THE Queen has spoken of the hope inspired by the acts of goodness of “unsung heroes”.
And she ended her televised message on Christmas Day with an explicitly Christian message, shared by many on social media: “Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching, and find in him the guiding light for their lives.
“I am one of them, because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them, and whatever they themselves believe.”
Prescriptions for fear and uncertainty were offered in other Christmas messages from various bishops. As 2016 drew to a close, people “might be tempted to say ‘Good riddance!’” the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, suggested.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, read from Yeats’s The Second Coming (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), and warned of a “new Ice Age of humanity: sterile and tedious”. Hope, he said, “seems to be in short supply”. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of a world that seemed “awash with fear and division”.
It was unclear whether it was this sermon — in which the Archbishop spoke of a child lowered into a supermarket bin to scavenge for food — or Archbishop Welby’s tweet: “Jesus came to us homeless and in a manger. This Christmas please pray with me for the poor, hungry and homeless, here and abroad” that annoyed the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.
“Merry Christmas,” he tweeted. “Ignore all negative messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury and have a great day!”
The interjection prompted many to respond with tweets of solidarity with the Archbishop, who suggested in his sermon that: “Our feelings tells us that our values are in the wrong place. . . Economic progress, technological progress, communication progress hasn’t resulted in economic justice.”
Many were tempted to “put aside those things which trouble us as much as possible”, he suggested.
His fellow bishops tended not to succumb. Syria, climate change, and migration were among the crises catalogued in their sermons.
“For those sitting in the ruins of Aleppo today, the call of the prophet to ‘break forth together into singing’ would seem like a rather sick joke,” the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, said.
Bishop Chartres argued that the optimism of the early-20th century had been “founded on ugly ideologies and illusions”. That confidence was now under attack by “all the forces we label as ‘extremist’”.
“Merely invoking the universal concepts of tolerance, democracy, and the rule of law, with which we probably all agree, does not appear to generate sufficient energy to strip extremism of its allure, or to transform lives and build a community,” he warned. There was a need for “narratives capacious enough to permit development and to accommodate new themes. . . This is urgent, because there are many seductive narratives in the marketplace offering a home and a cause for the bored or disaffected. You cannot exorcise the satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum.”
He continued: “Our contemporary world is dominated by technology, systems, and machines, and needs to rediscover its heart. If we want to avoid moving into a new Ice Age of humanity, sterile and tedious, then we must seek to give more weight to reasons of the heart.”
There were warnings from other bishops about materialism. But this critique was itself subject to scrutiny by the Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, Dr Gregor Duncan, who noted a tendency to dismiss Christmas lights and attractions as “tinselly trivia, utterly unrelated to the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas”.
“Christians have no business being sniffy about people’s desire at a dark time of the year to enjoy light and warmth, to shop, to party, to enjoy one another,” he argued. “We should have the imagination to sense that, however vaguely, this is a very natural and very human reaching-out for something better that lies beyond the often dark and grim realities of the world we live in — and, God knows, they are dark enough.” But these celebrations should “point us towards another light”.
Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, were among the political upheavals observed by the bishops. The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, described it as the year of “You couldn’t make it up”.
“In some places, there has been an ugly turning-in, with backs turned against those who don’t fit the image people choose to value,” the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said. “However, turning-in is not the same as looking inside.”
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, argued that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism were “best seen as a reaction to the actual and global triumph of Western civilisation”. Anti-Semitism was an “equally barbaric threat to our civilisation”. Looking forward to a Holy Land pilgrimage, he said that it was “perfectly possible” to pass from Israel to Bethlehem, and other “biblical sites which are in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority”. The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, in his sermon, said that Bethlehem “feels like an open-air prison surrounded by a security wall which cuts people off from their land and their hope”.
Amid references to many social ills, at home and abroad, and including violence in prisons, loneliness, anxiety linked to social media, and the “misery” caused by strikes (the latter noted by the Bishop of Guildford,the Rt Revd Andrew Watson), bishops spoke of light and hope.
Archbishop Welby had seen God’s glory “among those on the edge”. The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, thanked his diocese for taking up the call to speak more about Jesus. There was new life to celebrate for the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who welcomed his first grandchild this year. The Bishop of Rochester spoke of God “at our side now and for eternity”.
“This could be the period at the end of this troubling year when the news of the birth of the Christ-child goes viral, and gives fresh hope to a suffering world,” Bishop Chartres said.