AS A priest with a regular Sunday congregation of about a dozen, I find it heartening to welcome a packed crowd of 80-plus on Christmas Eve. And then another, almost completely different, bunch of the same size, filling the pews on Christmas Day.
I don’t know who most of them are, and I know that I am unlikely to see them again until (possibly) next year. And I am not about to try to persuade them otherwise.
I can tell them that “God is for life, not just for Christmas,” but it won’t wash. A few years back, a cleric in Devon took to the pages of his parish magazine to rail at those who turned up only at Christmas or maybe Easter, saying that they were treating God “like an elderly relative of whom they were not very fond”.
These occasional visitors, he said, “go and visit him for an hour or two at Christmas, and perhaps at Easter, but they feel at liberty to ignore him for the rest of the year (unless they want something from him, of course)”.
His frustration — with what have become known as “Chreasters” — is understandable, but misplaced. In my experience, people do not come to Christmas services because they feel they have some kind of obligation to God for having sent his Son to save us from our sins — mostly, they just want to feel Christmassy. And that’s fine by me.
CHRISTMAS attendance is one of the few areas in the Church where the numbers are on the rise. In Statistics for Mission 2016, published this October, the Church of England reported that, last year, the number of churchgoers on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rose by 1.4 per cent on the previous year to 2.6 million. During Advent, 2.5 million people attended special services for the congregation and local community, and 2.8 million people attended special services for civic organisations and schools.
The viewing figures do not exactly compete with the final of Strictly Come Dancing, but they are respectable: the highest festive headcount since 2011. People in our village love midnight mass in particular, and expressed their dismay vigorously when — a couple of years ago — it was cancelled because there was no priest available to preside.
Wanting to feel Christmassy is not to be sniffed at: in fact, it is to be positively encouraged. Dr David Walker, when he was Bishop of Dudley, wrote an essay, “How Far is it to Bethlehem? Exploring the ordinary theology of occasional churchgoers”. He undertook a survey of people who attended carol services at Worcester and Lichfield Cathedrals. His findings support my own parish experience.
Christmas congregants do not believe that they are involved in a church activity so much as an event. The distinction, Dr Walker said, was that “the former carries some explicit or implicit expectation . . . that attendance on one occasion creates a commitment or obligation for future occasions. By contrast, an event stands alone; while the individual may attend a similar event, no wider contract is imputed or implied.”
THE congregants, however, are not simply spectators or audience. Although many will rarely, or never, read the Bible, or take part in private devotions, they nevertheless buy into the Christmas service — they immerse themselves in it. A large part of the attraction is the retelling of the nativity story; they relish the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the angels, and the shepherds.
Christmas services, for most of these people, need to fulfil a fairly specific brief: there should be plenty of music — in particular, traditional Christmas carols; there must be a rehearsal of the Christmas narrative (a nativity play would be best); there should be candles; and the service should be uplifting.
There will be a spectrum of attitudes to the historicity of the narrative and its theological or moral interpretations. But the Virgin birth, the presence of angels and shepherds, and the divinity of the Christchild are not deal-breakers. Instead, as Dr Walker pointed out, they want to “enter the story rather than to assent to any particular theological import”. Of those surveyed, almost two-thirds agreed that “the Christmas mystery is more important than the historical facts.”
Neil MacGregor, interviewed by Sam Wells about his Radio 4 series Living with the Gods (Features, 3 November), talked about religion as a “ritualised narrative”. This is what we are enacting in our Christmas services. We might describe it as folk religion — Dr Walker calls it “ordinary theology” — but, however we dub it, it does suggest a felt need for people to connect with our tribal stories, to plumb into a deeper, older tradition that involves ritual, history, spirituality, and morality.
ALAMY“There there should be plenty of music”: research suggests that people come to church at Christmas expecting carols
In a series of theological reflections on the birth of Jesus, Professor Elaine Graham, from the University of Chester, who is Canon Theologian at Chester Cathedral, wrote: “Christmas is not purely a religious festival, but rather a hybrid: of Christian festival — focused on birth narratives — folk religion, consumerism, pre-Christian winter festivals, post-Dickensian sentimentality, and so on.”
What Christmas services do is to blend these elements into the kind of ritual event at which religion still has the capacity, in the words of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Martyn Percy, “to provide enchantment within the modern world”. In his book The Salt of the Earth, which explores religious resilience in a secular age, he writes: “People know that there is more to life than the explicable and the visible.” It is, he says, “part of a chain of social memory that enables society to cohere”.
Professor Graham thinks that, at Christmas services, there may be “a kind of complicit negotiation under way with the original story that transforms it from the sacred sanctioned text into something that lodges more in the realm of popular affection and popular religiosity”.
The warmth, the uplift, that these services generate have even inspired atheists to recognise the human benefit of this form of religion. It is what inspired the comedian Sanderson Jones to co-found the determinedly secular Sunday Assembly (News, 11 January 2013). In a blog introducing a Winter Solstice celebration he wrote: “I really love Christmas and first thought of starting a non-religious congregation of some type when I was at a Christmas carol concert.” Having noticed the joy that it engendered, he had wondered “if it was possible to harness all those good bits to celebrate the awesome fact that we are alive”.
Another comedian, Robin Ince, the co-presenter with Professor Brian Cox of The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4, similarly thought it unfair that, at Christmas, God should have all the best tunes, and developed an alternative. “I decided that something must be done to prove that the godless enjoyed celebration as much as anyone who dwelt in pews and porches singing carols,” he wrote (Features, 21 December 2012). “I came up with ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People’ — a night that celebrates the universe and its contents with scientists, musicians, comedians, and, occasionally, hula-hoopers and tap dancers.”
Christmas has universal resonance. In his interview in the Church Times, Neil MacGregor observed: “I think that [it] is clearly very difficult for truly secular societies — which ours is in many ways becoming — to know what its shared festivals are. Christmas is very interesting in the way that it has, I think, uniquely, remained the one moment where the community thinks of itself as a community; where everybody would acknowledge that part of that is thinking about the poor, the weak, the destitute; and that is articulated through some kind of celebration — because it’s almost the only moment, as a nation, where the whole nation pauses to think about all parts of the community and the obligations that should bind it.”
Narrative, vernacular, folk, ordinary. Our nativity plays, our carol services, midnight masses, and family worship are important cultural and spiritual resources that play an important part in helping occasional churchgoers to build their world. As the American Rabbi Michael Lerner recognised: “There is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the light that gets lit in the darkest moments of the year, is beautifully symbolised by the story.”
It’s the story, stupid. Dr Walker calls it “a gateway into the mystery of God”. When people turn up at Christmas, they come in hope that they will be transported, that their spirits will be lifted. They are hungry beggars wanting to be fed. Not for ever. Just now.
We have a banquet for the taking, and — like the convener of the great feast in the Gospels — we should demonstrate largesse. It does not mean expecting people to have this plenty rationed out over the course of a year. If they get a taste for this, and want more, then fine. In the mean time, let’s just give the folk religion.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.