Sunday, December 24, 2006

And so this is (almost) Christmas

I have to say, this sounds about right:

Non-Christians are the most regular attenders - 29% say they attend a religious service at least weekly. Yet Christmas remains a religious festival for many people, with 54% of Christians questioned saying they intended to go to a religious service over the holiday period.
But then, so does this:

"You also have to bear in mind how society has changed. It is more difficult to go to church now than it was. Communities are displaced, people work longer hours - it's harder to fit it in. It doesn't alter the fact that the Church of England will get 1 million people in church every Sunday, which is larger than any other gathering in the country."

The Right Rev Bishop Dunn, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, added: "The perception that faith is a cause of division can often be because faith is misused for other uses and other agendas."
While this says as much about America as it does about Britain:

Britain's generally tolerant attitude to religion is underlined by the small proportion who say the country is best described as a Christian one. Only 17% think this. The clear majority, 62%, agree Britain is better described as "a religious country of many faiths".
I find myself thinking of the words of William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury: "Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” As Bishop Don Wimberley said: "We are a missionary church, a missionary people, and a missionary institution." This raises distinct issues of hospitality, as well as identity. The battle in the Anglican Communion right now is because some are forgetting who the church exists for. The short answer is: if you think it exists for you, you are wrong. The church doesn't exist to serve you, or people like you. It exists to serve others, and especially people who are not like you. I know this is a radical attitude, and a fundamentally non-institutional one. But that's one reason Jesus never founded a church. It wasn't about him, and it wasn't about his disciples. It was always, and always is, about God. And to us, God is always and wholly (as well as holy) Other. This is what makes us a missionary church, a missionary people, a missionary institution. We (the TEC, I mean) are one in the Spirit, not in the canons, or in who gets to decide who is, and who is not, fit to be a Bishop; or even a Presiding Bishop.

So are we a minority in Britain, or in the world? Good. Better we should be, as the call to Christianity is a call to discipleship. If non-Christians are attending our services more regularly than Christians, it either means people are more honest in a poll, or that we're doing even better than we thought. What is our purpose, after all? To fill the pews with paying customers? Or to be in mission to the world? Is the swollen attendance at Christmas an excuse to soft-pedal the message? No, not at all. Neither is it an excuse for bashing people, either. It is a reason to do what we do best. Did the Christ child come as a conqueror? Or as a helpless child? And who was first invited to his birthplace? Priests and bishops? Or shepherds, the outlaws, the bikers, the rowdies and and lowest class of his day. Did anyone ask them what they believed, or their sexual preference, before the angels showed up? Were they pre-screened to be sure they appeared regularly at Temple, and were fit to attend the birth of the Saviour? Why did Gabriel appear to Mary, if women were unfit for the presence of God? And what was it Mary said that found favor with Gabriel, when Zechariah was struck dumb until he named his first-born child?

Compare and contrast: Zechariah asked for a sign: "How can I be sure of this?" But Mary simply asked how the miracle would be done: "How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?" And she answered more wisely than the priest in another way, too: "Here I am, the handmaiden to the Lord."

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head; you has got a manger bed.

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