*** DEBUG END ***

Angela Tilby: Can nativity performance be a prelude to priesthood?  

15 December 2023


IN HIS memoir Touching Cloth (Bantam Press) (Books, 24 March), the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie recalls that he was once cast as the innkeeper in his school nativity play. Mischievously, he then speculates about whether a casting in this seasonal drama might be a marker of a later destiny. Perhaps his ministry as a parish priest is the outcome of his having once run the inn at Bethlehem.

School nativity plays are said to be getting less common, as society drifts away from Christian faith; but they are still popular, even when — as they sometimes do today — they include characters such as Barbie and Superman, who never appeared in the original.

I remember being entranced by the nativity play at our girls’ school, which I watched for several years before being old enough to take part. The script was unusual, in that it began with the opening of the stage curtains just a few feet to reveal an elderly personage. This was the prophet Isaiah, who wore a long glued-on beard and foretold what was to come.

We then watched Gabriel appearing to Mary, and Mary and Joseph setting out from Bethlehem. We joined the shepherds abiding in their fields, and followed the wise men following the star. At the end, however, there was another innovation: the angel Gabriel stood on a chair and proclaimed words from Revelation about the new heaven and the new earth.

When pupils in my year were old enough to take part, I was cast as a page to the third king. In the event, however, I was so overcome with nerves that I took to my bed feeling sick. Fr Butler-Gallie might have interpreted this, correctly, as a tendency to perpetual performance anxiety. I have never missed a gig since then, but I still have to fight my nerves every time I speak in public.

The next year, my best friend was cast as Joseph, because she was tall. She and her even taller husband later produced four tall daughters. The girl who played Gabriel went on to become an academic, well-known for her research on Shakespeare. And it fell to me to play the part of Isaiah, starting the performance with the words “Out of the mist of years, I, Isaiah come before you. . .”

At this point, your columnist takes a bow; for Fr Butler-Gallie would surely see this as foretelling a vocation to proclaim scripture in public — something that most clergy do rather a lot. Prophecy fulfilled.

But it gets more complex as our society changes. A friend has told me of a nativity play in a school in her parish, in which Mary was ill at the last minute, and a small Muslim boy volunteered to take the part, which he did, with great devotion and to great acclaim. I wonder what Fr Butler-Gallie would make of that, or what has happened to that boy.

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

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 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


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

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.)