Light in the darkness: a woman lights a candle at church in Istanbul, Christmas Eve 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Reverend Richard Coles: Despite the relentless consumerism, Christmas still has the power to give us hope

In spite of retail frenzy, the gratuitous use of glitter and our attempts to reconcile irreconcilable family, we perceive in the darkness a light shining, tiny and vulnerable but inextinguishable.

Out and about lately, people have been stopping me and talking about those awful scenes of consumer frenzy on Black Friday, bewailing the lack of Christmas spirit – sad face – and appealing to me for some kind of ecclesiastical endorsement of their seasonal rectitude. But I don’t want to give it. First, it’s not Christmas, it’s Advent, in which anxiety and challenge are principal themes; second, because Christ was born into a world of human reality, of strife and competition and acquisitiveness and the meanness of spirit with which we look down on those whose behaviour we deplore without much effort to understand it, a fact very often overlooked in a secular world that fancies my world offers a cosy mulled-wine-and-candlelight refuge from the harsh realities that the braver and wiser endure.

It is a season of peculiar shifts of mood and tone. Carol services start earlier and earlier – this year I hearkened to the herald angels and looked out on the Feast of St Stephen before World Aids Day (1 December) – and I expect by the time we get to Midnight Mass the evergreen appeal of carols may have wilted a little.

But that’s just the soundtrack. Far more challenging is the sheer arbitrariness of human misadventure, rising and falling without any regard for calendar or occasion. Since I have been ordained, I have never had a Christmas without a bereavement, the onset of winter a time when the incidence of death rises as nights draw in and the temperature drops and Christmas adverts and episode 12 of Strictly finally persuade the dying that perhaps they’ve had enough. I have gone from a church Christingle service, still chewing a Jelly Tot, to a deathbed; from children holding candles in anticipation of the birth of Christ to a husband holding the hand of his wife in anticipation of her imminent death. This is just how it is.

At my first Christmas in my first parish, one of my colleagues took me down to the meanest street on the meanest estate, where life could be very dark sometimes, to see two houses side by side in competition for the most extravagant Christmas display in town. Santas climbed up chimneys, reindeer scampered along rooftops, snowmen waved from frost-fringed windows, the whole street glittering in brilliant hues, all hooked up illegally to the municipal power supply.

“Visible from fookin’ space,” said one of the kids in our Sunday school who joined us there. I knew how tough life on that estate could be, thanks to heroin and poverty and generational unemployment and the way that many were beyond the margins of luckier people’s sympathy and concern. So this irresponsible, illegal and non-risk-assessed display lifted all our hearts.

My favourite festive illumination, however, was not on the estate but on a house on one of the roads leading out of town. At first sight there was nothing very different about it: Rudolph and pals pulled Santa’s sleigh merrily along, streamers of white lights dripped from the eaves and a Christmas tree stood twinkling in the window. But it decorated the gatehouse to the cemetery and every solemn cortège that passed through that Christmas was waved at by a jolly Santa as it slowed down for the crem. I often wondered: what went through the minds of mourners who were greeted by such a festive ensemble as they dabbed at their eyes in grief – or was it hilarity?

There was a funeral in church last week, as the Advent candle burned, of a young woman who was coming here to be married but died a week before the wedding. Her partner and their children, surrounded by wedding presents, had to plan a funeral instead. On the day, her bridesmaids came in their dresses, her groom in his suit, her son in his Sunday best; and her daughter, the flower girl, scattered petals on the way to her grave rather than to the altar.

The funeral service and the marriage service come quite close together in the church manual but finding a way of using the forms of words and ceremony without it jarring so much that it becomes facetious or meaningless is a challenge. There are readings that are suitable for both weddings and funerals, the 13th chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians among them, so words that would have been heard at the wedding were heard at the funeral: “Faith, hope and love, abide these three: but the greatest of these is love.”

We know them so well, even when chapter and verse are no longer known, that they slip by barely catching our attention, their familiarity robbing them of the distinctive power that made them familiar in the first place. They are powerful not because they capture some whimsical fancy, a Romantic trope that pleases us, but because they capture an irreducibly weird paradox: that at the moment of most devastating loss people may still find a wholly unexpected assurance that what is lost is not lost but preserved in a reality beyond this reality that lies beyond the furthest horizon of human joy and suffering and waits for us like dawn on the edge of a black night.

That is still intimated for many at this time of the year, when, in spite of retail frenzy, the gratuitous use of glitter, our attempts to reconcile irreconcilable family and that pimped-up version of “Jingle Bells” I had to endure at a hotel breakfast the other day, curdling my Christmas spirit so much I nearly pushed the tree over – in spite of all these, we perceive in the darkness a light shining, tiny and vulnerable but inextinguishable, and in its radiance a hope, undiminished by years and experience, is revealed once again. Whoever you are, wherever you are, of whatever faith or of none: may you find joy and peace and enduring love. 

Richard Coles is the author of “Fathomless Riches: or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496