Many years ago, I visited an Episcopal church in suburban Chicago and was greeted by a rusting and rickety sign that said, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." This sign was regrettably the first thing I saw, for it conveyed the impression--no doubt unintentionally--that the parish put little effort into creating an atmosphere of hospitality. It was kind of like inviting people to your home for dinner and neglecting to tidy up the house, take out the garbage, and mow the lawn. The people inside the church, it turned out, were very warm and hospitable, and yet I had to wonder how many other visitors had been put off by that sign. It may seem like a trivial detail, but welcoming signage can be a critical factor in determining whether people will visit a church.
This is why I was so pleased this past week to see the large statue of Our Lady of Walsingham displayed prominently inside the main entrance to the church on Appletree Street. Stored for a long time in the sacristy of St. John's Chapel, the statue was reverently washed of the dust that had accumulated upon her and placed on the plinth on which she had formerly rested in the chapel. It is not only formal signage that allows us to make a good first impression on visitors, but also other symbols of welcome and congregational identity like this statue. The rather awkward placement of the entrances to the church at the sides of the building makes grand signs of hospitality difficult in the small spaces available, but I think this statue works very well as a statement of who we are. I am glad that the first thing people see when they walk in the main entrance is a beautiful, gleaming statue of Our Lady. Instead of an empty entrance--save for a bulletin board, rack of devotional pamphlets, and the door to the bathroom--the space has been transformed into a shrine to Our Lady. As an Anglo-Catholic shrine church, I can think of no more suitable first impression.
Today, I was privileged to see the certificate from 1960 that formally attached the Shrine of Our Lady of Clemency to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England, which is why we join our shrine prayers at daily evensong to the prayers offered at the shrine in Walsingham. The display of Our Lady of Walsingham inside the entrance therefore reminds us that our prayers at St. Clement's form part of a larger praying community devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. We now welcome visitors into this shared devotional life beginning at the front door. St. Clement's has long been admired for its magnificent building, which provides a fitting setting for our equally magnificent liturgy and music. We now have a fitting welcome that tells visitors and newcomers how happy we are that they have come to pray with us.