If you work for a well-known organisation such as a utility company, a high street bank, a major supermarket or the Local Authority, and reveal that fact in the course of a conversation, you will find that people are quick to tell you their opinion of your employer. You rapidly build up a picture of their public image.
I find the same thing happens with me and the Church of England (or the church in general). And what is the public image? Basically, that the church is always on about sin, and that only non-sinners are welcome. "Say a special prayer for me, Vicar," said one person I used to meet from time to time. "Why?" I asked. "Because I'm a sinner." "Why don't you join us one Sunday?" I ask another. "Oh no," is the reply, "you can do without an old sinner like me…"
Faced with a world which when not talking to clergy doesn't seem much concerned about sin, I find myself asking whether Christians are in fact unhealthily obsessed with it. Is there something morbid about our weekly recital of the Confession, and of our "manifold sins and wickedness… the remembrance of [which] is grievous unto us and the burden of [which] is intolerable"? (That's a quotation from The Book of Common Prayer, which we use every Sunday at 8.45 am.)
Self-acceptance, self-affirmation, even self-assertion are much more to the modern taste than acknowledgement that we have done wrong and broken God's law. If people talk about guilt at all, they very often mean guilt feelings, something subjective rather than objective. Even in Christian circles you hear people using expressions such as "feeling OK (or not feeling OK) about something."
On this subject of sin, a modern Christian author has written:
"Nowadays the conviction of sin is widely misunderstood — secularists pity Christians whom they picture as people bowed to the ground under the enormous burden of self-condemnation, as those who go around all the time feeling guilty. Actually, of course, as anyone who has experienced conversion knows, the Christian is the only person who does not go around all the time feeling guilty. For them, sin is a burden they can lay down; they can admit it, repent and be forgiven." (Joy Davidman: Smoke on the Mountain)
Christ alone has achieved the forgiveness of our sin and therefore it is only the Christian who can be free of guilt and guilt feelings while at the same time being honest about themselves. This was the vital truth grasped by the penitent thief on the cross next to Jesus (Luke 23.40-43).
So people who think the church is concerned about sin are right, and so it should be because God is. But I think many mistakenly suppose that Christians have achieved — or think they have achieved — perfection and that sinners aren't welcome among their number. Perhaps those of us who call ourselves Christians need to examine our consciences, individual and collective, and consider whether we have mistakenly conveyed that impression.
The vicar who put up a large sign outside his church 'THIS CHURCH IS FOR SINNERS ONLY' caused a lot of offence among some of his congregation, but he was absolutely right, for the simple reason that apart from Jesus Christ, there is no other category of human being.
Your sincere friend and Vicar