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16 January 2015


Christmas presence

THE straw of the crib has been replaced with a carpet, the shepherds have long since departed, and the Magi continue to offer their gifts. Now that we are well into Christmastide, with a few weeks still to go, Advent seems but a distant memory.

The lead-up to Christmas is never easy, as there is always so much to be done. Spare a thought, then, for the poor parish clergy. There are posters to be posted, carol services to be led, nativity plays to be directed, flyers to be distributed, organists to be briefed, and confessions to be heard and made.

A friend who is a vicar in north London went all-out for peace on earth and ecumenical relations this year, and agreed to take part in the Churches Together pre-Christmas fair. He played the part of Father Christmas, complete with red suit and hat, a pillow, and a large white beard.

Of the cameos that unfolded as he sat patiently in his grotto - surrounded by children dressed as elves (appropriate safeguarding procedures having been observed, of course) - it is difficult to know which was the best. Some children did not care for the presents they had been given, and demanded an exchange. They were egged on by the elves, whom the Vicar had naïvely assumed were meant to be on Santa's side.

A Nigerian matriarch insisted that her terrified, wailing children should sit on Father Christmas's knee while she took photographs. Presumably those same photographs are going to be shown to an expensive therapist in the fullness of time.

Next was the lady who, during a lull in proceedings, thought that she knew Father Christmas's real identity, and chatted amicably and in great detail about mutual friends, their children, and the various woes of many of their acquaintances. My friend did not have the heart to tell her that she had mistaken him for someone else. Because she had thought that he was someone who is generally considered a dead ringer for Daniel Craig, he just accepted the compliment.

My own favourite, however, was the child who marched up to Father Christmas, fixed him with a steely glare, and, with disarming confidence, demanded: "So, if you're the real Father Christmas, how come you're white and your elves are brown?"

Instant lollipop.

Infidels and hereticks

EVERYONE should, obviously, buy their books through Church House Bookshop, but I confess that, late last year, I took delivery of a print-to-order facsimile of a book recommended by the former Dean of Mahé, the Revd Michael Counsell (Out of the Question, 24 October): John Henry Blunt's 1874 Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties, and Schools of Religious Thought.

Its arrival could hardly have been more timely, because it landed on the doormat with a heavy thud in the same week as YouGov published the results of a survey that claimed to show that one in 50 C of E clergy did not believe in God. Assuming that they have all since relinquished their orders, and are no longer holding open the gates of their sheep-pens with signs that read "Wolves eat for free", we can now get on with the task of rooting out some of the other delinquents.

Does your Vicar think that the birth of Christ came about by human rather than divine action? Budnaeanism. Does the Rector profess that it was God the Father who became incarnate at Bethlehem? Patripassianism. Does the Assistant Curate labour under the delusion that our Lord wrought salvation in his divinity, and not his human- ity? Osiandrianism. Call the Archdeacon, and get the kindling ready.

Perhaps the members of the Bishops' Advisory Panels should arm themselves with this book when they interview would-be ordinands. Then again, perhaps they should just start with "Do you believe in God?" and take it from there.

Tidings of comfort

ALL credit to the QI researcher who was canny enough to know that Christmastide ends at Candlemas and not earlier - a rare moment of ecclesiological accuracy in the morass of ignorance and indifference which usually prevails in secular programming (and in plenty of religious programming, too).

The old dispensation gives a proper amount of time for us to take in the joys of the season, and this is, presumably, particularly important to those who are so busy in preparations for the feast itself that the days that follow are usually spent in a state of exhausted delirium. It also speaks of the Church's never fasting for more days than she feasts: and so 40 days of Christmas for 30 days of Advent.

As for me, the days so far have been spent musing on the various good bits of news that have trickled in from all corners of the globe. Friends who are working to help bring stability to South Sudan enjoyed a peaceful Christmas around a barbecue in Juba; and the right sort of snow made for perfect skiing conditions for others in the Pacific north-west. A bouncing baby boy was born in Barcelona (Diary, 1 August 2014), and a seriously ill hospital patient was well enough to go home to spend Christmas Day with his family.

As you read this, the British Forces Post Office is in the process of delivering my letter to an officer serving with his regiment in Congo; His absence from the table on New Year's Eve was a reminder that, while the rest of us feast, the service of the Forces goes on unstintingly.

Meanwhile, a priest who has recently been appointed to minister in one of the fleshpots of the diocese in Europe has done his best to make a good impression on his hosts by accepting invitations, eating what has been put before him, sampling the local delicacies, and imbibing the indigenous wines. This, of course, has made him an instant hit. It hasn't done much for his gout. 

Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen's House, Oxford.


Fri 20 May @ 01:46
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