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.


  • Ford Elms says:

    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 include human sacrifice, judging by what happened in the US this year. In a parallell with the development of the Christian seasons of Lent and Easter, it is being made longer all the time. After a brief respite while the Christians celebrate their holiday, it begins again for Valentine’s then St. Paddy’s, and even Easter, as the tradition of “Easter Gifts” becomes more widespread. Yet it has no more to do with these events than it does with Christmas.

    It gets completely missed that the beginning of the Christian feast coincides with the ending of the Mammon feast. Even Christians seem to think that Christmas starts long before Dec. 24. Try suggesting a Christmas party in the office for the actual season, and see the looks you get. Good God, try suggesting that your parish groups not have their Christmas get togethers during the Advent fast and see what a reception you get. But then I have romanticized an older cutlre in which the twelve days of Christmas were twelve days of rest and celebration. I grew up on stories of the Christmasses of my parents’ youth, when the wood was all cut and brought in, the game all shot and cleaned, and as much work done as possible, so that as little as possible interfered with the twelve winter days when you celebrated a well deserved rest in the darkest time of the year. But, they didn’t have a “marketplace” either.

  • Pat O'Neill says:


    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    “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 into a department store kid of thing. Sure enough, there were black cats, pumpkins and creepy crawlies sharing the same shelves with the trees, ugly skeletalized white plastic light up reindeer, and assorted Christmas kitsch. Each time was in early/mid October. I got a whole bunch more pictures. Unfortunately, they were in an aisle, so I couldn’t frame them that well. I need more practice at Eksmaween photography, but I intend to do this every year, just because I like giggling insanely in public, it keeps ’em guessing.

  • peterpi says:

    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 monks who took Advent very seriously. They didn’t even think of decorating their church until the afternoon before Christmas eve. It gave such a different feel to the holiday. It made Christmas all that more special.
    I now tell my friends that, based on the shops and television programming, Advent is apparently the season to consume all your money before observing Christmas in a spirit of financial and Christian poverty.

  • John says:


    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,


  • Neil says:

    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 says:

    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 ante- and post-natal events. In other words, we need to be encouraged to imagine the eternal consequences of what the two Seasons really signify.

    Midnight Mass is a wonderful and joyful occasion on which to welcome the Christ-Child – but not without having first, in Advent, considered the prospect of his Second Coming at the end of time. This is why the continuing exploration of the great season of the epiphanies of Jesus is also needful – beginning with the opening up of Jesus’ ministry to the Arab Kings at the Feast of the Epiphany, and through the showings-forth of Jesus in the various public actions of his in the weeks leading up to Lent and Easter.

    This is why the Church, in her wisdom, gives us an ordered progression of the Church’s Year, sadly not followed rigorously enough by some of our members, in order to ‘live out’ some of the consequences of our liturgical traditions.

    The Birth of Jesus had, and has, an eternal consequence. It was a new beginning for the world which can hopefully be celebrated – not just at Midnight Mass – or even Christmas Day, but also in the 364 days to follow.
    “Even so, Come Lord Jesus”

  • Ford Elms says:

    “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 Creed, with its “seen and unseen” they start to squirm. It follows then that the idea of a supernatural Being bringing it all to an end and imposing His justice and righteousness is not something they are at all comfortable talking about. The Incarnation as abstraction is as far as they can go, and even that goes from the Baby in the manger to the Buddy Christ with little of the implications of the Incarnation.

    “Advent is apparently the season to consume all your money before observing Christmas in a spirit of financial and Christian poverty”

    May I quote this? It’s priceless.

  • Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    “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 end of time to come very powerfully. It’s official title is “Ode: On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” He wrote in while in his 20s. Of his shorter poems, it is my favorite.

    Hvae a thoughtful Advent.

  • Pluralist says:

    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? A meaningless perfection in a womb, or the important message about respecting sentient beings?

  • Ford Elms says:

    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 is meaningless, it’s what’s left of Christianity after you take that “meaningless” Perfection out of it.

  • BillyD says:

    “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 says:

    “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 says:

    “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 says:


    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 endless logic-chopping (I am an academic) about the theological implications, historically important, are irrelevant today. Like the Peace, it’s an enormously bonding experience. I love it – feel deprived if I miss it.

    As for loneliness, there will be people in your church who like/love you. Don’t knock it.

    As for companionship, get yourself a woman (I infer that you’re hetero – if you weren’t, I’d say, get yourself a man). There are many church women. Few, if any, in your church will disapprove of any subsequent arrangements.

    The Church of England (internationally, Anglicanism) is a very good church – I’m convinced the best there is. If it falls – as it may – it will be essential to re-invent it. It represents ineluctable reality: a church that embraces all points of view and tries, for all that, to stick together.

    Another essential piece of advice: if you listen to religious music, listen to Haydn, who has everything.

  • peterpi says:

    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 far as “the important message about respecting sentient beings”, thank you Pluralist! It’s precisely why I like Christmas. “Peace on Earth, Good will to All”. And that part of Christmas has been around for a long, long time.
    Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was written or published in Advent, 1843. I love the George C. Scott movie adaptation. Yes, Dickens alludes to God and the coming of the Christ Child. Yes, the story is about redemption, a central theme of Christianity. But, what the story really concentrates on is observing Christmas properly, with cheerfulness, and making merry, and being kind to others, and offering charity to the poor, aiding the powerless. The “social justice” themes in that book are the foundation for the story.
    And the way Charles Dickens writes the novel, the charity, the feasting, the wishes for “Good will to all”, the merry-making are assumed, are taken for granted. They’re not presented as a novel way to observe Christmas.
    In other words, the secular aspects of Christmas, which so dismay the narrow Christians, were already old when that book was written. They’ve been around for a long time.
    Merry Chritmas to all here present, and may God bless us, everyone.

  • JCF says:

    “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 says:

    “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 says:

    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, just that. If you find that the church is becoming too people-centred (God forbid), you can always believe in standing stones, faeries, djinn, and sorcery, for example. All of these things contain the supernatural in spades but, unfortunately, no sense of justice.

    Merry Xmas, all!

  • Ford Elms says:

    “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 of it all.

    “I love the George C. Scott movie adaptation.”

    It’s Alistair Sim for me, I’m afraid, the other versions just seem anemic by comparison. I love Jacob Marley’s shriek before he screams “BUSINESS?!?! Mankind was my business!”

    “If you find that the church is becoming too people-centred (God forbid)”

    I didn’t say it was becoming TOO people centred, I implied it was becoming entirely people centred. Of course care for the downtrodden and fighting for justice is essential to the Gospel, but we ought not to forget WHERE that Gospel comes from, what it promises us, nor how those promises are made effective. God became one of us. I don’t see how you can get more people centred than that, and I don’t see why there is any need for “Love your neighbour”, which, after all, is the SECOND Great Commandment, to become, effectively, the ONLY Great Commandment.

  • BillyD says:

    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 God for that. God is loving and merciful. Putting the emphasis on “justice” not only opens one up to counter claims (what is just for one person might not seem just to another) but leads to theological monstrosities like the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, which tries to explain the sacrifice of the Cross by appealing to cosmic justice on God’s part.

  • Pat O'Neill says:

    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 of salvation than because we are required to in order to receive it.

  • orfanum says:

    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 from following the example of Jesus in regarding the poor, the weak, the oppressed, to the extent that any mortal person can, I’d be taking regular cold showers.

    Ford –
    Try fulfilling both (necessary) commandments alone on an island. In my view, we do the ‘second’ to honour the ‘first’ and the ‘first’ can only be fully realised in the ‘second’. I wouldn’t be inclined to be very linear about it, myself. I did not say the ‘second’ should be the only commandment.

    I do not discount supernaturalism (never has a greater thrill gone through me than at those words: ‘Christ has claimed you for his own’) as I do not discount the material, the Word was made Flesh, as you point out, after all.

    What I do see, in my own church and elsewhere, is a lot of prevarication and sitting-on-of-hands, at the point where ritual and veneration end and other human people begin. The end of times is always with us, and we only wait on ourselves to get up and share the peace as well as the bread and the wine with everyone else. I think it would be a great shame and a pity if we were simply inventing reasons not to honour the Gospel in its entirety.

    I am not suggesting anyone here *is* doing that – largely I am speaking for and to my own conscience.

    But for me personally, the ‘By their fruits’ rule of thumb wins hands down.

  • Karen says:

    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 says:

    “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.

    “That we DO do anything–in the way of social justice, or worship, or evangelism–is more in gratitude for the gift of salvation than because we are required to in order to receive it.”

    Again, though, Evangelical theology requires that we DO something: repent and, more importantly, conform. This is what they mean when they refer to the transformational power of the Gospel, it’s something that enables us to “get right with God” as they say, so that He can bring Himself to love us and, again more importantly, let us get away with our crimes so we can go to Heaven when we die. THAT is the understanding of Redemption. Repentance is not metanoia, not changing the worldly mind, but remorse for sin and pleading for forgiveness. The transformational power of the Gospel is given to us at the moment of our repentance and acceptance of Jesus as “our personal Saviour”, or at our baptisms, possibly, though if we were infants, that part is iffy, so that we have the power to conform. That might seem simplistic, but I read it and have reported it as close to verbatim as I can remember, on an Evangelical website a while ago. Can’t remember which one, I tend to block them out once I have enjoyed as much of them as I can stand.

  • Pluralist says:

    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 place to have more choice. (What am I going on about?)

    There isn’t much of the UUA that is liturgical, only really Kings Chapel Boston, an oddity of sorts. So it might be an interesting practice. In the UK the later nineteenth century was the time, or even 1932 for a few decades, but the liturgical practice has declined away. The problem is that diverse individual faith is harder and harder to reflect in a common liturgical practice.

  • Pat O'Neill says:


    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 says:

    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 their point of view, but those Christians who say our good works are of little merit, that all that matters is that we believe, I say “Poppycock!” Christians can all file meekly and humbly into church every Sunday, take communion with reverence if that is their custom, recite communal confessions of sin and receive communal absolution of same in God’s name, but if the other six days of the week, they ignore the poor, mock the homeless, and despise our fellow human beings, their faith will merit them nothing. The same with followers of other religions — myself emphatically included.
    If however, we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, aid the disabled, strive for justice for all, and try with all our being to make this world a better place, God will reward us — even if we never set foot in a house of worship.

  • OS says:


    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 says:

    “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 can also be God-bearers)

    Mary’s simple acceptance of the call – to go against the culture and tradition of her time to agree to the prospect of conceiving God’s child ‘out of wedlock’ should teach us all something about the primacy of God’s intentional overturning of our misplaced moral scrupulosity – in favour of achieving God’s own loving purposes for the world. I still remember the look on the faces of women prisoners in Auckland’s Mount Eden Prison, when I reminded them that Mary had to approach her fiancee with the news that she was pregnant – by someone other than himself! This aspect of the process of Christ’s Incarnation is often neglected – to our poverty of understanding.

    It was Mary’s obedience – not her virginity – that enabled her to proclaim the great Magnificat 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 to defy convention and go ahead with the mission that was uniquely hers, that ultimately ‘allowed’ the birth of God in Christ. (What a wonderful example of the right use of God’s gift of ‘free will’).

    “Hail Mary, full of grace – the Lord is with you”
    Alleluia! ‘Drop down you heavens from above, and let ther skies pour down righteousness’
    (See this Sunday’s Gospel reading, and enjoy!)

  • Father Ron Smith says:

    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 our own prejudices about how, when and where, the gift might be given – and, of course, to whom and in what circumstance.

  • Ford Elms says:

    “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 then the meek “Whatever you say, most Powerful representative of male power there could possibly be!” Instead it’s “You want ME to be a part of this?!?! Me!?!?! How cool is that?” Far from submission to male power, it was excited, and scared, willingness to take part in the only thing that truly matters. As well, seen in that light, perpetual virginity ceases to be about preserving herself pure and spotless of the horrible act of sex, it’s almost a disdain, a kind of, “Why? I’ve got way more important stuff to do. Did you forget the really amazing thing I signed on for a few years back?””

  • Ford Elms says:


    “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, in my reading in left wing Anglican circles, there is a tendency for the Gospel to be all about a social justice agenda, to the extent that many see socialism and Christianity as the same thing. I don’t agree. There is significant overlap, because socialism arose from a culture that had been informed by Christianity for over a thousand years, but the Gospel is NOT an earthly political/social justice movement, though it must of necessity have aspects that are about those things. My point is, and I think we agree here, that both these aspects are important, but left wing Anglicans often seem to absorb the spiritual into the political, a kind of of social justice monophysitism, if that’s not too pompous, well even if it is. I get the distinct impression at times that, for some, the social justice message has to be paramount, indeed, the only thing they focus on, because it is an honourable pursuit that makes up for the embarassment of having all these other ideas of a supreme being, and invisible things, and prayer, and so on. Social justice makes that, barely, acceptable. Well, no, it doesn’t, and by focussing on that in near exclusion, a very imporatant part of faith is lost. All the same, it is from some of these very lefties that I have learned about Incarnational faith and how radical Patristic Christianity really was. I think that’s part of the attraction for Evangelicals of rejecting “the traditions of men”, they really can’t accept that in the early Church things were NOT conservative, and were, in fact, quite radical and blatantly opposed to the traditional political structures. I think where “liberal” Christianity falls down is that it cannot conceive of something that opposes political systems without itself being political. If the Gospel is counter to current political and social structures, it must itself be a political manifesto, with which I vehemently disagree.

  • John says:


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


  • orfanum says:


    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 felt and feel strongly, always meant to be.

    I also find that, to enter into cliche I suppose, politics and economics are just far too important to leave to professional politicians and economists. At best, they are mere facilitators and framers of certain contingent human exchanges, at worst, they can create and foster absolute ways of living, being and consciousness that debase humankind, and shut us off from the abundant life promised us.

    Especially the social life of humankind is far too critical to leave to the expertise of paid-up sociologists and psychologists – so I view the very powerfully confounding social aspects of the Gospel as a deliverance. I would myself weigh it up so – to have a strong social Gospel that is highly disruptive of the materialist delusion, if you like, is not tantamount to transforming or distorting Christianity into a merely political vehicle. 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.

  • Father Ron Smith says:

    “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 always available to us – through the work of God’s Spirit, who did not cease to work on the first day of Pentecost.

    The fundies can be a bit puzzled by some of these parables – especially the one about the Prodigal Son, which often turns out really to be talking about the Prodigal Father, where, against all the odds, and notions of human justice, God takes back the desperate, not merely those who are truly penitent.

    And as for the story of Jesus encountering the Scribes and Pharisees when they were about to stone the adulterous woman; the fundies always want to rush towards the saying of Jesus: “Go and SIN no more”; whereas, the real point of the story might be that he had already told her: “I do not condemn you”. Which was the more salient point of the story, I wonder? Did the love of Jesus, in his acceptance of her as she was, before any sign of penitence, have anything at all to do with her later ‘falling into line’ (if. indeed, she did) ?

    It seems to me that Jesus’ parables were often aimed at the problems of the self-righteous, rather than the people who didn’t need reminding that they were ‘sinners’. After all, it was the ‘sinners’ who found Jesus captivating, but they might not have found the Scribes and Pharisees so attractive. The Dying Thief was, after all, a self-professed SINNER, but that did not prevent Jesus from offering him a place with him in Paradise.

  • Ford Elms says:

    “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 is NOT a one on one thing. Matter is redeemed in the Incarnation. That’s why we venerate icons. That’s why the Eucharist is not simply a memorial meal, and Baptism not simply a public declaration of faith. That’s why the relics of the saints are so important. There is a figure in Spanish Manger Scenes, the cacagenar, a peasant in the corner squatting with his pants around his ankles, the results of his labours between his feet. He’s there to remind us that Jesus did that too, that it is a part of our humanity that was redeemed and lifted up to the Holy Places like everything else. Remember the hymn “When Jesus was a Baby”. Remember that “a better brow than ours was often wet”. Remember that the Kingdom is NOT ‘over there”, not some far away land we go to when we die. Much as I love Sanky hymns, we are not headed for another shore, nor somewhere “up yonder”. The Kingdom comes HERE, Creation is longing for perfection, not to be transported somewhere else. That’s one of my biggest problems with Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, the cosmic import of the Incarnation is totally lost in all this “Jesus is my personal saviour” crap.

  • Ford Elms says:

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

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