Living in a university city – one of the most secular in the UK – and being part of a city centre church, is offering me whole new insights and experiences. I was recently talking with a young woman who comes every Sunday with four of five friends. They are all students, and not one of them went to church at home. I had nothing to do with them being here, they came, as it happens, as a result of one of our missioners talking to a group at the University. As a result, the young woman plucked up the courage to step into our church one Sunday morning.
We got to talking – gossiping probably – and I asked what had kept her out? She said she had no background in Christianity, and she didn’t like what she knew about it. I asked what it was that had made her dislike it. Her answer was: “it has, or I thought it had, no place for someone like me, and I had been told it hated people like me”. As we were getting on well I asked what she meant (though I had a good idea). She said: “I’m gay.” I could see she was watching me, and I said that that was no bar to being a Christian. She said that was what she’d found when she came into our church. She was amazed to be told by one of our female priests that God loved her. That intrigued her, so she started to attend, then she started to take classes, and then she was baptised and confirmed. Then some of her friends came with her, and went through the same process. That’s how, two years on, there are five or six who come, who help, and who have encouraged others to come. I asked if she’s been surprised by anything else. She said only by the fact that no one had asked her whether she was a sexually active lesbian. I asked why she thought anyone of us should. She said it would be sinful to receive communion in that state. I said that she’d clearly been well catechised, so why did she think no one had asked that question. She said she was puzzled. I suggested it was because if she knew that was the case we would be assuming she would not receive communion. She said that had never occurred to her.
I don’t know whether that was right, but I asked one of our priests and she said that was exactly their reasoning. Who, she said, know which of the many who communicate here every week was in the right place to receive? We trusted them, so what was wrong with extending that trust to those who were more conscious perhaps than others of the possible occasion of sin? That bowled me over. What mattered, she explained, was that we sinners stuck together and tried to help each other be the best Christian we could be. She was not, she said, making windows into anyone’s soul to inquire precisely in what way they believed in the Incarnation and Resurrection – she assumed that a real and lively faith would mean that one believed in the Lord Jesus – and did one’s best to live by his precepts.
She asked if that surprised me? I said no, but it delighted me. She said she’d asked because so many of those who come through our door were surprised we were not judging them but were trusting them. She said she’d found trusting people and teaching them right, and journeying with them were the best ways of bringing the unchurched or the lapsed to the Lord. She said that if we teach people and then treat them like adults, that’s a better and healthier way than thinking that if we kept monitoring them as though they were children. In the end we all come before God, who alone knows the state of our heart. It is our job as the Church to teach and to love and thus to bring people towards a relationship with God. The temptation to think we are God, to have some sort of power over people is to be resisted. In the beginning, as in the end, it is the Grace of God who moves us – and our job is to help as and where love prompts. I am excited to be a small part of such a church. Utterly unworthy as I am, I can do the welcoming and loving thing. God welcomed me and loves me, so I can try to spread that to others. God alone has the window into our hearts.