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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Ariana and the Arianators: "We really are like a family"

The pop star provides her fans with a chance to express themselves joyfully - their targeting was grimly predictable.

Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May began like any other. Children and teenagers streamed through the doors wearing pink T-shirts, rubber wristbands and animal ears (one of Grande’s signature looks). They screamed when she came on stage and they sang along with every song. It was only once the music had ended, and the 20,000-strong audience began to leave the venue, that the horror began – with a bomb detonated at the main entrance.

The show was just one date on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona in February, moved across the United States and Europe, and had stops scheduled for South America, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since the Manchester attack, Grande has suspended the tour indefinitely.)

Since releasing her debut album in 2013, Grande has successfully transitioned from teen idol to fully fledged pop star (all three of her studio albums have sold over a million each) with a combination of baby-faced beauty and Mariah Carey-style, breathy vocals. Her most popular records are bubblegum pop with a Nineties R’n’B influence, a combination also expressed in her fashion choices: Nineties grunge meets pastel pinks.

She entered the limelight at 16 on the children’s TV programme Victorious, which ran on the Nickelodeon channel, pursuing her musical ambitions by performing the show’s soundtracks. Many of the young people who grew up watching her as the red-haired arts student Cat Valentine on Victorious would become fans of her pop career – or, as they call themselves, the Arianators.

As she outgrew her child-star status, Grande’s lyrics became more sexually suggestive. Recent songs such as “Side to Side” and “Everyday” are more explicit than any of her previous hits. She has repeatedly insisted that young women should be able to speak openly about sex and feel empowered, not objectified.

“Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” she tweeted in December. “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

Grande also has a reputation as something of a gay icon. She has advertised her records on the gay dating app Grindr, headlined shows at Pride Week in New York, and released a single and a lipstick to raise money for LGBTQ charities.

Cassy, a 19-year-old film student and fan, told me the fanbase is “made mostly of young women from 14-23, but I run into guys and non-binary fans all the time.”

“It’s pretty well known that Ariana has got a LGBTQ+ fan base. She’s so outspoken about it and that’s what draws us to her. Because she’s accepting of everyone, no matter who you are.”

Like many child actresses-turned-pop star, Grande has a fan base skewed towards the young and female: teenage and pre-teen girls are by far the majority of her most dedicated supporters. A writer on the Phoenix New Times described the typical Ariana Grande crowd as “pre-tween, tweens, teens, young gay (and fabulous) men, moms with cat ears, and multiple candidates for father of the year”. The Arianators form tight-knit groups on social media. I spoke to several over Twitter after the attack.

Arena concerts, which often have more relaxed age restrictions than nightlife venues, have long been a safe space for children, young people and teenage girls. They provide a secure place for concert-goers to dress up, experiment, play with burgeoning sexualities, dance, scream and cry: to flirt with an adult life still slightly out of reach. Glitter-streaked tears stream down the unapologetic faces of fans touched by an emotion bigger than themselves. It is appalling, if grimly predictable, to see children, teenage girls and young gay men targeted by agents of regressive ideologies for expressing themselves so joyfully. On 23 May, Isis claimed the attack.

Andréa, a 17-year-old fan from France, told me about her first experience of a Grande concert. “It was incredible,” she said. “Everyone was so kind, excited and happy. We really are like a family.”

The fans are devastated by Monday’s bombing. Thousands of messages appeared on social media to commemorate those who lost their lives. “As an Arianator,” Alexandre, aged 16, told me, “I’m really sad and I’m scared.”

“We’re all taking it really hard,” Cassy said. “We’re a family and we lost 22 members of that family last night.”

Ariana began her gig in Manchester with the song that has opened every night of her current tour: “Be Alright”. In it, she repeatedly reassures the crowd, “We’re gonna be all right.” It’s a phrase that her fans are clinging to after the attack. So, too, are the lyrics of “Better Days”, by Grande and her support act Victoria Monét, which was also performed the night of the explosion. “There’s a war right outside our window,” the words go. “I can hear the sirens . . ./I can hear the children crying . . ./I’m hoping for better days . . .”

“It’s hit us all very hard because we’ve lost some of our own,” said one Arianator who runs a popular Twitter account about the tour. “People we interacted with on a daily basis. People that just wanted to have a night of fun. These are dark times, but we are looking forward to better days.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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