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
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
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
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
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.