As I crossed from the bookshop next to Westminster Cathedral, I was met by a troupe of small children in school uniform, each wearing a head-circlet of sparkling tinsel. They were lining up to go into the cathedral, obviously to rehearse a Nativity play. Ahead of them were some children in white robes and more tinsel, and I think I spied a Wise Man or two – or three – further inside.
It’s the season for end-of-term plays and celebrations, and children at the St Vincent de Paul primary school next door to the Cathedral have no problem – they’ll present a Nativity play to a packed cathedral in due course, with mums and dads gazing on proudly, and everyone from tourists to regular faithful relishing the sense of an annual tradition that gives a glow to the Christmas season.
Elsewhere, however, things are more problematic. Many schools are nervous about presenting a traditional Nativity play. Is it not too emphatic in teaching a specifically Christian message? Doesn’t it “exclude” Moslems and Hindus? And – a real problem – might it not invoke the anger of some campaigning secularist who chooses to take the matter up with the local education authority and/or with the mass media, always ready for a tasty story with plenty of angry comment on all sides?
It’s depressing to watch what has in recent years become an annual charade – groups wondering if they are “allowed” to sing Christmas carols in the street; schools nervous of appearing “too Christian” if they produce a Nativity story complete with shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph; politicians choosing to play safe with Christmas cards that depict some neutral snowy scene instead of something involving a church or angels.
The absurdity is that actually there is no massive anti-Christian feeling in Britain. Most Moslems and Hindus do not mind in the least if there are Christmas Nativity scenes in shop windows or groups singing carols around the streets. The Chief Rabbi has gone on record as deploring the abandonment of religious symbols and religious language in the public sphere. Christmas has been honoured and celebrated in Britain for more – much more – than a thousand years and it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that such celebration should now be restricted or banned.
But we are living in very sad times. The Church has been wounded by scandals involving sexual misbehaviour of a tiny minority of clergy. Public manners and morals have for years been undermined and wrecked by pornography, widespread abortion – we have been killing unborn children in Britain systematically, using public funds, for over forty years – and by the steadily increasing vulgarity and crudity of much of the culture, from advertisements to TV soap operas. For many people, Christmas won’t be the family festival that it ought to be. Divorce has ripped too many families apart, and the motorways will be busy with people ferrying children to and fro for a number of different Christmas dinners: with mum and her new boyfriend, with Dad and his parents, with Mum’s stepmother, and so on.
Christmas for many will mean plenty of food and too many toys, but not much in the way of any real understanding of Christ’s birth and what it means.
In 2012, Britain will mark the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II. There is much for which to thank God, and, in particular, this includes the Queen’s generous example of public service and devotion to duty over six decades. There will be public events and an opportunity for people to come together and feel a sense of community. But the only real way to bring about a sense of goodwill and neighbourliness in Britain is to restore a recognition of the role that Christianity has in our common life and in the values we honour and cherish. We owe it to the tinsel-crowned children in Westminster to offer them a better Britain in which to grow up and build a way of living together. We should no longer feel obliged to consider ourselves as spiritual and cultural orphans for whom “Christmas” is just a shopping spree. Pope Benedict XVI has announced a Year of Faith, and a call to evangelisation: it’s a message that Catholics and other Christians in Britain need to take to heart.