After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)
Yesterday, it happened to be Ascension Day, I made a flying visit to Berlin. The occasion was a sad one: the funeral of a beloved friend of many and associate priest at St George’s, but as so often it is an opportunity to meet friends, to share memories and to be thankful for not only what she meant to us, but also what we mean to each other. In a subsequent reflection, I will write some more about the friendship of those who have gone before us. However, here I would like to focus on the friendship offered by a hugely diverse group of people.
Until 1994, St George’s was the Garrison Church for the British military stationed in Berlin. When the Allies withdrew from Berlin after the Reunification, St George’s became a civilian church. By the time I arrived in 2010, so in about a generation, the congregation had turned into an eclectic mix of Brits, Germans, Americans, Africans and many others of different nationalities and backgrounds such as myself. As soon as I walked through the door, I felt welcome, and I was not the only one. The fact that St George’s has produced a steady stream of ordinands is only one of the signs of its ability to welcome and nourish people in their faith.
Coming back, even just for the day, the welcome was no less heart-felt than the day I walked first through the doors. So I wondered, what makes a Church welcome? What made it possible for this group of people to not just feel as friends but as family within weeks? There is no simple answer to this question – if there was, it would have been turned into a Mission Strategy for Church Growth by now! But I suspect it has a lot to do with diversity: no one is more of a stranger than anyone else. Here are people from all tribes, peoples and languages, gathered together with a common purpose: to worship, to pray and to celebrate together.
Such a diversity within a congregation does not come without its challenges. First of all, there are the cultural differences: some may feel it is important to be on time, whereas for others any time is the right time to join. Language may be a barrier too: although most people are confident, sometimes the subtleties of language provide fertile ground for miscommunication – or indeed, embarrassment when my German was corrected by a three-year old during one of our Sunday School sessions. However, there is also the greater challenge of holding together a large range of theological views, a vast range in the interpretation of Scripture. This means that maybe some issues are better avoided in sermons, and I am sure that there have been times when I wouldn’t envy receiving the emails and phone calls following the words of a guest preacher.
However, despite these challenges, there is an enormous willingness to be together and a great generosity of spirit: somehow the diversity enables an underlying unity. It also gives rise to the opportunity to really learn from and with each other. If you agree with those around you, you can quickly run out of topics of conversation. But if you disagree, as long as there is respect (love) for one another, the opportunities to learn are endless. That doesn’t mean you will always end up agreeing, and the disagreement may be painful. Yet, that should not be a reason to walk away, but, on the contrary, make us even more aware of our need for the reconciliation, which we can find as we break the bread and drink the wine.
I like to think that this is what the early Church will have been like too: a diverse community, trying to seek and understand God’s will in the light of Christ. The issues then: the role of women and slaves, for example, are different from the issues now. But the dynamic was not much different: a wide range of practices and understandings had to somehow be held together. It was the world into which the Apostle Paul was speaking when he wrote his letters: their interpretation controversial and debated then as it is now. Paul believed that the message he had was good news for everyone: all people and all nations, and that belief is still the foundation of the Church.
Rachel Held Evans sums up Paul’s attitude, and hence, hopefully our attitude, in the last chapter of her book Inspired:
So in considering the writings of Paul, the question is not, Are head coverings good or bad? The question is, in that context, Did head coverings help or hurt the advancement of the gospel and the preservation of unity?
And as we consider the application of Paul’s teachings in our various contexts today, the question is not, Should women be allowed to preach? but Do women preachers help or hurt the advancement of the gospel and the preservation of unity? Paul was smart enough to know the answers to these questions would vary from church to church and person to person, so surely he was smart enough to also know they would vary from culture to culture and century to century.
Diversity is challenging, but it offers genuine opportunities, for friendship and a deeper understanding of ourselves, others and God. So maybe look out for that person or those people who you think are too different from you: they may offer you a welcome that you haven’t experienced before.