Thinking Anglicans

Private feast, or public festival?

Talking to a young Nigerian woman this week, I asked her what she thought of the approach to Christmas in our part of east London, and how British celebrations contrasted with those in her home country. ‘It’s very quiet,’ she said. ‘In Nigeria, there would be people out dancing and singing, wherever you go.’ There’s a climate issue here, of course. As I write, the rain pours down out of grey skies, and shoppers scurry along the high street, heads down under their umbrellas. Any carol singers, let alone dancers, aren’t going to receive much notice.

There’s also an underlying question about the balance of public and private in our observance of the festivities. We lead our public life in the run-up to Christmas (and in the days immediately afterwards) on the high streets and in shopping centres and retail parks. Those are our places of encounter with the stranger, with those who are in some way not ‘ours’. We all share in the queue for the till, we compete for the bargain or for access to the mirror, we mutter apologies as we take each other’s space. Occasionally we will pause together, our attention taken by some religious, civic, or commercial offering for general consumption: the Salvation Army band or a school choir if we are lucky, the mall grotto or recorded carols and a mechanical Father Christmas if we are not.

There are halfway houses between this public life and the privacy of the home. They are the places where we are part of an extended group, drawn together by common interest which takes us beyond the domestic circle. Parents and carers gather for the school nativity play; we still have very traditional nativity plays in multi-cultural East Ham. For those who work together, there is the office Christmas party, or its substitute. Every club, be it Rotary, bowls, line dancing or the Women’s Institute, will have its Christmas do.

When it comes to Christmas Day, however, the gears change. Just look at the TV advertisements: Christmas is a private event which happens in a purely domestic setting and is just for family, or at most for friends so close that they replace family. We close down, retire behind our front doors, and hide, safe from the threat of the unfamiliar. Even the pattern of churchgoing increasingly conforms. For all but the hard core, the religious bit of Christmas is something to be got out of the way before the day itself. Crib services and Christingles on Christmas Eve are the great growth area, especially for the very occasional or once a year churchgoers; and even for the faithful and observant, Midnight Mass means that church is done virtually before the feast day begins. We, too, have our ‘common interest’ event before the festival.

Does this domestication have its roots in the Reformation, with Luther’s reinvention of the family as the location of everyday holiness, and the loss of the Catholic tradition of the public and communal? Are we re-engaging with the domesticity of the Jewish Sabbath? Does it derive from the breakdown of shared culture in a post-industrial and multi-cultural society? Can we blame this, too, on late capitalist consumerism?

Whatever the underlying reasons for this pattern, it is worth noting that the most significant group for whom Christmas is experienced in public, as a time of consorting with strangers in a place not their own, are those who have no home, or for whom there is no family provision. The centres provided by Crisis, the church and charity Christmas lunches for the elderly and lonely, these are the places of the non-domestic, unprivatised Christmas.

When I get home after morning service on Christmas Day, like most clergy I shall shut the door with relief, and relax in the company of my family. But niggling somewhere will be a question about the contrast between that pleasurable experience and the story of good news announced noisily and very publicly with a choir of angels and a star, and a stable whose door seemed to be perpetually open to those who wanted to come and see.

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Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

There’s a feast that I have called Eksmaween. It begins officially at sundown on American Thanksgiving, and ends at sundown on December 24. It actually begins several weeks before the “official” start date, all the same. It has its roots in Christmas, and claims some of the same symbolism as Christmas, but it is dedicated to the worship of Mammon. It has also co-opted some of the symbols of Hallowe’en. Indeed, in many stores in North America, Eksmaween decorations include pumkins, trees, reindeer, ghouls, witches, elves, etc. I have the pictures to prove it. It would appear that the celebrations… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
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Pat O'Neill

Ford:

I know exactly what you mean. I work in retail and it seems each holiday gets pushed on us a little earlier each year. This year, we had Christmas stuff on display before Halloween actually happened…and it was actually shipped to us just after Labor Day (first Monday of September for you non-USians).

I once joked to one of our managers that we should just start selling jack-o-lanterns with Santa hats.

Pluralist
Guest

When the budget is nearest zero as possible, as mine is, with all relatives informed, there is no public run up, and when you live alone, as I do, there is no private gathering either. As for the churches, they have Advent to hold off Christmas, and when everyone has packed up the churches go on and on, as with Epiphany. I give this season my minimum attention. I’m further having a phase of being non-communicant, to see which (in terms of involvement) is closest to being me.

Cynthia Gilliatt
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Cynthia Gilliatt

The beer manufacturers in the US have turned Halloween into a major adult drinking occasion, especially on college campuses. Ditto St. Paddy’s. Some years ago my late employer began, at the behest fo the state, to give assessment tests to students in the spring term to makr general academic progress, The scores were pretty good until for one year, the administration chose the day after St. P’s for the assessments – DOWN went the scores from hung-over students.

Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

“we should just start selling jack-o-lanterns with Santa hats.” That’s the thing, stores here do. I went to one last year and brazenly, giggling to myself like a madman, took a whole pile of pictures. My favourite one was of a plastic skeleton in a plastic gibbet with immediately behind it a bag of something or other with a cheery red label proclaiming “Holiday Pizzazz!” I went back this year, but I guess someone had seen me, because they had separated the displays enough they couldn’t be photographed together, so I went to the Dominion supermarket chain that has morphed… Read more »

peterpi
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peterpi

I’m Jewish, and as I grew up, my parents had to explain to us children why the Christian children seem to be having more fun this time of year. Chanukah in the US, I feel, is as big as it is, precisely because of the holiday’s uncomfortable closeness to that marketing juggernaut known as Christmas. In line with Mr. Elms’ remarks, I’ve had friends, both Jewish and Christian, refer to this period as Chrisnukah. There are “holiday” greeting cards showing Santa carrying a Chanukah monorah. My first experience with a real Christmas season was with a small Christian group of… Read more »

John
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John

Pluralist,

Please cheer up. I basically hate the Christmas season (careering expensively over the country to see obstinate relatives and in-laws who just stay put) but I do love Midnight Mass. ‘Act as though you believe, and you will believe.’ Sometimes, it works.

Wishing you all the best,

John.

Neil
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Neil

Thank you Jane Freeman – you have wonderfully provoked my thoughts.

‘I’m further having a phase of being non-communicant, to see which (in terms of involvement) is closest to being me.’ And thank you, Pluralist, for reminding me of an important part of tradition, and people like Simone Weil.

Father Ron Smith
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Father Ron Smith

I think that one of the problems with the present-day celebration of Advent is that we focus only on the Incarnation of Christ, and not on what that was meant to signify to the world of his day and our world of today – about the future. Not enough, I believe, is preached about the expected ‘Second Coming’ of Christ during Advent, which might enable us to contemplate more clearly what the Birth of Jesus was meant to inaugurate. Such teaching, I feel, brings the Advent and Christmas Seasons into their proper context – rather than treating them as merely… Read more »

Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

“Not enough, I believe, is preached about the expected ‘Second Coming’ of Christ during Advent, which might enable us to contemplate more clearly what the Birth of Jesus was meant to inaugurate.” Which, I think comes from something I have spoken about before, the difficulty many Anglican priests have with the mystical, spiritual, supernatural. It’s as though for many Christianity is all about a message of social justice and being nice to people. They are quite happy with the Gathering of the Community, but not at all comfortable with what the community has gathered to do. Once they hit the… Read more »

Cynthia Gilliatt
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Cynthia Gilliatt

“Not enough, I believe, is preached about the expected ‘Second Coming’ of Christ during Advent, which might enable us to contemplate more clearly what the Birth of Jesus was meant to inaugurate.” In the Middle Ages, much was made of the idea of the triple Advent – Christ coming daily into our hearts and lives, Christ Incarnate in the stable, and Christ coming again at the end of time. Certainly the readings for Advent don’t flinch at the end of time aspect, nor do many of the Advent hymns. John Milton’s wonderful Nativity Ode treats time present, past, and the… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

Why might “many Anglican priests have with the mystical, spiritual, supernatural”? Is it something because when you take the fantasy, and try to objectify it and codify it and make it look something like history, it starts to look somewhat uncommunicative? Just look at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas message. He talks sense when focusing on contemporary problems of childhood and abuse, but his theology, that of a God, perfect, in a womb, just appears (to some of us, at least) to be daft. The theology undermines the sense of the message. Now what do you want to concentrate on?… Read more »

Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

Pluralist, the idea that an all powerful being, the creator of all that is, should actually put aside all of that and become what he created seems daft on several levels, beginning with the idea of an all powerful being that is the creator of all that is. But isn’t that entirely the point? Christianity is not a moral code, much less a social justice agenda. The Incarnate God is central. Without that, the moral and social justice parts are really poorly thought out and even more poorly done. It’s not the idea of the Perfection in the womb that… Read more »

BillyD
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“Now what do you want to concentrate on? A meaningless perfection in a womb, or the important message about respecting sentient beings?”

Well, thanks for keeping an open mind about it.

BillyD
Guest

“Which, I think comes from something I have spoken about before, the difficulty many Anglican priests have with the mystical, spiritual, supernatural. It’s as though for many Christianity is all about a message of social justice and being nice to people. “

Not just priests, Ford. Lots of Anglicans seem to be of the school of thought that Anglicanism is, or ought to be, sort of a liturgicized Unitarian Universalism. Not all of the complaints that the separatists bring against us are totally off the mark.

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“Not all of the complaints that the separatists bring against us are totally off the mark.”

No, indeed, and I don’t understand the point of religion devoid of the supernatural, with the possible exception of Theravada Buddhism. So much of the more liberal areas in Anglicanism look very much like Evangelicalism without the Law, all concrete, measurable, comprehensible. I’m not trying to be scornful of it, I just don’t get why you’d bother. I mean, you don’t need religion to be nice to people, nor to practice social jusitce.

John
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John

Pluralist, You’re obviously going through a ‘crisis of faith’ – or crisis of church-going, whatever. I still think ‘act as though you believe and you will believe’ is good advice. I try to take it. If one wants to be more intellectual about it (and you do – I do), try Keith Ward every time but especially now his ‘Why there almost certainly is a God’. As for taking communion, take it. If one in some sense wants to follow Jesus, it’s enough that he said (if, that is, one is convinced that he did say it): do it. The… Read more »

peterpi
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peterpi

Ford Elms @ 11:49 GMT You are free to use that quote. It came to me in a flash as I was writing that post. To this non-Christian who loves The Episcopal Church and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it sure fits how most people on the Colonies’ side of the pond now observe, or are being very strongly urged to observe, the season of Advent. Advent should be a time of expectant waiting, a time to experience the quiet, a time to reflect just exactly what Christmas means, before the beauty, wonder, and glory of Christmas arrives. As… Read more »

JCF
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JCF

“Lots of Anglicans seem to be of the school of thought that Anglicanism is, or ought to be, sort of a liturgicized Unitarian Universalism.”

Can we please leave the UUs out of this? Their faith has its own integrity, and doesn’t deserved to be dragged into parochial Anglican conflicts.

BillyD
Guest

“Can we please leave the UUs out of this? Their faith has its own integrity, and doesn’t deserved to be dragged into parochial Anglican conflicts.”

My point in mentioning them isn’t to impugn their integrity, but to point out that what so many Anglicans seem to want Anglicanism to morph into has already been done. It’s not as brave and barrier breaking as some would have it, but a rather bad imitation of what the UUA has been doing for some time.

orfanum
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orfanum

Apologies in advance for the ramblings of an ignorant boob but it strikes me that, although the theological context of the scribes, pharisees and adherents of the law is mentioned (not believing in an afterlife, etc.), Jesus does not rebuke them regarding points of metaphysical nicety or their low appreciation of the supernatural. What is it that incorporates the teaching of Christ, and of the LORD in the OT – well, count the times the words ‘widow’, ‘orphan’, ‘fatherless’, ‘oppressed’ and ‘alien’ appear. It’s not about ‘niceness’ (‘be angry but do not sin’) but about justice. Navel-gazing supernaturalism is, well,… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“If it falls – as it may – it will be essential to re-invent it.” It won’t fall. One of the aspects of Anglicanism, likely an inevitable part of trying to be as broad as possible, is that every hundred yearrs or so we build up to a critical mass of uberpure who then flounce off on their own so as not to be contaminated by the horrible sinners trying to love one another despite their differences and failings. It’s all happened before, this one’s just particularly loud. You can’t change it, just sit back and laugh at the hypocrisy… Read more »

BillyD
Guest

Orfanum, it seems to me that what you have done is not so much explain the problem that many Anglicans have with the supernatural, but illustrated it by privileging some parts of the Bible over others (even privileging some sayings of Jesus over other sayings and actions). The same Lord who spoke about orphans and widows also spoke about being born from above, being one with the Father, and rising from the dead. You mention justice. I think it’s a mistake for liberals to make the social Gospel a matter of justice, personally. God is manifestly not just, and thank… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
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Pat O'Neill

I don’t recall the source, and I’m paraphrasing, but I read something once along the lines of “If God were truly just, who among us would survive?” I think it is precisely God’s merciful nature that the extreme conservatives ignore. That mercy is shown in the way he sacrificed himself for ALL mankind, just not a chosen people, or an elite (however selected)…we are ALL saved. In the end, we don’t even have to do anything to deserve that salvation. That we DO do anything–in the way of social justice, or worship, or evangelism–is more in gratitude for the gift… Read more »

orfanum
Guest
orfanum

BillyD – I didn’t mention more than one part of the Bible and then denigrate one of those parts in favour of another. My view is that even those who do not ‘believe’ are capable of doing God’s work, and not all those who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ are, necessarily (including now potentially, me – I have climbed into the boat, and will go where it sails, and even live with my own rocking of it). I know nothing of theological monstrosities, and they do not concern me – but if ever the mere prospect of a theological monstrosity prevented me… Read more »

Karen
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Karen

This is very thought provoking. My birth family are farmers and take a very joyless approach to life so Christmas was dull then when not in a nuclear family I found it the most hostile of seasons. Now married with three children I love it – because they love it. My youngest was so happy putting up decorations. I am yet to be convinced this family exclusivity is a righteous part of the Christian tradition and welcome this thoughtful article.

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“God is manifestly not just, and thank God for that. God is loving and merciful.” God love you! Our rector says, and he’s quoting, “I don’t want God’s justice. I want God’s mercy. If I get God’s justice, I’m in a hard state.” “he sacrificed himself for ALL mankind” But, some Evangelical theology suggests that He only died for some. Indeed, Predestination says precisely that, one of the abominations of Calvin. Some Evangelicals obviously think He only died for those who believe. But then again, Evangelicalism seems to reduce redemption to a legal transaction, and a corrupt one at that.… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

Thank you for your concern, John. Not taking communion is a little liberating at the moment, to begin with, my attendance pattern not changed. The peace is the alternative highlight. However, which bits I mumble and where I stay silent are a puzzle. Most church women tend to be twenty years or more older than me. It used to be thirty and forty years, but this has declined as I grow older, though they get fewer. Plus, I find in each place, once you’ve looked at the choices, the rate of churn is so small that you have to change… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

Ford:

Yes, I’m well aware of the Evangelical version of salvation…and my little posting was intended as a good-natured rant against it.

There’s an interesting dichotomy in my religion, I guess. I KNOW I’m saved, because Jesus saved everyone. But I DON’T know that I’m going to heaven…because I cannot know God’s ultimate plan for me or for anyone.

peterpi
Guest
peterpi

Pat O’Neill at 1:50pm GMT, I believe that quote is a paraphrase of something in the Epistles. Possibly one of Paul’s, though something in me says one of John’s As far as our fate if God is truly just, God’s justice wholly incorporates mercy. God knows how we are made. God knows we are imperfect. I don’t believe in a Santa Claus God, but I also don’t believe in a thunderbolt-hurling Zeus-like God ready to cast us into the outer darkness for the slightest infraction. I do believe “good works” have value, in and of themselves. I may be exaggerating… Read more »

OS
Guest
OS

Ford,

Roberta Bondi crafted a statement that both accurately summarizes the school of theology you describe (which I was taught also) and at the same time utterly exposes its absurdity:
“Only believe God loves you, or He’ll send you to hell forever.”

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

“God became one of us. I don’t see how you can get more people centred than that..” – Ford Elms – Dear Ford, how right you are on this matter. At this level, God could be called the pre-eminant Humanist. To have condescended to the level of our common humanity is really what convinces me that God is totally interested in us all. That, too, God should have chosen a humble God-fearing peasant girl to conceive and bear God’s Only-Begotten Son should convince us of the truth of the Scriptures that ‘God chooses the humble to confound the wise’. (We… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

My version of OS’ statement above might just be – “Only believe God loves you, and already that love is present in your whole being” – a gift of pure grace – unmerited but prodigally given. The power to believe, I cannot emphasise too much, is a pure gift from God. Perhaps we need to pray for that gift in order to receive it. *Whatever you ask for in prayer, having faith and really believing, you shall receive*. – Jesus. Faith, however, to become active, does have the corollary of being given in proportion to our willingness to offer up… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“Her virginity was important for the process of the Conception of the sinless Christ. But it was her initial summoning up of the courage to trust in the God who was calling her” I read somewhere once that, instead of thinking of Her as some meek little obedient woman, appropriately barefoot, pregnant, and possibly addressed by Gabriel in the kitchen, there is another way to look at it. After the fear dies down she realizes God is asking Her to take part in something huge, no less than the unfolding of His plan to redeem Creation. Her assent is not… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

orfanum: “at the point where ritual and veneration end and other human people begin.” Bishop Frank Weston, 1923: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums. . . It is folly — it is madness — to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.” I think you and I share the same or similar attitudes with different expressions. The above quote is from the 1923 Anglo-catholic congress. But,… Read more »

John
Guest
John

Pluralist,

Thanks. ‘Keep the faith’, whatever this may mean.

Best.

orfanum
Guest
orfanum

Ford, Many thanks for the kindly and personal response: I too feel we are talking about an inflection of the same thing. My own thinking is not very clear, yet. The nearest thing to formulating what grips me at the moment is the conviction that we have not been abandoned (by God) and that we should not abandon each other. I was brought up in a decidedly socialist household, which I am happy about but always found that materialism just did not cut the mustard. Humankind is more than the sum of its economic and political matrix, and was, I… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

“That’s why the story of the Good Samaritan is so striking to me, familiar though it is – a pure act of human relatedness shattered what were the political certainties of the day, without the least hint of politics about it.” – Orfanum – Too right, Orfanum. The sheer divine-humanity of Jesus in his parables is often, I think, shrugged off by the fundamenatalist as something like bedtime stories for children only. These deeply philosophical and spiritual stories of Jesus are meant to be re-interpreted with every age of the Church and the world, so that their contemporary meaning is… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“to have a strong social Gospel that is highly disruptive of the materialist delusion” My thoughts aren’t fully formed either:-) Can I suggest, though, that the Gospel is supremely materialistic. We forget in this day and age, when the loudest voice of Christianity proclaims the Gospel as conformity so the corrupt judge will let you get away with your crimes, that the Gospel is NOT a legal transaction. The Incarnation was not about providing a suitable victim, it was about God reuniting Fallen CREATION to himself. It’s all very well to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus, but redemption… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

Now that the Boxing Day sales have begun, we would appear to be in the Octave of Eksmaween.