By Canon Chris Palmer
make the door of this house wide enough
to receive all who need human love and fellowship,
and narrow enough to shut out
all envy, pride and strife.
Make its threshold smooth enough
to be no stumbling-block to children,
or to straying feet,
but rugged enough
to turn back the tempter’s power.
O God, make the door of this house
a gateway to thine eternal kingdom.
This beautiful prayer of Bishop Thomas Ken – bishop of Bath and Wells in the late 17th century – sums up our hopes and aspirations for our cathedral, to be a place of hospitality and welcome, a holy place that invites people in, whilst keeping out what divides or lures us down destructive paths.
This is a challenge as we head into a second lockdown. The temptation is to see only the ‘closure’: no sightseeing, no public worship, and no hospitality. Happily, we are able to stay open for individual prayer, and for this period the ‘threshold’ becomes smoother in one sense, because we don’t charge people to come to pray.
But the prayer, of course, is a prayer about our attitude. And God answers it less in the opening hours of the cathedral and more in the openness of the people of God to all who seek this grace. Lockdown requires us to ‘receive all who need human love and fellowship’ in a different way, online, on the phone, from a distance. Perhaps it also causes us to notice our ‘envy, pride and strife’ and calls us to self-examination and repentance, so that we may receive forgiveness for these. In other words, the working out of this prayer is not on hold for this month of additional restrictions; it is still the adventure and opportunity to which God calls during lockdown.
The final line of the prayer takes us a step further: ‘make it a gateway to thine eternal kingdom.’ The real invitation is to enter into God’s kingdom and acknowledge the kingship of God. When we catastrophize the current situation, we risk denying God’s kingdom. But God’s gracious work of forgiveness, justice, and peace are in no way diminished; God is no less King and Lord because of lockdown or coronavirus – or any other trouble.
There may be a lockdown, but the gates of God’s kingdom are never locked. And as the people of God, our lives should speak of the openness and invitation that God continues to offer. The grace of God’s kingdom figures more largely for us than the traumas of the earthly realm. This doesn’t take us out of the world or cause us to disengage from everyday matters. On the contrary to live with the hope and joy of God in our daily lives begins to transform the communities in which God sets us. As St Augustine of Hippo argues in his monumental work, The City of God, the best way to be good citizens on earth is to know ourselves to be citizens of heaven.