My local Protestant church held an evening carol service this week. My wife and I decided to go along. It is a Victorian Gothic pile, a slim steeple points to the heavens, several Byzantine-style icons, gold paint gleaming behind the saint. There the crowded congregation stood before the high iron rood screen, the lights lowered, the Christmas tree sparkled, many menorahs of candles glimmered along the aisles and colonnades. The worshipers, wrapped warm against a helm wind darkening, held their own candles in one hand, the order of service in the other. The audience itself helped create the theatrical tone. A middle-aged, middle class man, dressed in a frock padded the nave and transept, now smilingly benignly and now correcting minor scene-shifts, like an urbane and poised director touring a provincial theatre company.
The Virgin and Saint Joseph register for the census before the Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic at the Chora Church, Constantinople, 1315-20. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
The church was dark and full. One forgets how female the congregants are, perhaps two-thirds, and surprisingly many were in their 30s and 40s: the teenagers had occupied one pew and the odd pre-teen, a Christmas cracker primed to embarrass its parent, was dotted around the space. The choir began. The organ and mini-orchestra accompanied it. Here was a High Anglican drama, reasserting its plot to place itself at the centre of English culture, and narrating a pretty good case.
The service was made up of carols led by the choir stood before the rood screen facing the rest of us, readings from the Nativity story, excerpts from the poetic and socialistic part – if one is reading it anachronistically – of the Sermon on the Mount and a homily from the prelate delivered from the pulpit, set off to our left. We had the classic carols like “O come all ye faithful” and a disappointingly Cliff Richard happy-clappy swinging hymn, as melodically workaday as the dullest era of rock ‘n’ roll, say, between 1958 and 1962. My inner conservative bristled as the gaggle of teens whooped at the climax, such as it was, of the musical doggerel.
As a non-believer, I was obliged several times to suppress a gasp of shock at the nonsense to which intelligent people are expected to submit at church. Mark and John say nothing about Jesus’ birth. All we have comes from Matthew and Luke. Those two evangelists describe discrepant and sometimes contradictory Bethlehem stories. In the Gospel according to this church, we were repeatedly informed that Jesus was born in a manger. Not according to Matthew: Jesus was born at home. This church thinks that Jesus was born in the time of the Governor of Syria, Quirinius. That was 10 years after Herod’s death. That is because Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts differ in historically significant ways. So, Matthew thinks that Jesus was of Judean stock: Luke thinks his family was Galilean. We were told the story of the shepherds. This is Luke. Matthew does not mention shepherds, but kings. Luke does not refer to kings. Neither of them agree on when or where Jesus was born, nor on who was present. Yet, in a mish-mash of a Gospel which does not exist, the vicar presented this story as if all elements were true, and from one source. The service, in its liberal Christian fashion, emphasized the shepherds. This is the only claim in the New Testament to date the time of year of the birth of Jesus: in Judea, flocks were tended outdoors from March to November. It always surprises me that Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour at the one time of year when the New Testament says it did not happen.
Liberal Christians often object that one should not take these stories literally, that there is a poetic truth in the tale. Yes, we were invited into a theatrical space, the low lighting, the candles, the blackness of winter night through the stained-glass windows. Yet, we are never told where the poetry ends and the history begins. One cannot help but conclude that this is deliberate obfuscation on the director’s part. Imagine claiming, as the director-vicar did, that Judeo-Christian history is 4,000 years old. Had he claimed this at a Conference of historians or archaeologists, his every subsequent utterance would be ignored. It is not true. Written Jewish history is about 2,700 years old, with some fragments slightly older. This liberal Christian was asserting a more literalist interpretation to his flock, based on the chronology within the Old Testament of Abraham dating back to about 2,000 BCE. There is no evidence for that at all, and none for the emergence of a Jewish culture before about 1,200 BCE. The good prelate knows this. That is what divinity degrees cover. Yet he presented the nativity story as something true, occupying an ill-defined space somewhere between poetry and history. I wonder what the teens thought of the veracity of the whole charade.
As my wife and I left at the end, I remembered a family friend who once said to his Catholic priest at a similar service, “Long time, no see, Father!” I mumbled semi-deferential words of thank you and was surprised at the counter-stereotypical firmness of the cleric’s grip. Perhaps he thought how rare it is to see a Celtic ginger-nut at an Anglican gathering. I wondered how this intelligent man could spend his life lying about and for Jesus.