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Hallo again to all.

It was the best of parishes, it was the worst of parishes, it was the most ordinary of parishes.

Not really, but today we wanted to tell you a brief Tale of Three Parishes†. Over the last few months, our travels have found us far away from home on many a Sunday morning, and we try to worship in a parish somewhere near where we are staying. Recently we were so startled by how welcome and included we were made to feel that we thought we'd write about it. After all, 'Of the Welcoming of Visitors and Newcomers' is not one of the 39 Articles.

Let us call our three parishes St Almond, St Boniface, and St Cantilupe. We visited them in that order. Each is in a different country. St Almond is in a working-class town about an hour away from the nearest major city. St Boniface is in an ancient and famous city, twenty minutes' walk from its centre. St Cantilupe is in a commercial district of one of the world's biggest cities. As luck would have it, our visits both to St Boniface and St Cantilupe included baptisms.

At St Almond we felt invisible. Although its website begins with the word 'Welcome', we suspect that it meant we were welcome to look at the website rather than welcome to attend the church itself. No one made eye contact, no one greeted us. We picked up a service leaflet from the table by the front door, and looked around to find a seat (there were no ushers to help with that), and fretted that we might be taking someone's favourite pew. After the service*, we hunted for a coffee hour.Welcome We mingled until the coffee was gone, but no one spoke to us. The word 'welcome' was not in the vocabulary of the people of St Almond, which puzzles us because the pews were sparsely occupied and it looked as though the parish could use more members.

At St Boniface some weeks later we nearly felt assaulted by the Welcome Patrol. As we entered the narthex, a bubbly woman rushed up to us, exclaimed 'Welcome to St Boniface! Where are you from?' and spent at least 10 minutes pumping us for information. She seemed sweet and kind; we're quite sure she meant well and thought that this was the best way to welcome someone, but the overall effect was more like being interviewed by police, not for our welcome but to inform the people of St Boniface about the stranger in their midst. Just before the passing of the peace, the priest asked all of the visitors and newcomers to stand up and identify themselves. We chose to remain seated, worried that we'd then be asked to do something embarrassing. We scurried away afterwards, fearful that we'd be asked to leave a DNA sample or fill out a 3-page questionnaire for the visitor's register.

Last week at St Cantilupe, we walked from our hotel past opulent shops, 5-star hotels, and busy bookstores to find the church tucked away near a world-famous tourist trap. Our expectations were low. But immediately inside the narthex, a pleasant and quiet man handed us a service leaflet and said 'Good morning. Please sit anywhere you like.' This revealed that he knew we were visiting and that he would not make a fuss over it. The cantor (a petite young woman with a crystalline voice) stood up to teach the congregation the response to be used in the psalm. This simple act included us because we were learning alongside everyone else. After the greeting, the rubric in the prayer book notes 'Words of welcome or introduction may be said.' We'd never before experienced anyone actually saying such words, but this priest did. What caught our attention was that in those words and all others, he addressed his welcome not to the newcomers, not to the visitors, not to the strangers, but to everyone. The service continued; it was more than an hour and a half long, but we were enthralled by it all. The endless stream of inaudible or incomprehensible announcements by members of the congregation, just before the dismissal, was a good transition between the extraordinariness of this worship experience and the return to the city streets and the walk back to our own dimension.

It's been a week since we were at St Cantilupe, 8 time zones from home, and we now understand what they did so well: they were behaviourally inclusive. We visitors were treated neither as interlopers nor as freaks, but as ordinary people, indistinguishable from those standing next to us who might have been there for decades. Simply by being there, by standing in the nave and singing the hymns and eating the bread and drinking the wine, we became (at least for that one day) one of them. Neither the clergy nor the congregation projected any sense of ownership, any sense of possessiveness, any need to guard their faith or their church or their sacraments against interlopers.

We've seen this phenomenon in sports pubs for years: if you drop in to the Argyll Arms to watch football, and sit down next to someone who roots for your team, you become a full member of the group, and not a visitor. Until last week we didn't realize it could also happen in Anglican churches.

See you next week. Somewhere.

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Last updated: 21 October 2007

†And like Charles Dickens, whose opening sentence we cribbed, we are today rather wordy about it.

*We aren't trying to be 'Mystery worshippers' here; we aren't reviewing the churches or the liturgy but commenting on their success at helping us feel welcome.

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