Some people are scandalized by the abuse of power in the church. Some people are scandalized by gay clergy. Some are affronted by female clergy and by the very idea of female bishops. And some don't want homeless folks coming into a church.
A few days ago, I ran into something that scandalizes me: a locked church. It was 8:20 AM. Fresh from a four-day retreat at a monastery, I went to a nearby church for Morning Prayer (Monday through Saturday at 8:30 AM, followed by Eucharist at 9, as the sign on the door says). I have been there before. Daily services are something of a luxury in these times – what a gift to have them available in a small town! But on this morning, the door was locked. I knocked. "Knock and it shall be opened," I breathed, and waited. Then I rang the electronic door bell (though I do not know a bell verse). I heard it chiming inside.
Nothing. I was early. Maybe people arrive closer to the last minute on Saturdays.
I returned to my car and waited, listening to birds singing, watching cars roll by, cleaning the inside of my windshield, and then rang again. Nothing. Maybe the sign is wrong. Maybe something has happened in the parish since I was last here. I decided to go home. Then, with the church bell ringing above my head – ghost hands pulling a ghost rope, perhaps – I started the engine and drove away.
Locked churches seem rather gospel-contrary. Yet, many are locked until just before Sunday services, and relocked just afterward. I don't think there is a church in this town that is not locked every day but Sunday. In fact, I know of only one church in the area (an Episcopal church, as it happens) that is always open, always unlocked. There may be others, but that is the one I know, and it is not in the big city. It's not even in a town, really. It is more of a wayside chapel between places on a map. But that door is never ever locked. It is not a wealthy parish, and I cannot help but wonder if that helps keep the door open; that, and the rector's compelling vision of the Kingdom.
When we lock our churches, what exactly are we protecting? God? Jesus? Because perhaps there are things they can't handle? No. We're protecting stuff. Our blessed stuff. Our Holy Accessories. We are giving stuff room at the inn, and telling people there is no room for them because of the stuff. No resting here, move along. You might mess up our stuff. You might steal our stuff.
Meanwhile, except when we are here to use our stuff, the door is shut. In winter, the heating system is keeping the stuff from getting cold. Outside on the street, the homeless can freeze to death. How do we get in? How do we reach out?
In fairness, it's not just the churches. I know of universities that are walled like medieval cities. On one side of the wall is the wisdom of the ages, and uncountable wealth. On the other side, the hungry, the mentally-ill, the drug-addled, the just plain mean. The wall is maybe a foot thick. Only 12 inches of stone stand between there-but-for-the-grace-of-god (and of course my own endeavors/talents/inheritance/hard work/appearance/righteousness) me, and you, o lazy bum, defiler of Stuff.
I have seen robbed and trashed churches. I have seen the pain on parishioners' faces when, out of sheer malice, treasured objects have been defaced beyond recognition. In some churches, even the visible presence of security staff does not prevent loss. The first time I attended noontime eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I set my purse on the chair next to me as I closed my eyes in prayer; when I opened them again a moment later, it was gone, and the man who had been sitting behind me was walking very quickly toward the exit. And I have, we all have, things in our homes that we love dearly, and we do lock our doors and windows.
Even so, locked churches feel wrong to me. But I don't have a solution. Just an ache. We really do need to let God make all things new.