For most of the year Britain is, at least on the surface, a fairly secular country. In spite of the presence of the Church of England in its structures of government–Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, the second chamber of Parliament–and the high profile of many Christian leaders, the rate of churchgoing in Britain is only about 7 per cent, and it continues to fall.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though: the rate of decline has slowed very sharply in recent years, as a recent book based on rigorous statistical analysis makes clear. Pulling Out Of The Nosedive by Peter Brierley identifies many signs of hope.
One sign of hope is the number of churches reporting increased attendances over Christmas. It’s particularly evident in our great cathedrals, which are expecting to be packed out this year.
For many people, the traditional carol service–whether it’s in their local church fellowship, or at a grand occasion in Canterbury, Winchester or York–is becoming once again the focal point of the festive season.
Most churches use the season for evangelistic outreach. Very often churches work cooperatively with others in their area, for instance creating joint invitation cards with details of all the church services on it, and delivering them door to door.
Often there is a Christmas Eve service–not generally, in Baptist churches, a communion service, though this is common in other denominations–and it’s usually candle-lit.
Many churches, particularly Anglican parish churches, are ancient, and there’s a wonderful sense of continuity in realizing that your community has worshipped within the same walls for perhaps hundreds of years. There might be a choir, but often these services are very simple, with prayers, readings and carols.
The Christmas morning service is usually a good deal noisier, with children invited to bring up their presents to show the congregation.
There’s also still a strong tradition of door-to-door carol singing, dating back several hundred years. Often on Christmas Eve small groups will sing carols in the streets, perhaps accompanied by instruments, and collect money for charity. The old songs are usually held to be the best ones–“Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” or “In The Bleak Mid-Winter”–and might be sung anywhere from a motorway service station to the village inn.
One church takes carol sheets to its local Coach and Horses. The local folk group brings its fiddles, accordions and Northumbrian pipes, and all the regulars sing along.
Though the problem of homelessness is much less severe today than it used to be, there are still people who rely on night shelters and hostels. Some churches open their doors and provide a hot Christmas meal for these people.
One Baptist church has a chef in membership, who’s persuaded his boss to open his restaurant on Christmas Day to feed up to 60 homeless people.
Food is a big part of Christmas, and there’s usually more than enough to go round. The traditional English Christmas dinner was goose, but now it’s usually turkey, with bread sauce, chestnut stuffing, sausages and bacon. Vegetarians struggle.
The meal usually finishes with a Christmas pudding, often made a year or two before and traditionally containing silver coins, meant to bring luck to whoever gets one (not that good Baptists believe in that bit of it).
This year there has been much media attention given to supposed attempts to secularize Christmas. Firms are reported to have banned their staff from sending religious Christmas cards to each other, town councils are alleged to have refused permission for Nativity scenes to be erected, and it’s been suggested that there is a move towards a sort of universal winter festival which avoids mention of any faith in particular.
It’s actually hard to substantiate any of these claims, but there’s certainly a feeling among many Christians at present that the historic faith of the country is being marginalized. Another example is the well-known refusal of British Airways to let one of its employees wear a tiny cross around her neck. If nothing else, the perception has made sincere Christians more willing to stand up and be counted.
Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times, newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.