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Beware of Christmas family-olatry

09 December 2016

I THINK it may be an apocryphal story, but I heard recently of a new curate who expected Christmas Day to be a day off — after all, she said: “Christmas is family time.”

The story is not as unlikely as it might seem. I definitely knew of an ordinand who was horrified to discover that he was expected to attend a “placement” church during his training, instead of his “sending” church, where his wife and children worshipped, because “Sundays are family time”.

Christmas’s falling on a Sunday this year is bound to be awash with family services. I have heard of clergy cancelling the regular eight o’clock, on the grounds that they should be with their families at the start of Christmas Day, and anyone wanting to come to church should surely want to come to a lively Christmas family service rather than BCP holy communion.

I find this attitude mean and rather unimaginative; not everyone wants to worship on Christmas Day in a blast of shouts, tears, and silly hats. Family worship, it seems, can tip over quite easily at this time of year into worship of the family.

It was not always so. Theresa May remembers not getting any presents until the evening of Christmas Day because her father, the Vicar of Wheatley, spent Christmas afternoon visiting his flock. Thirty years ago, it was accepted that the parish came first at Christmas; clergy families just had to cope with an absent, then exhausted, father.

Clergy and ministers today often seem to buy into a view of the family that is difficult to justify from the gospels. The reasons are obvious: gender equality forbids any privileging of either parent’s working commitments; working lifestyles are so frenetic and burdensome that Christmas is jealously guarded as protected space; children’s expectations that their parents will be present and focused exclusively on them are ramped up by advertising and social media.

There is also perhaps a prophylactic motive: everyone is aware at Christmas of broken and unhappy families, and this sharp recognition encourages extra protectiveness in this most delicate of seasons.

Clergy and other ministers work hard — often too hard — and it is understandable that they might look forward to the end of the last service, and the first delicious gulp of gin or sip of prosecco. But Christmas is the one festival of the year that still speaks to outsiders, as it does to those who believe in the Christian faith but rarely attend church. We should not buy into family-olatry, but be actively seeking those who might be alienated by family jollities (especially in church) but still long to hear the good news of Christ’s birth.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

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