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

Photo: Getty
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Is Britain about to leave the European Union?

A series of bad polls have pro-Europeans panicked. Are they right?

Is this what Brexit looks like? A batch of polls all show significant movement towards a Leave vote. ORB, a phone pollster, has Leave up four points to 46 per cent, with Remain’s leave cut to four points. ICM’s online poll has Leave up three points, putting Brexit ahead of Remain by 52 per cent to 48 per cent once don’t-knows are excluded. ICM’s phone poll shows Leave up six points, a Brexit lead of three points.

That two phone polls are showing advances for Leave are particularly significant, as telephone polling has tended to show lower figures for Brexit. There is a lively debate over which method, phone or online, is likely to be more effective at predicting the referendum, although no-one knows for certain at the present time.

In any case, whether on the telephone or the Internet, the latest polls have pro-Europeans worried, and Brexiteers jubilant. Who’s right?

There are reasons to start trusting the polls, at least as far as voter ID is concerned

So far, the performances of the political parties in local elections and by-elections has been about par with what we’d expect from the polls. So the chances are good that the measures taken post-2015 election are working.

Bank holidays are always difficult

I would be deeply cautious of reading too much into three polls, all of which have been conducted over the bank holiday weekend, a time when people go out, play with their kids, get wasted or go away for a long weekend. The last set of bank holiday polls gave Ed Miliband’s Labour party  large leads, well outside the average, which tended to show the two parties neck-and-neck.

Although this time they might be more revealing than we expect

One reason why the polls got it wrong in 2015 is they talked to the wrong type of people. The demographic samples were right but they were not properly representative. (Look at it like this – if my poll includes 18 actors who are now earning millions in cinema, I may have a representative figure in terms of the total number of Britain’s millionaires – but their politics are likely to be far to the left of the average British one percenter, unless the actor in question is Tom Conti.)

Across telephone and online, the pollsters talked to people who were too politically-motivated, skewing the result: Ed Miliband’s Labour party did very well among young people for whom Thursday night was a time to watch Question Time and This Week, but less well among young people for whom Thursday is the new Friday.  The polls had too many party members and not enough party animals.

But the question no-one can answer is this: it may be that differential turnout in the European referendum means that a sample of hyper-politicos is actually a better sample than an ordinary poll. Just as the polls erred in 2015 by sampling too many political people, they may be calling the referendum wrong in having too many apolitical people.

These three polls aren’t the scariest for Remain released today

IpsosMori released a poll today, taken 15 days ago and so free from any bank holiday effect, without a referendum voting intention question, but one taking the temperature on which issues the British public believe are the most important of the day.

Far from growing more invested in the question of Britain’s European Union membership as the campaign enters its terminal phase, concern about the European Union has flatlined at 28 per cent – within the margin of error of last month’s IpsosMori survey, which put Britain at 30 per cent. The proportion who believe that it is the biggest single issue facing Britain today also remains static at 16 per cent. Evidence of the high turnout necessary to avert Brexit seems thin on the ground.

Pro-Europeans should be further worried by the identity of the groups that are concerned about the European Union. Conservative voters, the over-65s and people from social grades A (higher managerial, administrative and professional workers) and B (intermediate managerial, administrative and professional workers), are more concerned about the European Union than the national average. The only one of those three groups that is more likely to favour Remain over Leave are ABers, while Conservative voters and the over-65s are likely to vote for Brexit over the status quo.

Among the demographics who are least concerned about the European Union, the only pro-Brexit group that is significantly less concerned about EU membership than the national average are people from social grades D (semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers) to E (state pensioners, casual workers and jobseekers). The other groups that are least concerned with the European Union are people who live in urban areas and people aged from 18 to 24, the two most pro-European demographics.

The prospects of a Brexit vote are rather better than the betting odds would suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.