A friend recently showed me a flyer for a church service for an LGBT+ congregation. There were rainbows and crosses and outreaching inclusive text. What did I think? I hesitated, though I wasn’t sure why; I do not consider myself a homophobe, though of course none of us truly knows our deepest prejudices. My reply was clumsy, along the lines of there being nothing wrong or exclusionary with the service. Which is true, I think, though a recent experience at mass sent me back to that moment with a sense that I hadn’t accounted well for myself.
This mass was on the island of Lesbos, or Mytilene, as it is often known today. The shores of Lesbos were the first and vital European destination for the last decade’s influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Thousands have drowned trying to make the four-mile sea crossing from Turkey in overloaded rubber boats. Those that do survive are held in bureaucratic limbo in a camp in Moria. Pope Francis visited in 2016, and returned to the Vatican with 12 refugees aboard his jet. Depending on what you read, the crisis seems to have lessened, but Moria (which is essentially open—people are free to come and go) is still overcrowded, with displaced people living in miserable and unsanitary conditions, facing an uncertain future.
The Sunday mass I went to in July was not an immigrant service, but there were very, very few white Europeans in attendance. The 19th-century church, tucked away down an alley, was rammed so full that the door could barely open. Sweating freely but deodorized, the congregation were shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, so close that offering hands for the sign of peace required dexterity and planning. The liturgy was in English and the hymns in French; the energy and tenderness was overwhelming; the sense of the gospel being tangibly true and alive was greater than at any service I could remember.
So many theological and religious debates neglect the significance of the physical reality of collective worship. For the vast majority of believers, the weekly event is more important than any doctrine or pronouncement or even preaching. True, church attendance is often associated with staid village fustiness, sinister charismatics at mega-churches, and pleasing but empty smells and bells. Yet neither can the secular world offer anything more surprising and humbling than seeing a stranger kneeling before what we kneel before—especially one with whom we would not normally associate, who we might even avoid or deprecate. Stereotypes and prejudices are instantly demolished, even the ones we do not know we have. Suddenly the world and its people seem limitless in their possibilities. Nothing can do as much to break down barriers and let in new things, undoing what critical theorists like to call “the Other.”
(And perhaps one who once considered us the enemy may have even looked at one of us kneeling and felt this change of heart. Or one day they will.)
In the days that followed, it seemed to me urgent that this opportunity be accessible to all, without exception. In our time of identity politics, it is more necessary than ever. The liturgy not only causes but demands a momentary suspension of our sense of self. We are not exactly who we were before we went in through the church doors; there is a change, during and after. Our limited, contingent estimation of our identity is yielded to a greater, wider, better one. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,” as Saint Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians, “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Even more so now than during the Roman empire, these are subversive words. Enabled by global communication, from the alt-right to the performatively woke, modernity clings white-knuckled to a private or local sense of identity: sexual, racial, or otherwise. We are surrounded by those who would weaponize or monetize or otherwise exploit grievance and pity—justified perhaps in part—those for whom existence is a zero-sum shouting match for benefits and concessions and legal dispensations and “support” from acquaintances, society, the state, even the cosmos. As WH Auden put it in “Law Like Love”:
…the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.
The liturgy cuts through all of this. It begins with the Confiteor, that fantastically rare thing: an unqualified admission of personal fault and responsibility. Said simultaneously and with one voice, this is not an admission that will be thrown back at us, leveraged for compensation, or used as evidence against us in a court of law. Mea maxima culpa lances the septic blister of the publicly curated, self-protecting, grasping ego. It relaxes and relieves. Afterwards, it is no longer me versus the world. Now the world—or the people around us—are like us and on our side, a process that continues through the service, from the plural pronouns of the Lord’s Prayer to the culmination in physiological truth of Communion.
This necessity for controlled, identity-free worship is perhaps the simplest explanation of why we need the church. It has to exist as a physical place, with walls and a roof to be under with others—others whom we don’t know well. The formal liturgy must exist as a reliable map, neutral and time-hallowed. It must be led by an expert, a priest. It must also be metaphysical, holy. Without a loving, personal God in whom our true, eternal, unknown identity is known and ratified, we cannot confidently surrender up our own grip on it—not even partly, not even for a while. To yield our identity to anyone or anything except God is to bring on disaster and tyranny—hence the First Commandment.
None of the above is new or radical. No church should or would stop a person from entering to worship, whatever their moral condition. However, we should also bear in mind how Jesus’s strongest rebukes were reserved for those who would prevent access to Him. We should try and understand how would-be worshippers might be implicitly barred by a tone of judgement and condemnation—or disgust at the blatant hypocrisy of those delivering the lists of dos and don’ts.
So I thought again about the flyer with the rainbows and crosses. I should have gone to that service. It would have been good for me. Yet I might well have chosen not to—not because I am a homophobe or don’t approve, but because I would have felt like an outsider. I would have worried that I was trespassing on a safe space, and that it was in some way not for me. And I would have missed the possibility of a new encounter. So if I, who self-identify as liberal and lefty, felt like that, how might a card-carrying conservative react? Such is the danger of well-meaning but excessive outreach. It can sow division between those congregations that might have the most to learn from each other. Nor is it necessary. All church authorities have to do is to repeatedly assert the openness of the service to all, without specification. Or if they must specify, they can do as Saint Paul does and pair them as false oppositions lying outside Christ.
Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” something that can be easily proved by going to a church you might not usually go to. Yet Christians across the political spectrum have lost faith in this promise. They’ve forgotten that it is not church policies that draw people to church but the person of Jesus Christ. In the same way, all those stereotypical liberal characteristics that rile conservatives so much and often rightly—the shallow, glib smugness; the self-absorption; the showcased victimhood; the vituperative, privileged snobbery—all of this might yet be challenged and cured by welcoming them into the liturgy. Conservatives might even find that this Other is not so Other after all.
None of which needs to involve flyers with rainbows. Just less gatekeeping at the door.
Chris Yates is a teacher of English language and literature at an international school in Athens, Greece. This gives him plenty of opportunities to indoctrinate young people with thinly-disguised Marxist agitprop.