*** DEBUG END ***

Angela Tilby: Ways to miss the point of Christmas

07 December 2018

THE Church of England’s Christmas campaign publication, FollowTheStar: A journey through the 12 Days of Christmas, has come in for some criticism because of its “literalist” approach to the Christmas story (News, 5 October). Adrian Alker, who chairs Progressive Christianity Network Britain, said that “there is no serious scholar . . . who takes the birth narratives as literal fact” (Letters, 12 October).

He has a point, but also misses the point. Of course, the birth narratives can be dissected and criticised, as can any other historical accounts. But, in Christian theology, the birth narratives are more than mere texts. They are windows on to the mystery unfolded in the Creed, the incarnation of the Word for us and for our salvation. The 12 days of Christmas are days of wonder as well as celebration.

Follow the Star seeks to reach those who come to church at Christmas but otherwise have little connection with the Christian community. It tries to make the Christmas story accessible, and perhaps to trigger some lasting response in those who might take the booklet home from, say, a carol service.

So, it tries to link the Christmas story to everyday experience. For example, the arrival of Mary and Joseph in an overcrowded Bethlehem is prefaced with: “Even with thorough and detailed travel plans, things can go wrong. It is easy to miss a flight, or find a train overbooked, or transport cancelled. Nothing new, if we read the story of Christmas.”

I think this misses the point as much as the critical approach does. Both suppose, wrongly, that what is needed to make the Christmas stories accessible is explanation. But explanation on the literal or critical level fails because the stories are not as accessible as one might think. If they were, we would perhaps have stopped repeating them. For all their familiarity, the birth narratives remain deeply strange.

My guess is that those who come to church at Christmas come for that strangeness: the enchantment of candles in the darkness, hauntingly beautiful music, and a story that points beyond both the secular and the literal; a story which can neither be debunked by its critics nor reduced to assimilable fragments by an over-anxious, fervently welcoming Church. Christmas services are simply beautiful in their strangeness, and they attract people in ways that the contemporary Church does not quite understand.

The “theology” offered in Follow the Star boils down to following Jesus and doing good in the world: discipleship and do-goodery. That’s fine, up to a point; but, for many of us, it is shallow. It misses the universalism of the Christmas story. It also misses the heart’s yearning for the otherness of the divine, the hush before the first notes of the choir, for the seeds of contemplation.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)