IN FINEDON, where I am parish priest, midnight mass is still one
of the busiest services of the year. Three hundred or so dutifully
turn up from gable-ended houses in the gingerbread-stone posh end -
from the Banjo, as our streets of social housing are called, from
shift work in the anonymous warehouses along the A45, and from the
Conservative Club, the Old Band Club, the Gladstone Working Men's
Club, and the Bell Inn (estd 1042).
Many of them are still fairly familiar with what we are doing,
unfazed by the business with the crib or thurible. They are at home
with candlelight, and with the trickier carols, some even
remembering - with tremendous gusto - the descants they learned at
school. Afterwards, they disappear into the night, feeling, as I
felt, that faint conspiratorial pleasure at participating in
clandestine acts of worship.
But the real conspiracy, the real clandestine act of worship, is
not midnight mass, but Christmas morning. People might think that
Christmas morning would be one of the busiest of the year, but,
here, it is not.
Perhaps, because of the relentless anticipation generated from
bonfire night onwards, we peak early, on Christmas Eve, with our
"living nativity" in the afternoon for the children, and midnight
mass for the grown-ups. Perhaps it is the logistical necessities of
the day, quite apart from growing indifference to Christianity,
which have edged church out of the itinerary.
My Christmas Day timetable begins with Morning Prayer at seven -
solo and perfunctory, I'm afraid, after four hours of sleep. The
eight-o'clock follows, unusually well attended here with a
congregation of between 30 and 40. But, this Christmas morn,
Christians seem slow to awake and salute.
But Neil, the churchwarden, who does the early turn, is up and
about. The altar is dressed, the candles are trimmed, and, once
again, I thank God for calling him to this ministry. He is not only
unfailingly reliable and diligent: he is also a builder, and will
ascend ladders to do impossible things with light fixtures, and
descend ladders to do impossible things with boilers, without
demur, unlike his priest, who functions only at sea level.
BOB the server is also here, again unfailingly reliable and
diligent, and we wordlessly fall into our routine, except the pews
are much emptier than usual, and our routine is interrupted for
some communion-wafer mathematics. As I do the headcount, I have a
moment's sober realisation that our hard core is getting smaller,
death having undone two of my most faithful eight-o'clockers in the
past year. I try not to lapse into actuarial speculation about the
Those who are here, present and correct, prefer the quiet of the
eight o'clock - hymnless, and childless - and are usually of an age
where it is preferred to get the business of the day done before
Their expectation, and the custom of the house, sometimes
strikes me as being at odds with the character of the festival.
Unto us a child is born, king of all creation; but it is business
as usual at St Mary's, Finedon, as far as our eight-o'clockers are
concerned. The pulling of crackers and wearing of hats is for
The old faithful, I think, look to the church to give a pattern
to their lives, a sense of the passing year, and, indeed, the
passing of their own years. They do not need or desire fireworks to
help them do this, rather the formulae of words and actions that,
in subtly altered forms, have been with them since childhood,
learned in the parish's boys' school and girls' school, from
curates whose names are forgotten, but not the catechism they
IT IS also a service where we try to keep a measure of stillness
and silence, helped by the wonderful play of light in the
clerestory, which seems to happen quite this way only around the
winter solstice. It is silver gilt, unlike summer light, which is
more golden, and falls across the 18th-century organ case in a
gallery at the west end of the church, picking out the arms of
Queen Anne, from whose private chapel at Windsor it came.
I think of all the incumbents who have preceded me since 1350,
and have watched the same play of light as Christmas morning
dawned, weather and the world's unresting change permitting.
At the end of the service, I go to stand just beyond the porch
and parvise, and have a minute alone, while people gather their
hats and gloves. It is one of my favourite moments of the day, to
stand under the gargoyles, looking down across the churchyard, past
lichen-covered gravestones, and 1000-year-old yews, into the hall's
park, laid out by Repton in the 1740s.
There is a huge dead oak just beyond the ha-ha, which always
makes me think of Caspar David Friedrich, and, lest we surrender
entirely to nostalgia, the smell of Weetabix, a 24-hour, 365-day
operation, blows in from Burton Latimer, two miles down the
The first departing faithful pass by, to whom I wish Merry
Christmas, and note how quickly it has come round again. I think of
my grandmother, who lived to be 101, and told me that when you are
over 90, you go to bed on Christmas night and wake up to find it's
Christmas morning. That same year, she thanked me for the pashmina
I gave her, but said that she hadn't opened it, because she was not
likely to get much wear out of it, and I could have it back when
she died and give it to someone else. And so it came to pass.
AFTER the eight-o'clock, I have a cup of coffee on the
children's table with Jane, the churchwarden on the late shift.
Jane, for whom I also give thanks daily, has readings for readers,
and intercessions for intercessors. She also has a strategy for
child management, which can be taxing, because we have no
sound-proofed space for our children, which can lead to unchristian
feelings when the twins decide to have a lusty shout out while the
rest of us are trying to attend to the silent promptings of the
Fun Bags are available, full of Christmas-themed materials, and
wildly inflationary quantitative easing with chocolate coins is
promised at the end. But we know that most of the children we see
for Christmas we saw yesterday at the living nativity, a learning
experience much enriched by the appearance among the three kings of
Darth Vader wielding a light saber.
To add richness to the learning experience for grown-ups,
Jonathan, our brilliant director of music, joins us, and we work
out whether the choir will be strong enough in number to manage the
"Hallelujah Chorus", which we love, not least because our organ was
once played by Handel, or so the legend goes. And what better piece
could we therefore perform with it on this most holy morning?
And it is here that we run into an inconvenient truth. While we
are all geared up to mark this second most important day in the
Church's calendar, with bells and whistles and a general pushing
out of boats, our congregation is not. Those who are around may
well have attended at midnight, but many have gone away to spend
Christmas with children, and grandchildren - the first generations
of Finedonians who left to go to university and never came back. Or
some of the better-heeled members of the congregation are in second
homes in sunnier places.
I CHECK the figures, and see that last year, on Christmas Eve,
we had about 70 at the living nativity, and 220 at midnight mass.
At the eight-o'clock we had 24 - not bad; but at the main eucharist
on Christmas morning we had 54. On a normal Sunday, we could double
Who were these attenders? There are some solid 9.30 regulars who
never miss; there are some parents with children too small to stay
up for midnight mass; but, judging by the haggard expressions of
their mummies and daddies, they woke up not long after.
There are some posh townies, back from Islington and Putney,
taking the grandchildren to see the grandparents in the country,
the girls in dark coats with gold buttons, the boys in miniature
jackets and ties. There are the local farmers and their families,
in Sunday best, keepers of the tradition of Christmas-morning
church, leaving their flocks in the fields, or - more likely -
their winter barley.
And there are the non-classifieds, the Christmas walk-ins, the
unrecognised: the Romanian who works in a packhouse, far from home,
who tells me how he would kill his grandfather's pig on St Ignatz's
Day, and gets choked with homesickness; the new divorcee, on her
own this Christmas for the first time in 25 years; the man in his
70s, last in, and first out, whom I have never seen before, but
guess to be a priest; and then there is the person I don't see.
Every Christmas, I cannot help thinking that I am watching
Christianity become one degree more marginal to people's lives.
This year, when we have had more explaining to do than usual, as
the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, I feel it more acutely. Can we
recover with confidence our place at the centre of our communities,
by reaching out more readily, more intelligibly, to those who are
retreating further into the margins and beyond?
Or do we need to recover, with confidence, the irreducible
weirdness of what we do, to restore to the gospel its mystery and
power, by rediscovering it ourselves? These are not easy questions
to answer, but I do not think that we choose between them.
I think that our choices lie somewhere in the configuration of
these non-classifieds, in their different distances and proximities
to the crib, still steady with light and silence in the bewildering
son et lumière that cannot quite displace or replace
A happy and holy Christmas to all.
The Revd Richard Coles is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary the
Virgin, Finedon, in Peterborough diocese.