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Carols reviewed

11 January 2013

IS IT too late to mention Christmas? I am aware that even the Three Kings have moved on, but there is something about carol services which I need to get out of my system before we do it all again next year. Warning: carol services can make you angry.

Each year, I go with a group of friends to a carol service, visiting a different church each time. We are an odd bunch, but find ourselves in agreement about the following.

(1) We struggle when the preacher imagines a monopoly on "the true meaning of Christmas". Christmas, like love, has many meanings, and it's best if those in the pulpit do not presume special knowledge in this matter. And, while we are on the subject of presumption, (2) don't presume you know what the congregation - or, indeed, anyone - is feeling. At this year's carols, the preacher spent the first five minutes telling us why we were enjoying the service so much. He was clearly not a mind-reader.

The old adage "Less is more" is certainly true for carols; so (3) keep it short. Carols tend to be rather demanding affairs, long and noisy; so there must be a very good reason for the event to last more than an hour. (The only possible excuse is the daring use of holding space and contemplative silence; but there was no room at the inn for those wonders where we were this year: just constant noise, whether musical or talking.)

(4) Make the church look wonderful, smell wonderful, and feel wonderful - but do not use the service like some promotional video, and do not preach for numbers. There is nothing duller or darker than a preacher taking the deep mystery of Christmas and turning it into a thinly disguised speech about why we should be back here next Sunday. We have come to celebrate Christmas rather than feel like targets in the numbers game. Let us leave feeling awe rather than "got at".

The only time the friend on my left audibly choked was about eight minutes into the sermon, when the preacher felt, for credibility perhaps, that he should mention the suffering in the world.

"There is suffering in the world," he told us. "There's been the terrible school shooting in America, the bombs in Syria, and so on." It was the "and so on" that truly got my friend going; and so (5) is suffering: beware of lip service. My sense is that references to trouble-spots from which we quickly move on are always a mistake.

Instead, we simply use words and sentences that are as true in a world of suffering as they are in a world of beauty; words that acknowledge the pain and hold it, without any attempt to be specific. Our listeners will be specific in their own hearts.

P.S. Choirs are best to the side, out of eye-line. We love to hear them; we do not want to see them.


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