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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Tim Farron: We must not let racists hijack the EU referendum result

The Liberal Democrat leader says in an IPPR speech that "Britain is better" than "Farage, Le Pen and their ilk". 

Like so many people, I felt shocked and emotional about the result of the vote on 23 June.
 
I know many people who wept at the news.
 
I can understand that.​
 
Not because I love the specific institutions of the European Union, but because I feel European.
 
I also feel British. And English.
 
And northern.  And I don’t feel any conflict between those identities, in fact they reinforce each other.
 
But the result seemed to throw this balance into doubt.
 
And yes, I also felt angry.
 
I still feel angry now, but perhaps for a different reason.
 
Because never in recent history have we, in the political classes, let down the people of this country so disastrously.
 
And I make no distinction here between those who voted to Remain and those who voted to Leave.
 
They were battered with dodgy statistics. From both sides.
 
They were lied to.
 
On both sides too – though it is the NHS and the £350 million that particularly sticks in the throat.
 
And worse than that.
 
They were misled by lackadaisical politicians, playing games, who had campaigned for years to leave the EU – but hadn’t bothered to come up with a plan about what to do if it happened.
 
We, the political classes, have left a country bitterly divided as a result.
 
Between parents and children, families, neighbours.
 
Between the nations of our own union, who have worked and fought together for centuries.
 
Between us and our continental neighbours.
 
And now the biggest danger of them all.
 
That because of those divisions, we are in danger of letting malevolent forces hijack the result.
 
Plenty of my mates voted leave and I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of those who did vote leave are utterly appalled that Farage, Le Pen and their ilk now seek to claim the result as a victory for their hateful brand of intolerance, racism and insularity.  Britain is better than that.
 
But I’m not so blinded by those emotions that I don’t see the new divisions that are opening up between us.
 
New political boundaries which chop the old certainties of Tory and Labour into little pieces.
 
Because there’s a new battle emerging.
 
Between the forces of tolerant liberalism and intolerant, closed-minded nationalism.
 
And, of course, you know that, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, which side I’m on.
 
But I also know what side most people in this country are on too.
 
In the 48 per cent and also in the 52 per cent.
 
So let’s be clear about this.
 
I am absolutely committed to the cause of an open-minded, open-hearted United Kingdom.
 
United in every sense of the word.
 
Because, as Jo Cox said, we have more in common with each other in this country than what divides us. 
 
And, yes, I campaigned my heart out to stay a member of the European Union. And would do again given the chance.
 
But a nation divided against itself can’t stand.
 
Nor can it hammer out a way forward from the current impasse.
 
And our combined history cries out for some more inspiring political leadership.
 
Which can say that, in or out, we remain an open-minded, outward-looking nation.
 
Which can say, in or out, we will be European and British and from our own towns, villages and cities.
 
And be proud of all of them.
 
Which can say to those from other countries who have committed their lives alongside us in the UK: we will stand by you, no matter what.
 
Let me just say that again.
 
We will stand by you.
 
As we stood by each other across Europe in the Second World War.
 
We will stand by you, who have chosen British communities to live in.
 
Not only that but we need you.
 
If the tens of thousands of people who make it possible to run our schools and health service were to worry about our commitment to them...
 
So much so that it threatens their commitment to us...
 
It would seriously undermine services that are used by some of the most vulnerable people in this country.
 
The Conservative and Labour parties may have so forgotten themselves that they’ve missed this urgent consideration.
 
But we haven’t.
 
So I make this absolute promise.
 
To use what power we can muster, to make sure that those who have committed their lives and families to this country will be protected.
 
That no kneejerk populism will be allowed to threaten them or uproot them.
 
And I ask now all the many candidates for high positions in Westminster to join me in this undertaking.
 
I don’t just say this as the leader of a political party.
 
I don’t just commit my own party to this.
 
I speak as a Member of Parliament in one of the most open-hearted nations on earth.
 
I speak as a proud citizen of this country.
 
We will not stand by to let Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen dictate our policy, our direction, or our morality.
 
So, yes, I campaigned to remain.  I’ll carry on campaigning to remain.
 
But we have gone beyond June’s referendum now.
 
There are more fundamental, more urgent issues that we must face today.
 
Existential issues about our nation.
 
About what they’re saying about us in the rest of the planet.
 
The newspapers.
 
The investors.
 
About protecting neighbours and friends born in other countries from hate.
 
So, yes, I recognise and understand the motivations of many of those who voted the other way to me.
 
I’m a white, working class, middle aged, northern male.  By voting remain, I pretty much confounded the predicted behaviour my demographic might suggest!  And for once it put me at odds with lots of the people I grew up with. 
 
Who are as proud as I am about the same things I’m proud of in our country.
 
I understand their fears for their own communities.
 
I completely get why being talked down to by Cameron and Osborne, threatened with a ‘punishment budget’ might push even the most internationalist person to vote leave! 
 
And nobody ever said the European Union was perfect. Least of all me.
 
Its aspiration of peace and co-operation in Europe is vitally important.
 
It still is.
 
But I’m aware that the reality of the EU can often be inflexible.
 
I understand that people’s liberal commitment to local communities, which I absolutely share, sometimes led them to vote differently to me.
 
I understand those who voted for Brexit and their frustration about the way that the big banks were allowed to torpedo the economy.
 
And torpedo so many people’s lives.
 
Without sanction. Without even a loss of bonuses.
 
While those who have tried to make a more tangible contribution their whole lives, have been sidelined, bullied and left behind.
 
I understand that, possibly better than any other leader.  Because whilst South Lakeland voted remain, it was the only place in Lancashire or Cumbria that did.  And I grew up in and I belong to the very part of British society that most heavily voted leave. 
 
And yes I understand their fears that their communities have been changed. Maybe even overwhelmed.
 
Not so much to satisfy Brussels, but specifically to reduce the wages of the big food manufacturers. 
 
Or the cleaning contractors.
 
Or the care homes.
 
Because what June’s vote did reveal, above everything else, is how angry people have become.
 
And though we might argue about the reasons for it, their anger is justified.
 
We have banking institutions that have let them down, suffocating their businesses.
 
We have an economic policy that favours the rich over everyone else, middle class, working class alike.
 
We have a housing crisis that’s consuming our children.
 
We have a Treasury so cut off from reality that they urged people not to vote for Brexit – because it might mean property prices would rise more slowly.
 
As if people weren’t struggling now to get a foot on the housing ladder.
 
To help their children scrape enough together to rent a place of their own.
 
We have people treated like cattle with zero-hour contracts.
 
We have those who worked as pillars of their community all their lives...
 
Running small businesses.
 
Managing farms...
 
Making a difference...
 
Only to see themselves gazumped by salaries ten or a hundred times as much by cash-hungry bankers in their twenties.  The devastation of our communities n the Lakes overwhelmed by excessive second home ownership is a case in point.
 
In short, we have an underlying, aching discomfort which goes to the heart of the reasons for the immediate crisis.
 
More than a discomfort.
 
It is a great and abiding fear, gnawing away at the heart of our society.
 
And we have a political class, which I don’t particularly like having to accept I’m a member of, which has abandoned people disastrously to their fate.
 
I believe that, in the national interest, we remainers and brexiters can most of us understand the motivations of voters on the other side to us.
 
We’re able to see beyond the stereotypes.
 
And to say together.
 
This open-minded nation will survive.
 
It will survive because these Liberal values are shared by so many of us. 
 
The right to say ‘this is who I am’. ‘This is who we are’.
 
And the enterprising commitment to challenge the big bureaucracies and the big businesses from below.
 
That’s why we will defend people wherever they came from originally.
 
Those who were born and bred here who are locked out of success by boneheaded cuts in adult education.
 
But also the Polish families who have work three jobs just to pay the rent, but who still help to run the school fete.
 
And the refugees who provide lynchpins to hospital after hospital from one side of the country to the other.
 
Right across the nation, and woven together, from Cornwall to Caithness.
 
Again, I say this not just as a party leader.
 
I don’t just say this to commit my party to it.
 
I say it as a proud citizen of this country.
 
With a shared history that’s always been outward-looking.
 
Connected through trade to other corners of the world in a way that no nation ever was before.
 
We provided the international language of the world.
 
We led the world in industrial development, moral development and scientific development.
 
And we stood up against tyranny even when it didn’t threaten us directly.
 
When all over Europe, those suffering under occupation, risked their lives to huddle around their wirelesses to listen to broadcasts from London.
 
There never was a moment in our history when we pulled up the drawbridge.
 
There never will be.
 
It just isn’t true that Britain voted to do that.
 
So that’s also my commitment as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
 
To listen to that fear and take it seriously. 
 
And then to hammer out and enact a more humane, more successful, more effective way of doing economics.
 
More challenging, more enterprising and more ambitious.
 
Which shares the rewards of success so that the state doesn’t have to step in so much.
 
To take on the real vested interests that hold us back as a nation.
 
The zero hour contractors.
 
The speculators.
 
The monopolists.
 
Those who would hijack people’s anger for their own racist agenda.
 
So that we can shape a fairer nation.
 
But also keep those outward-looking British values of tolerance and mutual respect that we all believe in.
 
Because there are going to be difficult, maybe dark, times ahead.
 
We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad.
 
We’ve had to watch the shaming pictures of Nigel Farage sneering on our behalf in the European Parliament.
 
We have to find a solution when both the biggest national parties have preferred to unravel than to take a lead.
 
But I’m a Liberal.
 
I believe in people.
 
And I especially believe in our people.
 
In their sense and their humanity, whether they voted to stay or to go.
 
People have been let down for decades by short-termist politicians who put the needs of one part of society above the rest.
 
Now, in the wake of the Brexit vote those divisions are more exposed than ever before.
 
With our country facing huge challenges…
 
– from inequality and injustice to an NHS in crisis and an economy in jeopardy –
 
…we are left with a reckless, divisive and uncaring Conservative Government and Labour fighting among themselves with no plan for the economy or the country.
 
That’s why the Liberal Democrats are needed more than ever.
 
We are the real voice of opposition to the Conservative Brexit Government and the only party fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.
 
Britain is the most sophisticated and welcoming and innovative nation in the world and, in or out, we will stay that.
 
And we Liberal Democrats will do whatever we can, in Parliament and outside.
 
To reshape the way the nation works, to bring it back together.
 
To stay civilised. 
 
To stay united.
 
Because, wherever we were born, we love our country.​
 

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.