THE Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has backtracked on his criticism of Scots who attend religious services only at Christmas.
In his Christmas message published today, the Rt Rev John Chalmers said he regretted castigating members of congregations for turning up just once a year. Instead, he argued that Christmas Eve attendance proved the power of the Christmas message and of faith.
In a statement on the Church’s national website, Mr Chalmers said: “Years ago, I thought it was role of a Presbyterian minister to be critical of all the excess materialism which pervaded Christmas. So one Christmas Eve in front of [a] packed congregation I had a go at those people who, in my opinion, didn’t pay attention to the real meaning of Christmas and I put the tin lid on it by criticising those who only came to church once a year.
“I have repented of such foolishness. Now I believe that those who pack our churches on Christmas Eve do so because the power of Christmas still draws them in to hear the story of God, in the life of a tiny baby, breaking through the darkness to bring light into the world.”
Earlier this month, Mr Chalmers said the Church of Scotland was aiming to attract 100,000 new members by 2025, with online recruitment a prime tool.
He urged Scots to attend a local Watchnight or morning service on Christmas Day, and added: “If it’s got anything to do with me there will be a warm welcome awaiting you and there will be an opportunity for you to put Christ back into Christmas.”
The Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, from St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, said the Church of Scotland was relatively new to celebrating festival days as opposed to treating Christmas Day as a working day.
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He said: “It’s part of the Church of Scotland discovering festivals and I think their reticence in the past to celebrate was partly about the fact that they were suspicious of festivals. They didn’t fit the Calvinist ideal of what Scotland should look like.
“We don’t celebrate church at all until Christmas Eve – there’s no tree, there’s no baubles, there’s no decorations or anything like that. And people love it, because it’s different to the world outside and in Advent, it’s like a Christmas-free-zone.
“And then when you get to Christmas, all the gold and the glitz comes out and all of a sudden you realise what it’s all about.
“People try out churches at Christmas, because people know that you can go to church at Christmas without anybody bothering you. They know you can just walk in and enjoy what’s going on.
“And then it’s not unsurprising for people to come back in January if they liked what they got at Christmas. And so we’re playing on that a little bit.”
Mr Holdsworth said they had added a crib service two years ago and seen attendance go from nothing to 120 in that time. And he said he had handed out 1,000 invitation cards in the past two weeks to attract family and friends to the church, acknowledging it was the time to pull people in.
“People are looking for something to believe in these days,” he added.
The Rev Iver Martin, at Stornoway Free Church, said while attendance numbers didn’t particularly increase at Christmas, Scots do feel a pull.
He said: “You don’t typically get people coming to the Free Church because of Christmas, not like you do in other churches. There are maybe one or two other extras who come. But I don’t want to ever discourage people from coming to church. And many the person who has come on a one-off basis has ended up coming regularly and who has come to discover what it’s all about.
“I think that in the heart of man, there is a longing for something deeper. I’m almost tempted to believe that the more we commercialise it, the more we glamorise it, the less satisfied people are. Our own denomination is using the opportunity far more, for precisely that there is perhaps an added interest at this time of year.”
Father Tom Boyle, a parish priest in Bishopton, Renfrew-shire and assistant general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said this time of year would often attract more people to church.
He said: “I think that the name of the feast gives it away – it’s about Christ, and people remember the carols from school or whatever their background is, whether it’s a practising Christian one or a non-practising Christian one, there’s an affection there.
“There’s a saying that once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And some of them might be resting, some of them might be a bit intermittent, but when it comes to it, there’s lots of people out there who have some attachment to the church and the doors of the church are always open.”
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