In a normal year, my December magazine article would contain a message about the importance of Christmas, and express the hope that all our readers would be able to attend one or more of our Christmas services, and perhaps invite family and friends to join us. We would be looking forward to Carol Services, Crib Services and ‘Midnight Mass’. That’s what would happen in a normal year. But 2020 has not been a normal year and who knows where we will be by Christmas, or how 2021 will look?
I’m writing this in November, during national Lockdown 2. Places of worship are again closed and we are waiting to hear when they are likely to re-open, making planning all but impossible. Archbishops have joined other faith leaders in asking for an exemption for places of worship, given all the work we have put into making our buildings and services as COVID19-safe as we can. That exemption has not been granted and we are urged to follow the regulations and guidance that are in place.
In most years, along with other clergy, I put some effort into reminding people that Advent is an important season in the Church’s year – and encouraging people to resist rushing headlong into Christmas celebration without spending some time in Advent reflection. This year, I feel different. The pandemic, which led to churches being closed for Mothering Sunday and Easter, has felt like an awfully long Advent. We have been unable to meet in church for worship or to share in holy communion. We have been looking forward to better things. Even in Lent, you’re not supposed to abstain from bread and wine at communion! But we have all been keeping an enforced abstinence from the things that are given to sustain us. Perhaps we’ll learn to value what really matters, having had so much taken away from us in this awful year. Enough Advent already!
So, bring it on! Put up your Christmas tree in November, if you want! Put lights on the outside of your house to combat the darkness and spread a little, much-needed cheer! Make mince pies and eat chocolate! Watch Christmas movies and listen to Christmas music!
And, in the midst of all the self-indulgence, the Christmas message invites us to think of others. The pandemic has seen many examples of people caring for others, including the extraordinary response to Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday Walk for the NHS, and the little acts of kindness that were stirred up in people seeing their neighbours in need.
At the heart of so many communities, lies the church. It has been estimated that the Church of England alone is worth £12.4bn a year to the country through the events and activities it provides and supports. But what will our church look like next year? Will we still be here for Christmas 2021? We need to plan for recovery and growth if we are to continue serving our communities. Recent research suggests that churches which are engaged with their communities (not hiding away inside their buildings) are more likely to grow. Churches should be marked by:
- A strong sense of connection with their local area (not just with their own congregations)
- Perseverance – years of engaging with their communities
- Hospitality and Generosity
- Participation in social action, working with other people of goodwill, regardless of whether they are people of faith or not
How will our churches in Stretton and Appleton Thorn continue to engage with our communities in the coming years? How can you be a part of that?
My December message usually ends with me wishing you and yours a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. I’m pleased to repeat that here, while, at the same time acknowledging that this is likely to be a very different Christmas from any that we have known.
But, even if everything else is different, I take comfort in this:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. (Hebrews 13.8)