Hospitality is not enough

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written a lovely column about the ways in which Christians are called to cultivate and participate in community, but as much as I appreciate it, I have a small gripe. But first an excerpt from the column.

…Christian conversion calls us into a horizontal community, with all those others who are walking the path of Christian discipleship with us. Those are the communities that Livability is working with to help make them more effective. When they are good they are the most beautiful things on earth. Good does not mean perfect. Good means that they are open, hospitable and accepting. They start with the same basis that God starts with us, they accept people where they are but love them too much to leave them there. It is a rare treat to be part of such a community.

So what are the chief contributors to these horizontal communities, usually called ‘the church’? It is very similar to the vertical community. They always needs to leave space for the guest. In the sixth century Saint Benedict, in his rule for monasteries speaks of guests. He says (I suspect with a slight sense of weariness) that ‘there will be many of them’. Guests at medieval monasteries were there because they were travelling and needed somewhere safe to stay. You had no idea who they were, where they came from or where they were going. Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is like that, the space is there for whoever turns up. Real communities are not closed, like wagons trains in the Westerns, where the wagons are circled at night to keep all strangers out, but have space for all who turn up to take part.

Building real community means leaving space to accept all who come through the door and giving them the sense that the place to which they have come, the gap at the table, was there waiting especially for them. They may have disabilities (like many of us), or appear very on top of life. Either way the reality is of a community that is not there for its own sake but to bring those who find a place at its table to find a place at Gods’ table, where immeasurable love opens the way to extraordinary healing.

I have no objection to what the archbishop puts in, but I think he leaves too much out. Hospitality, typically defined, is extended to those who visit us, find us, those who show up. Increasingly the western world is ignoring the Christian church. Hospitality is not enough. Inclusion is not enough. Treating people well once they show up isn’t going to spread the Gospel as broadly as we would like because not enough people are showing up in the first place.

Hospitality is not enough. Persistent, sometimes provocative invitation is necessary. And this is an art that in most places we are just beginning to cultivate.

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