So, a couple of words about this hymn. One, it was cited at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America [ELCA]'s Churchwide Assembly in 2009 as an argument in favor of the pro-lgb* resolutions (the issues on the table were ordination and marriage), and two, we sang it at my home church to celebrate the passage of those resolutions and three, we sing it at my home church as often as we can get away with it. It's a pretty great hymn.
*t intentionally left off; trans issues weren't addressed at Churchwide
It starts like this:
Let us build a house where love can dwell
The hymn is in the imperative voice. But it's a special kind of imperative. It's the kind of imperative with which people say, "Let's be friends." "Let's get married." "Let's start trying for a baby."
It's the kind of imperative to which the implicit answer is, "Yes. Let's." Let us do that thing that sounds so good when you put it like that. In fact, it reminds me a bit of this image from Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life written and illustrated by Daniel Erlander:
[image shows a priest in chasuble and alb and a nun in habit and wimple. She wears a cross necklace and a rosary dangles from her waist. The priest's hand is open and reaches to the nun. The nuns hands aren't visible. He says, "Would you help me set up a Lutheran parsonage?" She says, "I thought you'd never ask."]
The priest is, in fact, saying, "Let us build a house where love can dwell," and the nun answers, "Yes. Let's."
When we sing "All Are Welcome," we are the singers and the sung-to. We are the speakers and the one addressed. This hymn, like many in the section of the hymnal labeled "Community in Christ," takes advantage of the core reality of the genre hymn -- a hymn is meant to be sung by a congregation of the faithful. When we sing we sing each one to each other, reminding ourselves of our stories, our beliefs, our call, our relationship with each other. All hymns do this; hymns like this one do so textually. The primary meanings in this hymn can be found by understanding the words as being sung by and to members of a Christian community. The hymn is, in fact, very like a vision statement for a church -- we will do this thing (we will build a house where love can dwell; this is what it will look like). The imperative tone offers a gentle, ready challenge -- Let us. Yes, let's.
Because this is a sacred text, though, both speaker and hearer may also be understood as God. In some hymns (e.g., "I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry,") the image of the Divine Speaker and the human speaker are deliberately confused, tangled, become metaphors for each other. Nothing so complicated happens here, and yet -- this hymn is meant to be sung in a worship service in which the Holy Spirit has been invoked, and She is, in fact, the Master Builder. Any Christian project has implicit in its conception the participation of the Holy Spirit; without Her guidance we and all our projects are doomed to futility.
And just so, the words of this hymn are a gentle challenge not just from our fellow worshipers but from God. God is building a house where love can dwell, you see, and we are invited, asked, and encouraged to build that house with Him.
Let us build a house.
The house is, clearly, a church. It is also The Church. It is also the coming Kingdom of God. These meanings cannot be divorced from each other; Christian grammar demands that each layer implies the next. When we build our house, we are, in fact, building one room in a House of many rooms. But it is not an isolated building block, our house. Its relationship with the rest of the House is like the relationship of the various organs to a body, the relationship of all our worshipers to our church. Each different, each vital. When we build a house, we are building part of God's House, and the kitchen doesn't say, "I wish I were a roof," and the billiard room doesn't say, "I wish I were connected to the lounge via a secret passage!" All the rooms are essential and they are all connected, and in building our house, we build up the House.
Let us build a house where love can dwell.
"Love" here is not capitalized. That doesn't mean it's not a metaphor for God, though. God is love. When we build a house where love can dwell, we build a place where God can dwell. But this is a dwelling-place for God conceptualized differently from the Holy of Holies or any cathedral you have seen. The important thing about this house is not how much gilt adorns its pillars. This will only be a house where God can dwell inasmuch as it is a house where love, plain, uncapitalized, everyday love, can also dwell.
Yeah, uncapitalized love is really a sacrament of capitalized Love. It is one of the ways God chooses to make Godself known to us. When we build a house where love can dwell, the Love of God will be present there too.
The rest of the hymn will elaborate on what it means to build a house where love can dwell, and we'll look at it together. Most of the hymn is future and/or imperative. The refrain, "All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place," is present tense declarative, and I'll talk more about what that means (as a declaration, a prophetic word, a moment of eschatological immanence) when we come around to the first refrain. I'd also like to use the five refrains to discuss concrete issues of welcome that contemporary churches face, what it takes to bring that promise into reality.