Lost Christmas, Lost Church?

Have you ever wondered why we do all those carol services at Christmas? Why do clergy and others run themselves ragged in the weeks and days before Christmas Day putting on services for all those different people? And who are ‘those people’, who are we aiming them at?

It’s a well known fact that more people attend church at Christmas than any other time of the year and so you’d think the carol service will be aimed at those people, those who aren’t normally there and who the church wants to make most welcome at this important time of year. BUT (there’s always a but…) the church is also full of those who faithfully attend church regularly throughout the year, even if ‘regularly’ no longer means once a week. So who’s it for and does it matter?

This Christmas, I went to two carol services at different churches, one was more traditional whilst the other was a strange mix of old and new. I left the second one wondering who it was aimed at.  It was a strange mix of traditional carols, some choral singing of less well-known songs, some modern worship songs known to the regular congregation, readings from the Bible and a talk from the vicar. It was advertised as a Carol Service yet we sang only one carol in the first half an hour. If I was a visitor I think I’d be wondering what I’d come to. I’m not suggesting that every carol service should be a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols; we need to bring things up to date and be prepared to innovate, but maybe we need to call it something else or at least be clear who we are doing it for and not try to do too much in one service.

Alan Billings in ‘Lost Church’ argues that there are a large number of the populace who see themselves as belonging to the Church of England and who are the ones who turn up at occasional festivals such as Christmas. Linda Woodhead’s research suggests something similar in noting the increasing numbers of people who only come to church at those times. The question for Billings is whether we will recognise that this group already ‘belong’ and whether we will make them feel welcome or not.

He questions the conclusions of Grace Davie who proposed that more people believed without belonging – i.e. they have some form of faith but choose not to attend a church in order to exercise it.  Instead he suggests that more people see themselves as belonging to the Church of England than we give credit for – these people see the church in a positive light and will attend at certain times of the year or for significant events or know it is there in times of crisis. It is an interesting hypothesis that seeks to recognise the parish system is still working; people see their local church as just that – ‘our church’ and the vicar as ‘our vicar’.   They may have some faith or it may be incoherent, they do not attend church regularly but they may see themselves as Christians and try to live a moral life. The church we have lost is one that caters for and understands the needs of this group.

According to Billings, we have instead focussed our energies either on believing – ensuring we sign up to a prescribed set of beliefs or on attending – supporting the faithful group who come to church regularly. This means we miss out on the third group who ‘belong’ and Billings argues they are the majority of our population. Whilst I want to take issue with some of his argument and conclusions, at the same time he makes a good point and it came into focus for me at those carol services.

For me, Christmas services have always been special and the atmosphere of the candle-light, the familiarity of the carols and the power of the nativity stories combine with memories of Christmas past and somehow draw me into the mystery of God made flesh in the Christ-child. I missed that this year. When we make the service all about believing or focus on making it more contemporary, we may fail to make welcome those very people who come because they want to remember the meaning and power of Christmas.

If we lose them at Christmas, we may have lost church as well.

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