Not too many years ago those who were opposed to the changes taking place in the Episcopal Church complained that now “anything goes.” They were wrong about that, but they also made a point. Churches in which anything goes do not stand for anything. At worst they are nothing more than places where the most assertive Tea Party style voices are able to drown out all others until the next chaotic rebellion takes place.
Being a people who honestly desire to welcome the other as the presence of Christ himself among us also means to be a people who know to what it is that we are welcoming the other. It also means that the other has been given what he/she needs to know about what it is that she/he is being welcomed into. I have never felt a more holy welcome in every way than at the Benedictine monastery of the Order of the Holy Cross in West Park, NY, but there was never any doubt that the place of welcome was a monastery and those who welcomed me were monks. In fact, their humble self-confidence in their own identity as Benedictines made my entrance into a new and strange environment all the easier.
Some years ago I had a parishioner who, though an Episcopalian for many years, was fully immersed in the theology of Focus on the Family and the spiritual dimensions of Pentecostal worship. As one of the leaders of the congregation, she tried very hard to remake it into her vision of church, but her vision was not consistent with what we believe, teach and practice as Episcopalians in the Anglican tradition of Christianity. Eventually, and sadly, she left to attend a church in a denomination more to her liking. Was our congregation open, welcoming and honestly wanting her to be a full and honored part of our community? Yes, by all means. But she was not open to being an Episcopalian, and that’s OK. It’s just not OK to try to reorganize the congregation to become an ersatz Assembly of God church.
I am grateful that we Episcopalians are able to encompass a very wide range of worship styles and ways of expressing the faith, but there are boundaries that identify who we are and who we are not. That’s important. One of our local churches in another denomination is floundering on that very issue. Once an influential and respected congregation, it has gone through a period in which leaders welcomed so many different beliefs (and non-belifs), and worship and meeting styles that they have become little more than a building in which various groups gather for their own purposes, and a few show up on Sundays for fellowship and a some words offered as if in prayer. Now unable to pay full time clergy, they get by with a variety of worship leaders from different traditions who offer a hodgepodge of teaching from Unitarian to liberal Calvinism. It’s not all bad. All the recovery groups meet there and a monthly worship service specifically advertised to the gay community takes place. But it cannot be said what exactly it is or isn’t as a community of worshiping Christians, or even if it is Christian in any serious sense of the word, and so, with no real identity, it is melting away (at least for now).
Jesus said to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. One’s self cannot be loved if it is not known. Jesus may have been talking to individual persons, but the same goes for congregations even more so. We cannot love our neighbors by way of holy welcome if we do not love ourselves as parishes, and we cannot love ourselves as parishes if we do not know who we are.