict between formal and informal, between ritual and random, between indoors and out. Perhaps having a pack of bicyclists zip through the middle of a service isn't really any different from having bats in the nave, but we think it's harder to ignore the bicycles.

Fast forward to this Sunday morning. We attended a service in an urban parish not far from our own. In this church, two of the four corners of the nave open on to busy public thoroughfares. As a visitor, it seemed best to sit in the back, which meant sitting near one of the doors. The ushers left them wide open, and the sounds and smells of the streets came floating right in. (Memories of the Yosemite wedding made us wonder if a stray deer or a pack of bicyclists might come bursting through the door. None did.)

What did happen, though, was that the sound of the organ through the open door attracted someone to wander in and sit down, during the offering. He stayed for the rest of the service, though he chose not to take communion. Had it been our own parish, we'd have likely been too shy to ask, but after the service we straightaway walked over, made certain he knew we too were just visiting, and asked how he'd chanced to walk in. He heard the singing, he said, and was drawn to it and felt bold enough to enter. Like us, he didn't fill out a card or sign the visitors book, and he left quietly, the same way he came.

Perhaps at times there is a benefit to making our worship be more public, in whatever ways our church buildings allow. We're sure that the vicar knew that, else why would the doors be purposefully left open? As 'doors wide open' isn't usual in our experience of churches, we quite liked the idea after thinking it through.

We introduced ourselves to the vicar on our way out. His welcoming demeanour turned very briefly to mild anxiety when he asked 'You're not one of those mystery worshippers, are you?'. We assured him that we were not. If we were, we'd rate that parish very high on its open-door welcoming technique.

(If you've not yet responded to our 2007 survey, could you please?)

See you next week.

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Last updated: 8 July 2007

* If you've not been to a major National Park in North America, you might not know that despite being 'wilderness'
or 'the great outdoors', they are quite crowded during much of the year. Several hundred thousand people might be
in Yosemite to enjoy the tremendous natural beauty, hike on the hiking trails, climb to the tops of the waterfalls, or
to try to replicate the photographic masterpieces of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

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