Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Christmas carols are embarrassing

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Bishop Nick Baines

Bishop Nick Baines

Advent is begun, and Christmas approaches. I’m glad to see that Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon, has a book out called Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?: What Matters (and What Doesn’t) in the Festive Season. I came across the book via a piece in our nation’s favourite jolly reactionary rag, the Current Bun. The article has attracted a few nasty comments, which mostly revolve around being incensed (!) that someone who ought to be a bastion of green-and-pleasant warm-beer England has turned-coat and attacked, shock-horror, Christmas carols.

However, the bishop is voicing quite rationally the problems of infantilised religion, a phenomenon faced most clearly every Christmas. It is only natural that those who enjoy looking at pictures of women’s breasts on page three of the Sun, also appreciate infantilised religion.

In 2002, I felt it important to introduce the singing of O Little Town of Bethlehem at a nine lessons and carols (grown-up carols), that we might sing it as a prayer for Bethlehem, which earlier that year had seen Israeli tanks in Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity besieged and its bellringer among the ten Palestinians killed there. We also remember that Bethlehem was a place of conflict and bloodshed in Jesus’ time (Herod’s order of infanticide). Singing this quaint carol without placing it contrast with real life is ignorant, even escapist. Religion has more to do with asking questions than answering them, and I think contextualising these carols, if done well, can help us to find deeper meanings: Christ is not just saviour of a fallen humanity, but born right in the midst of it.

Religion has always played an important role in social control, and Victorian Christianity is a prime example. Bishop Baines points out that Once in Royal David’s City instructs ‘Christian children’ to model themselves on the ‘mild’ and ‘obedient’ Jesus (I noticed my modern hymnal has rewritten that offending verse). I also see my hymnal has an alternative to ‘no crying he makes’ in Away in a Manger. So, we not only have infantilised religion but behavioural control. It is proper that our bishops should be pointing out that these texts that have become key to the Christmas of so many are problematic.

To counter these remarks, the Sun trawls out a comment from the musical director at Eton, saying “They bring a smile to people’s faces”. I’m sure that’s the same defence he uses for the privileges our society grants to the toffs that pass through his institution (so far, so Boris Johnson).

Bishop Baines suggests that getting adults to put on a nativity play for children might be an interesting experiment in role reversal, and make the adults question the message they’re giving. It’s worth a go!

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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