London has echoed to the sounds of Christmas carols for a long, long time. Some of our traditional Christmas carols have medieval origins. The only time that carolers have been banned was under Oliver Cromwell—who famously also banned mince pies and obliged Parliament to meet at 7 am on Christmas Day for a routine day’s business.
But today, some people do seem to think that singing Christmas carols is somehow forbidden; devout friends have assured me that they are certain any songs sung in public at this season must by law be about reindeer and children getting toys. It’s a sort of urban myth—promoted, oddly, by the very people who ought to be upholding and defending proper Christmas traditions. Somehow, devout people get a sort of ooh-isn’t-it-dreadful glow by talking in this way. But the simple fact is that singing traditional Christmas carols in the streets, railway stations, and elsewhere in Britain most certainly hasn’t been banned and indeed is in full swing across London and elsewhere.
By the time you read this, the singers from the parish of the Most Precious Blood will have completed a cheery evening singing carols at the big main railway station at London Bridge. Something like a million people surge through the station each day, commuting to and from the London suburbs and the Kent countryside. And of course the carols will be the traditional ones: “Hark the Herald Angels,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” and more.
Much more. Because, in addition to singing carols at London Bridge station this year, I have sung them—amid a good-sized congregation and with gusto—in the Houses of Parliament. I happened to be on my way to a meeting in the Central Lobby, and discovered that the annual Parliamentary carol service was under way in the 1,000-year-old Westminster Hall. A large crowd had gathered for this, so I joined it. The Salvation Army band played splendidly, the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow read from the Gospel of St. John, the Chaplain of the Commons led us in prayer…it was not a grand or stately event, but it was cheering and even rather uplifting.
The meeting I was attending was unconnected with this, but worth noting too. It concerned the annual Schools Bible Project, run by an ecumenical Christian group drawing together representatives from mainstream denominations. The project essentially involved inviting students at schools across Britain to study the New Testament. The idea is that they look at some specific events in the life of Christ, choose one, and then write about it as if they had actually been present. The project has now been running for over a quarter of a century, and has proved immensely popular. Students win cash awards for their schools, and book prizes for themselves. The trustees include Baroness Cox, who as a member of the House of Lords invites them to Parliament to be presented with their prizes.
I recognize that the relationships between Church and State, and between faith and reason, are different in various countries. But the thing that Christians have to grasp in the modern West is that we should not come to believe that it is in any way normal or natural for Christianity to be marginalized in our public life. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in that very hall, Westminster Great Hall, examined precisely this. It is not a matter of insisting on a formal relationship between the Church with all its official structures, and the structure of the State. Rather, it is a matter of allowing faith and reason to inform each other:
The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right actions are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply those norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.
The role of ordinary Christians is simply to be open about our Christian faith and to show that it has a place, as of right, in public life. That means being open about its songs and its festivities, its customs and traditions, and the role that all this has played in community life over centuries. And in a rather absurd way, the marginalizing Christianity is often now done by Christians themselves, when they somehow rather gloatingly assume that Christmas carols have been banned on a railway station when they haven’t, or when they gleefully announce the difficulty of obtaining Christmas cards with proper Nativity scenes on them.
Without minimizing the problems created by campaigning atheists, it really is important that we Christians get our own act together. It is not illegal to go carol-singing from house to house. It is not illegal to distribute information about local church services. It is not illegal to sell proper Nativity Christmas cards, Advent calendars, or Christmas decorations. Our local South London supermarket had plenty of all of those. Another big local store didn’t. If a shop doesn’t stock them, ask specifically for them. Express concern when they are not available.
And, through the year, there can and should be public acts of Christian witness: processions, outdoor celebrations following First Communions and other parish events, pageants, pilgrimages. Is there a Corpus Christi procession in your parish? Something for Our Lady in May?
Let’s take our tune from the great St John Paul. In Poland in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the public authorities sought to restrict Church activity by making it difficult to hold public processions or to build new churches. Catholics did not gloat about this or wag their heads sorrowfully. Under the leadership of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla they set about doing whatever was legally possible, and using every possible and practical means of asserting the public celebration of their Faith. By the time God intervened to bring Wojtyla to the office of St. Peter and send him back in joyous triumph to his country, it was to a Poland where the great church at Nowa Huta was already a monument to Polish Catholic heroism, which had built it against all sorts of difficulties from officialdom—a Poland where public processions and pilgrimages were a massive part of national life, as they had been for centuries. Courage, persistence, and prayer had worked.
Saint John Paul did not go in for speeches denouncing Communism—he simply never gave in to its immoral demands and he got on with what was possible and achievable for the Church with vigor and strength, confident that eventually truth would prevail. He is our model and our hero now in the West, where ugly, militant atheist campaigning is trying to impose jargon and restrictions on us all in ways redolent of the East European bureaucrats of old, minus (thank God) their police methods and the haunting background horror of the Gulag.
We have no excuse for being feeble as Christians. There is of course a great deal more to do than merely to sing carols at a railway station. A mix of courteous dialogue and steely resolve is going to be necessary as we seek to uphold freedom and foster genuine community goodwill over the next decades in a West increasing uncertain about what it believes and how it should live. But the first priority is surely to stop simply wringing our hands and bemoaning our situation. There are things to be done and difficulties to be resolved.
I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization. Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve but a vital contribution to the national conversation.” (Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster)
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