Graham Spiers: Church comes into its own

The story of the birth of Jesus ' as enacted here outside the Vatican ' remains powerfu.l Picture: AFP/Getty Images
The story of the birth of Jesus ' as enacted here outside the Vatican ' remains powerfu.l Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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IT IS Advent, and so our churches begin to fill up across Scotland. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating.

In they file – the agnostics, the atheists, never mind the believers – to hear the Christmas story once more and sing the rousing hymns. For a so-called dying institution, the Church still has a knack for coming into its own at this time of year.

I witnessed it with my own eyes – and not for a first time – last Sunday in my own rural church. With Christmas beckoning and the tinsel going up, the place got pretty busy as many a wavering believer streamed through the doors to take in the festive (holy) spirit. Our minister spoke about the “prince of peace” and not long afterwards people were cramming coffee and cake into their mouths and happily yapping.

The Church still has a certain drawing power at Christmas. The “nativity myth” of the birth of Jesus – and more than likely, that is what it is: a myth woven with all sorts of storybook magic – remains remarkably appealing. These years and decades have flown by, with their repeated pronouncements about the “death of Christianity”, yet here we are in 2012 with the Church still proving a magnet to many people. The atmosphere of a religious Christmas in Scotland is evidently very attractive. People still want to hear the gospel narratives with their now familiar characters: the shepherds, the wise men, a Bethlehem innkeeper, the stable. People also want to hear the hymns and the poetry readings, even if they do include John Betjeman asking: “Yes, but is it true … is it true?”

In many churches at this time of year they hold candlelight services, when the warm hue of the sanctuary contrasts with the cold and frost outside. The sense of the numinous can be profound. The Church, in short, still knows how to put on a show. Why do non-believers head to church at Christmas? Or why is it that, when a local village church falls into disrepair, the financial giving to save it can sometimes come just as generously from the “unchurched” as from the members themselves?

The answer seems to be this: that while people don’t believe in a deity like they used to, nor do they want the Church to disappear. On the contrary, the Church, especially at Christmas, seems to provide us with a strong reminder of who we are and where we belong.

I am momentarily reminded of a friend – not a man I have known to be of any appreciable faith – who bleated to me recently about his child’s lack of Christian education at school. “Listen, I want my kid to get a Christian education, and he’s not getting it so far as I can see,” he told me in some pique.

I knew exactly what he meant because I see it repeatedly. Many who – for whatever reason – have given up on faith, still respect the Church, occasionally revisit it, and wish it longevity. Most especially, I’d say, at this time of year.

There is one key factor in this re-enactment of faith at Christmas – children. In my experience, parents and guardians who otherwise have little truck with religious faith in their lives, nonetheless still want to expose their children to the Christian tradition. With that attitude prevailing, Christmas, with its obvious heart-warming ingredients, is a narrative than many continue to cherish.

The story of the birth of Jesus in the stable – setting aside for a moment the question of its historical veracity – conveys a deeply moving and appealing reality, both for adults and infants. There are many layers to this gospel story, but not the least of them is the vulnerability, the panicky flight, of Mary, Joseph and their soon-to-be-born child.

Today, when children hear this story of the wise men and the star in the sky, and of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, it is little wonder their eyes widen. But any adult, with a sense of their own insecurity or fragility, can also relate a tad gratefully to the story. The nativity story speaks of a universal human need and anxiety, which might explain why it still strikes a chord with so many, even in our so-called secular age when, apparently, faith is no more.

I can offer a minor personal testimony here. I am steeped in the Church – my father and grandfather were both Baptist ministers and the hymns blared around my ears from the word go – and I don’t think I could ever give up on it. Even if a terrible, crushing sense of the fallacy of faith were to strike me (which, mercifully, hasn’t happened) I still don’t think I could forsake the Church.

I guess there is another phrase for this: intellectual cowardice. I have argued with friends about this – flinty-faced atheists – who claim that Richard Dawkins rules and that religious faith is a kind of medieval hangover. That may well be so, but I still can’t help myself from loving the Church, especially at Advent.

I wonder how typical I am of church-goers these days. It is at times such as Christmas and Easter that you reflect again on the substantial truth or otherwise of Christian faith. Is it merely the game we play? Is it, in fact, the steadying crutch for our erratic lives, the “anchor” we put down, as the old hymn has it, amid the storms?

I’m happy to admit that, while faith remains real and meaningful, I more often than not gloss over the theological scrutiny of it all. Many aspects of faith seem improbable and, literally, fantastic, and the nativity story may be one such chapter.

If there really was some kind of divine intervention in that Bethlehem stable all those years ago – a genuinely earth-shattering, cosmic event – well, that would be quite something. That would be amazing. For many believers – and I count myself in here – the doubts about it stalk you every day. Everyone now knows that religious faith is a basic human need; it is a question of, even with that knowledge, making it plausible as well as emotional.

Yet the Church endures and endures. And it prevails across the entire gamut of hearts and minds – of scientists, physicists, lawyers, teachers, accountants, lorry-drivers, poets, even sportswriters – in its representations of meaning and truth. It is fascinating, too, that, excepting western Europe, the Church is making a booming comeback in many parts of the world today.

It is no wonder to me that our churches still seem attractive at Christmas, both to those of great faith and none at all. A Christmas service, especially in an evening of candlelight and carols, can be wonderful. The nativity story is not just colourful, warming and familiar. There is something epic about it as well.

I’m not a sandwich-board believer. I don’t much care for the “unless ye be saved” type stuff. But, like many, I wouldn’t be without the Church at Christmas. In fact, I crumble at the very thought.