I am an Anglican. This means that I am no stranger to empty pews, ancient prayer books thick with dust, the quiet tremor of a congregation a mere dozen strong, headed by a priest dragged out of retirement.
It is for this reason that Christmas is a season I find especially exciting. The Church of England estimates that its congregations triple over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. At my home cathedral in Gloucester, the nave and aisles are packed to the rafters and the carols are roared out at incredible volume, the voices of hundreds intermingling with the rising incense.
Anglican though I may be, I am no fool. I know that the majority of those around me will melt away as quickly as they arrived, and by Epiphany, 6 January, it will be back to what we in the Church have come to accept as ‘normal’ as many other denominations do. Having said that, I am not interested in wasting characters lamenting the current situation – it is what it is, for good or for bad. The Christmas sermon may be the most theologically valid, scripturally sound, passionately delivered of a priest’s career, but the truth is the majority of ears on which it falls are, at least spiritually, deaf.
This leaves the clergy with the difficult conundrum. How is the nativity of Christ supposed to be explained to ensure that the greatest number of people in these annual congregations are left with a message that both connects with them and encourages them to do the greatest ‘good’ possible? There is little value in trying to strike a childlike, God-fearing awe with a verbal fresco describing choirs of angels and lowly shepherds when it is uncertain how many people listening believe such a phenomenon even happened. There is still less in preaching about the unconditional absolution of sin when the audience is divided on what ‘sin’ means, if it and its consequences even exist. The promise of a “New Covenant”, or the astounding notion that God would humble Himself to be a man would be disseminated equally in vain.
However, there is one aspect of Christ which is closer to home, both in comprehension and relevance. The congregations at Christmas may be lacking in spiritual vigour or zeal for ‘The Faith’, but they are never short of fairness, generosity and a keen sense of altruism towards their fellow human being. They, like millions of others of all faiths or none, are moved by the food bank collection boxes in their supermarkets or the Salvation Army bands on their streets. They open their newspapers and are disgusted by the exorbitant bonus packages still being doled out in the City whilst, but a few miles away, there are hardworking families on the verge of starvation as their welfare payments are slashed without moderation. They see a Parliament that disproportionately consists of the wealthy and privileged, upholding a system which betrays all but the richest and blames the vulnerable, the poor and the foreigner for its failings.
In fact, they are just the sort of people who would connect with a man who, born into an ordinary family (Mark 6) in a society of staggering inequality that was presided over by an arrogant ruling class, rose to fame by defending the oppressed and ostracised (Matthew 5). A man who challenged those who claimed overlordship and their hypocrisy (Matthew 13). A man who advocated fair taxation (Luke 19) and a love that bridged even the most acrimonious national and racial boundaries (Luke 10). A man whose divine nature may be debatable, but whose radical and progressive outlook on social justice and equality is not. It just so happens that that man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the centrepiece of the Christmas nativity.
Herein lies the opportunity for the Church to connect with the greatest number of people in their Christmas congregations, the majority of whom will not be present for another year. The clergy should not draw an untraversable dividing line between the faithful and the doubtful by preaching to the unconverted about an incomprehensible divine mystery that will impress few. Instead, they should aim to emphasise the Christmas nativity not as the arrival of the Son of God but the birth of an activist for justice who challenged prejudice and a system of scandalous iniquity. It is through this way over any other that the Church can reinvent the traditional Christmas narrative for the 21st century, a century in which we may not feel it necessary that we turn our eyes to the heavens, but in which it is absolutely essential that we turn our eyes to the plight of our fellow humans.