Fling wide the gates! Fling wide the gates, for the saviour waits to tread in his royal way. He has come from above in his power and love to die on this passion day. Fling wide the gates, He waits, the saviour waits!
Some of you, perhaps of an older generation, may recognise these words from what was once one of the most popular pieces of English religious music, The Crucifixion by John Stainer. The lyrics imagine the gates of the city of Jerusalem being flung open for Jesus riding on a donkey on the first Palm Sunday.
They are about Jesus coming into a city, but I was reminded of them when it was decided that the west doors of the church should normally be kept open when the church itself is unlocked and open. Fr Steve has already explained the basic reasons for this decision; I want to reflect further on these reasons and also explore some possible reasons behind negative reactions.
Welcoming people into the building is an obvious moral ‘good’. We are taught by the Church to see every guest as Christ himself, so the Palm Sunday reference above is not as remote as it might seem. We fling wide the doors of St Edmund’s as we would for Our Lord himself. Hospitality is not simply good marketing – it is a Christian duty: what St Benedict taught his monks many years ago is linked to Catholic teaching about welcoming migrants and refugees. The decision is an extension of the practice of keeping the church open during all the hours of daylight: we are, I think, the only church here which is completely open for at least 10 hours every day. Catholic Christianity is a missionary religion and having our most dominant physical asset open for anyone to enter, free of charge, is a statement about what we believe. Over the years we have suffered very little damage (two statues are all that spring to mind) and in any case if you believe that something is right then you take risks. The church is a physical sign of what we believe, set aside and maintained for one purpose – the worship of God; that’s why Catholic churches, unlike those of other denominations, are not used for social events or secular concerts. That’s also why Catholic cathedrals in this country, unlike most Anglican cathedrals, don’t charge people to go in.
Why, then, might we be uneasy or unhappy about the decision? The heating hasn’t been on for the weeks since the decision was taken, but it seems a draught under the sliding doors might be an issue (on the subject of heating Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ encouraged us to reduce our heating for environmental reasons). A draught could be reduced with some simple work to the doors – or if it’s a real problem we could move a bit further down the church. Noise might be an issue, particularly at this time when the local streets are being constantly dug up. Sometimes we find noise in church a distraction (such as the noise made by people who insist on talking before or after Mass in the body of the church) but there’s a sense in which we shouldn’t try to shut the world out of the church: it is part of the world. Religion which is escapism is usually rather damaging. I think there might also be two cultural reasons for some reactions which perhaps we should think about.
The first is to do with Catholic history in this country and Ireland. For many years Catholic churches, when they were first built again from the late 18th century, were unobtrusive and almost hidden; perhaps that cultural memory is still with us even if our church is the largest place of worship in Beckenham and a major local landmark. Converts often feel that the Catholic Church in this country is less mission-orientated as far as this country is concerned than one might expect. If we were brought up to believe that Catholics should ‘keep their heads down’ we might instinctively want to keep the doors closed.
Secondly, we live in an environment often dominated by tabloid fuelled fear. We need to be prudent in relation to security (and we have taken many serious steps to make our premises more secure in recent years) and some of us have suffered burglaries over the years. But this mustn’t condition us to allow God’s house to be a place dominated by suspicion and fear towards strangers: we exist to welcome all. Sometimes we can get things wrong without being aware of it. Pope Francis likes to say that the Church should be a ‘field hospital’ – where the suffering and the wounded can experience the love of Jesus Christ mediated through his Body on earth which is the Catholic Church. A field hospital has open doors; it is not like a private, members-only club. The values of Catholic Christians are distinctive – they set us apart, and we have a message of love to share with others in a society which is often cold and heartless. Just consider this: if just one lost soul were to find salvation because of coming through a door which had been closed up until now, wouldn’t that make the decision to keep the door open worthwhile?