I HAVE been a parish priest for much of my working life, spending December taking Christmas services — Christingles, carol festivals, midnight mass. For the past few years, however, working in a different context, I have found myself invited to other people’s Christmas services, sitting in congregations and listening to the conversations of those around. It has made me reflect more carefully about why, in these more secular times, people still come in some numbers to church at Christmas time, even if absent the rest of the year.
I believe that it is important that what is offered at Christmas is “traditional”. The reason for this is not hard to see. “Traditional” is another way of saying “familiar”, and the familiar enables the occasional visitor to be relaxed, and feel comfortable.
There will be no surprises; no risk of being caught out by not being able to join in the singing, or by not understanding what is happening when people kneel or sit or stand; no anxiety about what might come next. This becomes more important as the years pass, and more people become less familiar with churches and what now happens in them.
When I taught at an Oxford theological college, we took students to the West Midlands each year to stay with families from different cultures and faiths, and to go to different places of worship: mosque, temple, or gurdwara. This was partly for them to discover something first-hand about other faiths from the perspective of the ordinary worshipper, but also to have the experience of going into a place of worship that was unfamiliar.
We wanted the students to remember how hard the simple act of entering those buildings could be when you did not know what to expect, or how you would be treated by those who were the regular congregation, or how they expected you to behave towards the building and the artefacts in it.
These days, some who come to churches at Christmas will have analogous anxieties and apprehensions. But the more familiar it is, the more comfortable they will be.
This does not mean that innovation is impossible. We might note how the traditional festival of carols broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve also introduces something new each year. And yet it is always within the familiar liturgical pattern, and with a majority of carols which those who regularly listen will recognise, and probably join in.
WHAT I have called “familiarity” is another way of speaking about ritual. Something becomes a ritual only if it is repeated.
Ritual does two things. First, as I have already noted, because it is familiar, ritual enables us to be relaxed. We are not anxious, and we are not distracted, worrying about what happens next. This is important, because that enables us to be receptive — receptive to what we are hearing, seeing, singing, and praying.
I have heard clergy speaking about the traditional carol service as “pandering to nostalgia”, or “giving way to sentimentality”. There may be some truth in that: people do become wistful at Christmas, and think back to a real or imagined past, perhaps when they were children. They recall “the love that in a family dwells”, as John Betjeman put it — although that, in itself, is already telling us something about the things that they think are important.
Ritual has a second function. I believe that the principal reason why people come to the traditional carol service, when they rarely come at other times, is because the familiar ritual provides a sense of being rooted in something that transcends the ordinary business of life, and points us to enduring truths and values. These are moments when the timeless intersects with time, and God lies in wait.
I SPEND much of my time now with senior police officers and staff, many of whom do not live in their force area. They speak about “taking time out” to go to a carol service. For an hour or so, they step out of ordinary time and give themselves over to a moment or two of reflection.
That ordinary time seems to be getting ever more frenetic. They tell me about their daily commuting and the pressures that it creates, especially if they have to juggle the school run, after-school child-care, shopping, cooking, and looking after elderly parents, often while working unsocial hours.
At the same time, the technology that liberated us from many of the tedious chores of the workplace — emails, the internet, and the mobile phone — has also made us slaves to its insistent call. It also fills our heads with trivia. Stepping outside that for an hour at Christmas is a rare opportunity to do what we would never make time for in the ordinary course of events, but which we know is important.
In the traditional carol service, we think about the things that matter, and we are reassured that they endure over time: that is the function of ritual and tradition.
Canon Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, and the author of Lost Church: Why we must find it again (SPCK, 2013).