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

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

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