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The faithful journey of the unbelievers

by
21 December 2012

Attending services at Christmas helps non-churchgoing people to renew their faith, says Alan Billings

MIKE COLLINS

CHRISTMAS is one of the few times in the year when a large part of the Church's wider constituency makes itself known. We meet its members in both religious and non-religious settings.

They may be in church - at a Christingle, carol, or crib service, midnight mass, or Christmas- morning communion. Or they may be watching a nativity play in school, or singing carols in a community centre or concert hall.

In my part of the country - south Yorkshire and north Derbyshire - they will also be found celebrating Christmas in pubs, with local carols. "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" will be sung to the tune of "Ilkla Moor Baht'at" or "Sweet Chiming Christmas Bells". They are not, however, regular churchgoers.

Christmas is the critical season for this group of people. It is when they renew their commitment to Christian faith and, in some cases, join with regular worshippers. For many, the Church of England is the Church to which they instinctively turn, which is why we should take seriously how we can best minister to them when they come.

But what do we know about the people who make up this largely hidden group? Because there is little research, we have to do our own detective work, paying close attention to the clues that come our way - in snatches of conversation at the church door, or the occasional piece of journalism or reporting. From that, we can build up a picture, and understand how we should respond. These are my best guesses.

FIRST, members of this wider constituency have no desire to attend services weekly. But that does not mean that they want to sever their relationship with the Church, or with Christianity. They think of themselves as Christian, although an increasing number may have been brought up without religion. They are not hostile to the clergy. They do not find a church building an alien place, or its worship an alien activity. They are content to say "Amen".

They will join in the Lord's Prayer, especially in the old form, and as long as it is written down. They value the pastoral offices, particularly infant baptisms, and funerals and memorial services - although they have become less sure about weddings.

They gladly, and gratefully, accept the part that clergy often play when some tragedy occurs in their locality, or where their town or village wants to celebrate something of importance. Some are part of that growing number who take city breaks and visit cathedrals. But they do not feel under any compulsion to become part of a congregation week by week. If they are not a majority of the population, they are certainly a sizeable minority.

SECOND, faith is important to them, although belief is less so. What beliefs they have are not necessarily well thought out, or even coherent. They may have difficulty articulating them, or, more likely, are reluctant to try. Instinctively, they feel that something as mysterious as God is not easily captured in words, and is probably best left largely unsaid. So off-the-peg creeds and confessions of faith are not for them.

Many are not convinced that any one faith has the answer to all of life's conundrums, and they react against any form of Christianity that has no room for disagreement or honest doubt. The Church of England is attractive because it is a broad Church and relatively undogmatic.

If we are anxious about this perception of our Church, we might note a recent comment by Janice Turner, a columnist for The Times. She writes scornfully about varieties of religion that make extravagant claims to religious knowledge, and fuel hate-filled intolerance of others, and then adds: ''Far from being its major weakness, doubt is the Church of England's most attractive quality. . . Modesty, distaste for proselytising, or indeed any firm conviction that it is the only true faith, always restrains the C of E from such trash-talking."

 

CHRISTMAS visitors distinguish between believing and having faith. They value faith, and theirs is often hard-won, and fragile. It may, in the words of Sir Andrew Motion, when he spoke about his own faith, "flicker on and off like a badly wired lamp". For those who fit this description, Christmas is an important time, for three reasons.

First, Christmas is an annual opportunity to reflect on the things that matter: God, faith, values, family. In the general rush of life, at work and in the home, such chances are rare. This is a precious time, enabling them to step aside for a while, in the midst of getting and spending, to remind themselves of their spiritual roots, and to renew their faith.

Carol services, in particular, are popular because they are generally free from the clerical over-interpretation that many find so off-putting. All that needs to be said is contained in the familiar poetry of traditional scripture readings and carols - pegs and provocations for their own thoughts.

Second, the Christmas story is at the heart of their Christian faith. For them, Christianity is essentially about a way of living - showing love, kindness, generosity, and openness to others. All of this is exemplified in the one who comes into the world on Christmas Day. They are not greatly interested in doctrine, although what doctrine they do accept is accessed through story or picture. Christmas has both. The idea of the incarnation is assimilable as the story of God's becoming one of us, born into a human family, and living a human life from inside a human skin.

The story can be told in hymns or readings, or presented visually as a play, crib, or icon. Good Friday, as traditionally preached, has less appeal. The Christmas visitors understand the cross as the end-point of the Christ-child's human journey - the final act of one who lives to show us how to live, and who, in his Passion, knows our suffering to the bone, including the pain of loving. But theories of atonement play little part in their understanding. The God made known at the manger is already on their side.

Third, Christmas is a time of enchantment, and mystery. Mystery is important to them; for God is mystery, to be experienced only fleetingly and partially. A darkened church, the play of candle flames, the haunting solo voice singing the first verse of "Once in royal David's city", the winding procession from shadow into light - all play a part in creating an atmosphere of wonder and mystery.

IN HIS autobiography Leaving Alexandria, Richard Holloway writes about a woman he once knew in Glasgow, Lillian Graham, who, although she was a churchgoer, in many ways exhibited some of the characteristics of this wider constituency of hidden Christians.

He says that, at Christmas, she was "the only person I knew who decorated her Christmas tree with real candles, a tradition she'd learnt in Austria. She liked the practices because they added grace and beauty to life. The poetry of quiet religion appealed to her. The doctrinal obsessions of noisy religion bored her." There are many like her who, shyly, find their way to church at Christmas.

It is hard to overestimate how important this one occasion in the Church's calendar is for those who are present only once a year, or to exaggerate the loss if it is not available, or takes some disappointingly unfamiliar form.

We could take the view that those who come only at Christmas are not really Christians at all. Some in the contemporary Church do, and dismiss what they see as a spiritually impoverished mix of folk religion and vacuous sentimentality. I believe that this is a mistake.

In a time of no religion, when no one feels under any social obligation to go to church, and taking religion seriously is routinely ridiculed, any participation in religious celebration is significant, and for some may be courageous.

It is evidence of an enduring Christian spirituality, built on an innate human characteristic - the capacity to sense a reality greater than that which comes through sensory experience alone. But that spirituality needs to be nurtured, tutored, and supported. And this is the vocation of the Church of England.

IN THE past, this sustenance came through the family, the school, and the culture more generally, as much as the Church. It could be taken for granted that it would happen. This is no longer the case. We need to think more carefully about the points where we can enable this again.

One way we do this is through those traditional Christmas services that are familiar and reassuring. We could do more, even at Christmas. For example, one church where I was parish priest commissioned each year "Stations of the Nativity" - framed paintings and drawings - from different local schools, to replace the Stations of the Cross for the Advent and Christmas season.

We then had a brief event to thank the artists and bless their work. Young people brought along proud parents and grandparents, viewed the stations, and lingered over mulled wine and mince pies. Some returned to look again and read the accompanying texts - underlining how essential it is for an established church to be open during the week, and not just for the Sunday congregation.

In these ways, we give our extended Christian family opportunities to reflect again on the things that are important, and to renew their faith. This may lead to a deepening of that faith, and a desire to explore further. But, irrespective of that, it sustains a positive attitude towards Christianity - and the Church in the culture - more widely. In a secular climate, this matters.

Canon Alan Billings's new book, Lost Church: Why we must find it again, is published by SPCK in January.

 

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