A Very Happy and Peaceful Christmas to everyone, from all the staff.
We are well into the season of Carol Services, of which there are many in our three churches, and although I battle with myself at this time of year, desperately wanting us to be able to mark Advent properly, it is a time when many hundreds of people pass through the doors of our churches who normally we wouldn't see at any other time. This always causes a mixture of responses! Some resent the intrusion. Some worry about the image of Christian Faith that is portrayed if this is the only observance that people keep, and Christmas Carols are the only hymns that are widely known today. Others are able to rejoice that at least for one season, we see the churches full.
Last week I had to go to London for a couple of meetings. I arrived good and early, which is unusual for me, so I walked down to Westminster from St Pancras. I decided to collect my thoughts for a short time in St Martins-in-the Fields, a church which in so many ways is like St Peter's – only bigger in every aspect of its ministry! Quiet was what I was hoping for, but I suppose I should have known better! St Martin's is not really the place to go for quiet. Many people who have faced the night cold and antagonism of the streets of London retreat into the warmth and security of the church as soon as the doors open. They are neither noisy nor disrespectful. Most of them sleep most of the time in different corners of the building. So, as I entered, I was greeted by what at first sight was a sharp dysfunction – a glorious, late baroque, royal interior inhabited by what society would so easily describe as the left-overs of humanity. But far from quiet, St Martin's was filled with the sound of its magnificent organ. An organist was clearly preparing for a Carol Service, sorting out his registrations for 'O Come all ye Faithful'. (Bear in mind this was before Advent had even begun!!)
I sat for twenty minutes, my mind full of confusion (not necessarily the best preparation for the up-coming meetings) and my spine tingling. Firstly I was taken back to times before I was enmeshed in the politics of being Church, when Christmas was indeed a tingly time. Excitement, hope, expectation, celebration, tradition – where has it gone? My childish reminiscences may be associated more with physical than with spiritual gifts, but I caught myself longing for just a little dose of that simplicity and childlike wonder of years past. (By the end of the Carol Service season, and the anxieties of trying to offer carol services that are both wonder-full and connected to the real world, while not upsetting anyone, Boxing Day really becomes a day of relief!) But this most traditional of buildings, ornate and glorious, not at all like the birth-place of Christ, still provides in the midst of the very traditional Christmas celebrations, shelter to the homeless, the refugee, the cast-off – un-patronising, with strict rules of behaviour, but un-questioning. It is safe space and it is hospitable. And when we dissect our Christmas carols – the best of them anyway – and the Christmas Story, that is what is expected of us. The privilege and the challenge of being hospitable to God, incarnated in the person of humanity, all humanity. So when I come up the steps to St Peter's and am confronted by three or four people, often the worse for wear in one way or another, and am irritated by them and their behaviour, the challenge of the Incarnation to my faith and my witness is made real.
Again, a very Happy Christmas to all.