Sunday, 1 December 2019

61. St Mary’s Church, Cubbington

Today sees the start of Advent, the four-week lead up to Christmas. Everywhere this morning youngsters are opening little cardboard windows to tease out a Peppa Pig chocolate or similar. A look round the shop shelves this week - plus of course the easy online options - shows advent calendars dispensing crisps, sweets, collectable figures and (for the adults one would hope) different flavoured gins. You can just about get one of the old Nativity scene picture versions, complete with a blob of glitter here and there, but they’re fighting a losing battle against very brash, very pushy opposition.

My own calendar this year is a handmade and hand-chosen one which today yielded me a small wooden bicycle, a string of battery lights and a penguin joke. Like the story of Advent itself, I feel it may be leading somewhere but enlightenment may take weeks yet.

To start the seasonal lead-up to the church’s most joyous festival - it would be an interesting but ultimately pointless debate as to which is the more important out of Christmas and Easter - I am visiting the beautiful church of St Mary in Cubbington. It’s a good-looking church on any day but the low sun for this earlyish start is truly making the rose-coloured stone glow.

Inside, there is evidence that St Mary’s has already fired the starting pistol on preparations for the nativity story. There’s a handsome, fully decorated Christmas tree and a splendid nativity scene ready to illustrate the story. And there are notices aplenty about forthcoming festive events and services. The communion service has a few changes to reflect the start of the season and a very steady-handed youngster is brought forward to light the first candle of the Advent Crown. How many of us, I wonder, cannot hear the words ‘advent crown’ without conjuring up images of interlocked coat-hangers and tinsel just like the one on Blue Peter.

Strange then, amid all this preparation and anticipation, that the sermon should focus almost exclusively on a very well-trodden attack on the retail world expanding the traditional twelve days of Christmas into a spending frenzy aimed at grabbing your money while supplying little other than material possessions. 

Christmas, says the vicar, used to start on Christmas Eve, intimating it seems to me that we should all stick to that non-commercialised timetable. Involuntarily my gaze strays to the six-foot tree and its fine decorations. These are arguments we hear every year. They start the second any shop begins the process of removing the Halloween tat and replacing it with glittering plastic nonsense we’re all supposed to need at Christmas. And the complaints intensify as council staff start putting up the lights and pubs start advertising the traditional turkey blow-out for which we’ll all need to book soon. 

I utterly agree that there is only a certain number of times you can hear Slade and Wizzard again before you lose your grip on the world but I can’t let this morning’s sermon go by without noting that there are two sides at work here. Far from being the greedy, profit-soaked retail heavens they’re made out to be, our high streets are dying on their feet. 

Everywhere you look shops are closing down - and not just small, vulnerable ones, but big players too. And they’re taking jobs with them when the shutters go up. Those that are left face  a struggle to survive, cutting prices, squeezing margins just to keep pace with the online threat - more a reality than a threat. The true meaning of Christmas   to many who work in the retail or hospitality sectors is a chance for survival which must, at all costs, be grabbed and made to work. Retail needs every penny it can get at the moment. Much like our churches.

I fall to wondering if, rather than fight to regain sole control over Christmas (its meaning, purpose and bounty), the church should admit a partial defeat and perhaps hit back with a ‘churchification’ of Black Friday, Bonfire Night or Halloween. All these overtly secular happenings could easily have more spiritual connections perfect for getting more people through the church doors.

Setting aside for a moment any debate over the ‘true meaning’ of the sermon, this was a very uplifting service in the company of a welcoming congregation.  People were quick to say hello and find out what brought me along this morning and - not for the first time on this project - I’ve found myself thinking I’d be happy to go back.

This next month will bring a surfeit of some elements of the modern Christmas. Like everyone I shall feel the pressure to shell out more money to kit out my Christmas experience with things I probably don’t need. I shall feel I’m being overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall advertising, the repeats of dreadful films, the sight of otherwise normal people sporting awful jumpers and hats with bells. 

But there will also be the preparations in churches and the stately retelling of the Christmas story with all its wonder, solemnity and hope. And I’m quite happy for those two things to sit alongside each other without the need for rancour or remorse.