Whilst the average school nativity play might include a diverse array of children in today’s Britain, it would seem that the bare essentials – the angels, the shepherds, the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph – would also be present and correct. However, if the Church of England get their way, this may soon be slightly passe.
As reported in the Daily Telegraph over the weekend, the Church of England want to make Christmas ‘more multicultural’. As such, they have sought to include “Hindu snowmen, a Chinese dragon and a Jewish temple” in their festivities. As the newspaper article went on:
…in an attempt to make the celebrations more inclusive of Britain’s diverse communities,Westminster Abbey will unveil life-size snowmen that Anglican clergy hope will help to improve relations and dialogue between other faiths.
Dressed in turbans, with bindi dots on their foreheads, they are intended to demonstrate that Christmas should not be exclusively for Christians.
The Rev Jane Hedges, a canon at the abbey, said that it was important to encourage people from other faiths to join in the celebrations.
“We’ve done this as it creates a good opportunity for Christians to meet and hear about the stories of people of other faiths,” she said.
“Christmas is an opportunity for everyone to stop and think and is a great opportunity for the different faiths to talk to one another.
“Wherever you’re coming from there should be something to celebrate at Christmas.”
In principle that’s fine. Christmas as a ‘cultural’ celebration is already quite a multiple one and quite a diverse affair. Just see how many people from different backgrounds participate in Christmas parties at work, exchange cards or buy presents for each other.
But this doesn’t seem to be what the Rev Jane Hedges of the Church of England is saying. She is saying that this has been done “as it creates a good opportunity for Christians to meet and hear about the stories of people of other faiths”.
Why exactly would Christians want to hear the stories of people from other faiths at Christmas, the second most significant Christian festival in the calendar…???
As she goes on to point out:
…for Muslims, they can appreciate the story of Christ’s birth because it is included in the Koran, adding that the Hindu snowmen were not an attempt to dumb down.
“Strictly speaking, the message of Christmas is about the birth of Christ, but it has a much broader message of peace and goodwill.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for goodwill. But introducing other faiths into what is no less a key theological event for Christians seems absolutely bizarre. I would say nonsensical but wouldn’t want to suggest this of (some) Christians at this special time of year.
The whole thing seems completely misguided especially when Rev Hedges puts forward the idea about Muslims being able to “appreciate the story of Christ’s birth”. First things first: Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the ‘Christ’. Second, the Koran [sic] relays a completely different story about Jesus’ birth, acknowledging the Virgin birth but in quite a different manner. This attempt then to bring Muslims and Christians together is founded upon a point of disagreement. Which then is ‘true’…???
Initiatives such as these surely do more harm to multiculturalism than they do good. Not only does it give the newspapers the opportunity to cry ‘political correctness gone mad’ but it also allows others to perceive – albeit rightly or wrongly – that their particular culture/ religion is being eroded. The BNP take centre stage…
Quite rightly Muslims don’t try and make Eid a multicultural event. Similarly, Hindus don’t attempt to do the same with Diwali. Yes, opportunities may exist to participate and enjoy the celebrations that go with these festivals but they are neither diluted nor re-interpreted for others, in the desperate hope of making them appear more or less multicultural. They belong to the community/ culture/ religion that they came out of and so let’s appreciate and recognise that basic premise.
So whilst the Church argues that activities such as these do not in any way undermine the Christian message, it doesn’t show a Church that is either confident in its beliefs or is indeed prepared to commit itself to them. Whilst Christians would argue that Christ came to save people of all faiths (and none), the Church of England would appear to be saying that it wasn’t quite clear why he came – maybe to just bring people of different faiths together without making any claims to truth. For any religion, this is complete bunkum and clearly wouldn’t emerge from the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Evangelical Alliance – the list goes on.
And maybe this is the major problem with the Church of England. In Jeremy Paxman’s book, ‘The English’, he recalls a conversation he had with the then Bishop of Oxford about which beliefs were necessary in order for an individual to be a member of the Anglican Church (Church of England). As Paxman noted:
A look of slight bafflement crossed his face. ‘An intriguing question,’ he answered, as if it had not occurred to him before.” The bishop eventually said, “Well, it rather depends.” He continued, “It depends on which church you go to. An evangelical church will say you need to be sincerely converted. A traditional Anglo-Catholic church will teach you a Christian orthodoxy virtually indistinguishable from Roman Catholic teaching.
He goes on:
“It doesn’t add up to a very coherent set of rules of belief, does it?” The bishop countered, “The Church of England doesn’t believe in laying down rules. It prefers to give people space and freedom. It’s enough to make the effort to attend and take communion. That shows you believe.”
The problem with the Church of England – and the Anglican Communion – is twofold: first, that it remains a product of the British empire and second, that it does not really understand exactly what it is that it either stands for or believes in.
In terms of empire, there is little doubt that despite the initial split from the Catholic Church happening in the 16th century, it wasn’t until the expansion of the British Empire that the Church of England began to emerge as a global phenomenon. Possibly having the same mindset as the Empire itself, it might be suggested that the Church believed its own self-ascribed superiority. Given that many believed that England was blessed by God and that its expansion was in some way a divine right, it is no wonder that in today’s Britain – and world – that it is experiencing some confusion. Much the same as the notion of Britain, the Church possibly continues to harbour colonial and imperial superiority complexes at the same time as having a crisis of identity, despertaley grasping at straws whilst also trying to retain a grasp on the reigns of power.
What with the demise of the Empire and the changes that have occurred in Britain – England in particular – more recently, not least the fact that British society has become more diverse and less ‘religious’ – particularly in terms of anything beyond a mere nominal affiliation with the Church of England – so the Church as the the ‘Comforter of the Comfortable’ – the Church that has historically been all things to all people as the Bishop of York’s comments and observations would suggest – is unsurprisingly somewhat lost.
In terms of a lack of conviction around its beliefs, this can be seen in recent years around the issue of homosexuality and the ordination of women priests. Even the speech earlier this year by the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that Sharia law was ‘inevitable’ seems to suggest a sense of complete and utter misguidance. Trying to remain all things to all people therefore means that the Church tries to defend all religions at the same time as doing the same for the more liberal elements of the Church. In turn, it increasingly comes across as a Church without any clear beliefs or morals and one that does not seem to really believe in itself or eseentially what it stands for.
In essence therefore, this seems to be more about the lack of identity in the Church of England rather more so than about a need to make Christmas more multicultural. As the Rev Rod Thomas, the chair of Reform – a leading evangelical group – argues:
People want Christians to celebrate Christmas without compromise…It’s only by doing this that people of other faiths respect what we stand for…
And I think that he’s got it right.
If nothing else, the Church of England should take a leaf out of the book of our Lord Cliff Richard and remember that Christmas Day is ‘Saviour’s Day’:
Open your eyes on Saviour’s Day
Don’t look back or turn away
Life can be yours if you’ll only stay
He is calling you, calling you
On the Saviours Day…!
Open your eyes Church of England, it’s the Saviour’s Day not anybody elses…!!!
‘The 12 Posts of Xmas’ are a series of posts that will be published between 1 December and 25 December 2008. From tales of woe through humour to mere rants, each post is based around a classic Christmas song – however tenuous that might be…!!!
Everything on this site by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. www.chris-allen.co.uk