Just for Christmas?

The Church of England has recently published its most recent report on church attendance. You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s not exactly good news. Church attendance continues to decline. Of even greater concern is the fall in the number of children in our churches. In ten years, adult Sunday attendance has fallen by 15%. Children’s Sunday attendance has fallen by 24%. The numbers coming to us for baptisms, weddings and funerals – a mainstay of our church’s ministry – have also fallen (by 22%, 27%, and 28% respectively). Church attendance at Easter has fallen by 16% and there isn’t a diocese in the Church of England that can report an increase in Sunday attendance.

There are a few brighter spots, however: one is the size of what is called “the worshipping community”. This is the number of people who come to church each month, including to midweek services. That has stayed about the same for the past few years, despite the fall in weekly Sunday attendance. (In other words, the number of people who come occasionally is no less, even though the numbers in church on any given Sunday are fewer. People who are part of our church community come less often than they would have done in the past.)

Another bright spot is Christmas. Christmas attendance has “bucked the trend“. Over the decade it has increased by 1%, which is not huge, admittedly, but after a dip in attendance at the start of the period, the numbers attending a service at Christmas have grown to 2.68 million in 2017, the highest figure since 2006 (and a 13% increase since 2013). Clearly, not all who attend midnight mass or a Carol Service regard themselves as practising Christians. For some, it’s an annual ritual irrespective of belief. But at the same time Christmas services demonstrate that the church still has something which is attractive to those who are not part of our regular worshipping community. We have seen the same with the attendance at our Remembrance and Armistice services. (94 people attended an evening service at St Matthew’s on Remembrance Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.)

What is it about Christmas? I suppose the familiarity is comforting. If you come to a Christmas service, you’ll probably recognise at least some of the hymns. The story is well-known and, as someone commented, it’s difficult for clergy to mess-up the nativity (whatever they might do for the rest of the year).

I’m writing this at the vicarage in November (it’s a miserable day today, too!). Just down the road there is evidence of new homes being built. I realise that development in any community can be controversial but as the church we look forward to welcoming our new parishioners when they move in. I was interested to discover that the two new developments close to St Matthew’s church have names:

Saviours Place and Kings Quarter

I’m not sure where those names have come from. (I’m aware from David and Margaret Hart’s history of St Matthew’s that, in 1527, there was a chapel in Stretton known as the Oratory of St Saviour, but I’m not sure if the housebuilders were aware of that.) It occurred to me that those names might help me to prepare my sermon for Christmas midnight. You can probably fill in the gaps yourself, but I see it going something like this…

In the gospel of Luke, we hear the message of the angel to some terrified shepherds: it’s “good news of great joy for all people”. A Saviour has been born. But where is the Saviour’s place? Not Jerusalem, where power lies, but the little town of Bethlehem, the city of David. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had seen a ruler whose origin was “from old, from ancient days” who would come from little old Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the home of Joseph’s ancestors, including King David, so he and Mary go there to be registered at the Emperor’s command. While in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to be delivered of a child, her first-born. She wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn”.

The Saviour’s place is not in the centre of power but tucked away in insignificance, in a manger in Bethlehem.

Another ancient prophet, Isaiah, had also painted a picture of one who would occupy David’s throne and establish his kingdom. A child would be born whose arrival would come like light to those in darkness. Among his kingly titles, he would be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son to whom God would give the throne of his ancestor David.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that wise men from the east will come to Jerusalem looking for the one born to be king. They have seen his star rising and want to pay him homage. Jerusalem is just the kind of place to find a king. But Jerusalem already has a king. His name is Herod, and he and his court are terrified at the news of a potential rival. Who is this that threatens Herod’s position and power, and where might he be found? The king’s advisors tell him about the word of the prophet who said that Bethlehem was the place where a king might be born, and that’s where the wise men go to find him. Herod says he wants news of the infant king’s whereabouts so that he too can pay his respects. He wants to do nothing of the sort, of course. He just wants rid of the threat to his power, and will stop at nothing to hold on to his throne.

Herod fails to eradicate his young rival (the holy family go to Egypt as refugees). As an adult, Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has arrived. It’s not like the kingdom that Herod ruled over. It’s not a place with boundaries. It is the recognition of God’s reign, and Jesus is its centre. The Kingdom of God is within you, he says. You could reach out and take hold of it. Where I am, the Kingdom of God is.

Jesus is proclaimed as the messiah – the Christ – a title which means that he is anointed to be King. But what a strange king he turns out to be! Starting his life in a manger, not in a palace, this king practices his kingship by taking the role of a servant, not a boss. And as our servant, he humbly surrenders himself – out of love for us – to the earthly powers, “even to death on a cross“. The only crown he ever wore was not of gold but of thorns. Pilate’s ascription to him of the title ‘king’ is made to mock him and his people.

The resurrection changes everything, of course. Except that those wounds of love are somehow taken into the Godhead. Jesus, our Saviour, is our wounded King.

As well as welcoming those who come to the Kings Quarter and to the Saviours Place, the church is here to proclaim, not itself, but our Saviour King, and his message of love and welcome to all who want to find themselves finally at home.

Happy Christmas!

Alan Jewell

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