Christmas is a time for the church to provide a range of services. No pun intended

There are daunting challenges for the church at this time of year, says Lucy Winkett

Despite pronouncements from successive archbishops on subjects ranging from sharia law to wonga.com, it remains the case that the festival of Christmas and the run-up to it is the main chance the church has to make its way into the consciousness of the UK population, most of whom live their lives without reference to organised religion.

The church at this time of year provides a range of services (no pun intended). On a day when most restaurants are shut and the city homeless are gathered in large hangars for a meal with Crisis at Christmas, many churches serve lunch for those who can’t or won’t be with family on the day. Last year, here at St James’s Piccadilly, we cooked for about 30 people, some of them street homeless guests (“I don’t like going to the big things – too crowded”), some lonely or at a loose end, some deliberately wanting to be with people they didn’t know. It was our first attempt and now, of course, with the zeal of converts, our culinary ambition knows no bounds. It’s possible this year we will be attempting Delia’s roast potatoes, Jamie’s roast squash, Nigel’s roast goose and, well, Heston’s roast ice cream. Perhaps our best accolade was the comment from one couple who’d stumbled across us, not intending to have lunch with us at all until the last minute, who left after the washing-up, with their paper hats still on, telling us cheerfully they felt as if they’d been in an episode of Rev.

See you next year . . .

For vicars, Christmas is understandably busy, although sometimes standing at the church door at 1am while departing worshippers say cheerily “See you next year!” can be a little dispiriting. But there are daunting challenges for the church at this season: to resist the hysterical commercialism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday while working to support people trying to make a living; to resist the anxiety-provoking perfectionism of endless cookery programmes while having fun and encouraging communal meals; and in the Christmas services themselves, to make sure the familiarity of the Victorian carols doesn’t lull the congregation into a nostalgia-fest that renders religion just a spiritualised version of “things ain’t what they used to be”.

As an Anglican priest, I am under no illusion about the general level of indifference to the reality of the life of the Church of England. But it’s almost as if, Doctor Who-like, at Christmas, a fissure opens up in the universe: a tear appears in the thin fabric that separates the institutional Church from the majority. For reasons they sometimes can hardly articulate, people who usually don’t want anything to do with church rock up on Christmas Eve, usually having taken a little Dutch courage, to check if it’s all the same as it was last time they came. And they’re very welcome.

Let there be light

As the nights have well and truly drawn in, we are on a drive to join the London Diocese’s excellent Shrinking the Footprint campaign. So we walk around our Wren church remembering the days of candlelight and gas lamps and wondering how many bulbs need replacing. We’ve set the boiler at 19° and try to assure visitors, congregation and concert hirers that we are not meaning to make their world colder and darker, but are just being sensible about our energy use.

Yet this can go too far. I discover that electricians have fitted movement sensors to the new LED lights in the ceiling of my study. In a large team meeting, at particularly tense moments, we are all plunged into darkness until someone close to the coffee table twitches violently to switch the lights back on again. I ask for the sensors to be removed.

Singing in the right spirit

Another evening, another carol concert. This time with the stunning tenor Noah Stewart from the United States, who raises the roof with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. And it’s not often I stand in our pulpit and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, please give a very warm welcome to Pixie Lott.” I feel rather blown down by zeitgeist rather than Heilige Geist but none the worse for it.

O little town

This year at St James’s as we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, we won’t be able to forget our own experience in the real Bethlehem. In October, 20 of our congregation went to stay in Bethlehem (the Saint Gabriel Hotel, no less), where we met inspirational Palestinians and Israelis who are trying to change a situation that often looks hopeless. So, in response to a request from Christian leaders in the Holy Land to support them, and in the spirit of what many Palestinians are calling “beautiful resistance”, we will be hosting a mini festival called Bethlehem Unwrapped, including a concert with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, an art installation to represent the wall that surrounds Bethlehem, and an even­ing with the Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian partner Sami Tamimi, who are coming to cook a Middle Eastern feast in the church.

The real story of Christmas is of a refugee family made temporarily homeless, giving birth in dangerous circumstances to a baby who grew up to change the course of world history. And that the birth of Christ expresses something unutterably beautiful and redemptive about the enduring presence of God in the world. The real Christmas celebrates the divine in a humanity that is messy and miraculous, a festival by no means sanitised from the blood and sweat of the world. That’s why the real town of Bethlehem, whose ordinary residents suffer so grievously in these days, is so much in our minds this Christmas.

But my guess is that there is also a symbolic Bethlehem inside us: a holy and hidden place we approach with wonder and awe, a place of new beginnings and first loves, the place where we remember what we hoped for when we started; an uncynical and rather tender place where it’s never too late to start again. If we can find it under all the tinsel, it’s a place to revisit and, even now, reconnect with our better selves.

Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, London. Bethlehem Unwrapped runs from 23 December to 5 January. More details: bethlehem-unwrapped.org

Choristers rehearsing at St Paul's cathedral in London. Photo: Getty.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue