Carol singers

So you go to church at Christmas, but not on a normal Sunday? Does that make you a second-rate Christian, or inoculate you against Christianity altogether? Or have you got it about right?

This week’s Church Times carries an article by David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, full of good advice on how clergy should cater for Christmas attenders. It is based on a study of who turned up to Christmas services at Worcester and Lichfield Cathedrals, and why. I found the results quite telling, and encouraging.

The study

Why did they come?

The music was clearly an attraction, besides the chance to be reminded of the Christmas story, but it was striking that three-quarters, including a large proportion of the occasional visitors, put worshipping God as one of their motivations. Almost as many expected to feel close to God in the service… For 62 per cent, it is also about finding the true meaning of Christmas…

What did it mean to them?

Typically, two-thirds positively believed in specific details of the Christmas story: the shepherds, stable, and Wise Men. All but a tiny proportion of the rest were unsure. Only 13 per cent, however, felt that the facts were more important than the mystery…

On moral issues they were progressive:

Only 28 per cent disagreed with ordaining gay men as bishops (the survey predated the 2014 Synod vote opening episcopal posts to women). Meanwhile, they strongly supported church schools, the public engagement of the Church, and thought that Christianity should have a “special status” in Britain…

Walker then argues that this pattern of occasional worship should be accepted as legitimate in itself, and Christmas services should be geared to their needs. Services should stick to well-known versions of carols; appeal to all the senses with poetry, art and distinctive decorations; avoid expounding doctrine; respect people’s personal space, for example by omitting the Peace; and go softly on plugging regular services.

This pretty well sums up all the things I used to get wrong when I was a vicar. Or perhaps it doesn’t – perhaps there were lots more as well. But at least those. I got them wrong because I was more concerned about my own success as a vicar – meaning numbers of bums on pews – than about responding to the spiritual needs of the people who came.

Theological implications

I find myself warming to Walker’s positive attitude to these people. Church leaders have often treated them as though they were either on the way to regular church attendance – not there yet – or, worse, were opting for an inadequate lightweight alternative to it. He refuses to do either of these. Although he doesn’t say so, both are rather patronising.

Church leaders have a practical motive for wanting people to attend more often, but the need to attend a church service every Sunday is neither contained in the Bible nor derivable from the creeds. These days, when successive governments have made most of us spend longer and longer in paid employment, fewer can afford the time.

Equally important, Walker’s point about not expounding doctrine applies more generally. We have just had a generation or so of church leaders encouraging clergy with strong theological views. I too have them, and expound them rather too often on my website, but if you aren’t interested you don’t have to read it. What happens in churches often puts pressure on people to believe what they don’t believe or aren’t interested in. To avoid that, the thing to do is to absent yourself from church services.

Before the Reformation most Christians were not expected to know much about their faith. This was realistic, and would be equally realistic today. We humans are a mixed bunch. We have different interests. Puzzling out the truths and errors of different religious beliefs is a minority sport. There are plenty of other things for other enquiring minds to puzzle out.

So the negative point is that neither regular Sunday attendance nor filling your head with Christian doctrine are essential to being a good Christian. The positive point, if I am interpreting Walker’s study correctly, is that these Christmas attenders are coming for the best possible reasons.

A healthy spirituality

As I understand it their attendance is not, as disappointed clergy might feel, an easy cop-out from the real thing: it’s a genuine desire to meet with God and experience the God’s presence.

Attendance is motivated neither by a sense of duty nor by determination to affirm belief: it is about sharing in the mystery that is the Divine.

As mystery, their spirituality is not about assenting to details of the Christmas story; it is about sensing, feeling, that the story points them towards that which is far greater than their ordinary lives – and letting it sink into them.

This is a healthy, mature spirituality. It is not exclusively Christian – other faith traditions offer it too – but Christian it is. As their attitudes to gay ethics, church schools and the public role of Christianity shows, it is a spirituality integrated into ordinary life, not locked away as a private obsession.

So let people attend church services whenever it helps them feel close to God and share an experience of the mysterious Beyond. Enable it to be as rich and meaningful as possible. Don’t add in pressure to believe what they don’t want to believe, or turn up to what they don’t want to turn up to. Let the experience be worthwhile for its own sake.