“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:2
I remember a Sunday evening during my days as a curate. There were usually sixty or so at church for the Sunday evening service. They were good people; upright, respectable, country town Ulster Protestants. The men wore dark suits and, it being the 1980s, many of the women still wore hats to church. Amongst such a congregation, it was inevitable that the young woman would stand out. Her hair was dyed orange and in spikes two inches high; she wore a short dark jacket and leopard skin patterned skin tight trousers.
Most Sunday evenings, the young woman would not have been so conspicuous. If the service was Evening Prayer, you went into your pew and remained there for the whole service, (and in a church that would seat five hundred you might not be near anyone when there were only sixty people there). But once a month there was a service of Holy Communion on Sunday evening, which meant people came out of the pews to come to the up to the altar at the front to receive Communion.
The line of people formed as the Communion began. This was in a town where many church members thought you could only go to Communion if you were “good living” and many good living church members didn’t go to Communion because they didn’t consider themselves “saved”. All in all, it meant that the communicants were a fairly select group, and a woman in her twenties with her orange punk hairstyle and her leopard skin trousers was probably not typical of those you might have expected to see. Another young woman was with her; shorter with dark hair, she and her friend looked around for clues about what was going on. They received the Communion bread but when I handed them the chalice of wine, they looked up for advice.
A couple of weeks later, I was out visiting in one of the huge estates on the edge of the town. There was a wind that would cut through you and there was no shelter in the big areas of open land between the rows of houses. If anyone wanted lessons on how to reduce the chances of a creating community and how to make people feel cut off and isolated, the estate would have done the job perfectly. Going from door to door was demoralising, there were maybe two hundred families on our parish lists, but hardly any of them ever came to church and there were few people who wanted to see a clergyman on their doorstep. If I called on a Friday afternoon, people would come to the door with their purses, assuming I was the tick man, the money lender who had come for his weekly payment.
On a bitterly cold December afternoon in 1987, I knocked at a door. It was answered by a woman with unmistakable orange hair. A baby’s buggy was in the hallway as I was shown into the kitchen, the only room that was heated. The dark haired companion from the evening service was sat at the table.
Tea was made and sandwiches. The bread was spread with thin margarine and filled with tinned ham cut into irregular slices. I tried to decline the sandwiches, but my orange haired hostess said her ma would not be pleased if she had not given the minister tea and a sandwich.
The woman lived in the house with her baby. Her husband was in prison; in fact, their marriage ceremony had taken place in the prison because he was not allowed out even for such an occasion. The dark haired woman was her sister-in-law, sister to the man in prison. They spent most of the time together because the estate was lonely and there wasn’t much else to do.
They had come to church because they were Church of Ireland and they had wanted to find out what it was like. They hadn’t understood the service: the words were funny (it had been the old Prayer Book that evening) and they didn’t know why we did the bit with the bread and the silver cup. I tried to explain, but what did a twenty seven year old Englishman educated at two universities, who lived in a nice semi in a nice part of the town, have to say to someone struggling with very gritty realities?
They said they might come to church again, but, if they did, I never saw them and with a thousand families to look after in the parish, I never called at the door again. I often wondered what happened to them.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” grumble the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospel reading.
But who are the sinners? Are the sinners the Pharisees, or are they the people with whom Jesus eats? Who were the people who followed Jesus? Wasn’t it the poor to whom he brought the good news? Who were the people who crucified Jesus? Wasn’t it the religious people?
Who were the sinners in church that Sunday evening? Were they the two young women, or were they the church that had made the women feel they were out on the margins? Who would Jesus eat with? Who would Jesus turn away? The answer is not difficult.