Christian leaders delivered a string of politically-charged sermons yesterday attacking financial greed – capping a year of tumultuous events that has often seen the religious establishment wrong-footed.
Britain's two most senior Anglican clergymen, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, both took excoriating swipes at the financial system in what were seen as their attempts to regain some moral authority in the escalating debate about inequality in Britain. The Pope concentrated on the increasing commercialisation of Christmas.
The Catholic Church's most senior figure in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, also used his midnight mass homily to rebuke plans by Israel to annex yet more Palestinian land as it extends its controversial separation barrier.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams lamented what he described as the "broken bonds and abused trust" within British society, speaking at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday.
Comparing the actions of speculators to the behaviour of those who looted shops earlier this summer, he said: "Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today's financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark."
Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, listed sins he described as "beastly". All revolved around greed, such as "extortionate moneylending", "perverting justice for a bribe" and "a right to consume with no regard for social action".
The decision by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to examine greed follows intense criticism of how the Church of England handled the Occupy London Stock Exchange protests that camped out on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. Plans by the cathedral to evict the protesters prompted resignations and widespread criticism within clergy amid concerns that senior leaders were appearing out of touch with anger on the streets.
Since then the Archbishop of Canterbury – whose personal sympathies lay with the Occupy protesters – has been keen to push the church towards confronting what many see as a deeply unjust financial system.
Meanwhile Channel 4 took the opportunity to deliver two "alternative Christmas messages". This year's first alternative message was delivered by Stephen Drew and Vic Goddard, two teachers who featured in Educating Essex, a documentary set in a school.
Calling for greater understanding towards young people, Mr Goddard said: "Youth today are given such a hard time and for some young people Christmas will be fairly rubbish. It's a time when differences are magnified."
In the second alternative message, participants in some of Channel 4's diversity programming – such as Max Laird from Seven Dwarves, Karen Gayle from My Transsexual Summer, the acid-attack survivor Katie Piper and Beauty and the Beast contributor Susan Campbell-Duncan, who has a facial disfigurement – made a plea for tolerance.
The most senior Catholic in England and Wales also used his midnight mass speech to criticise the Israeli government over its plans to appropriate more Palestinian land in expanding its separation barrier. The Archbishop of Westminster decided to include a prayer for the Palestinian inhabitants of Beit Jala at the last minute following a visit to the Holy Land.
The Pope also used his Christmas speeches to make political points. At a midnight mass in Rome – which had been moved forward two hours to allow the Pope a good night's rest – Benedict XVI urged his faithful to look beyond what he described as "Christmas glitter", in an attack on the secularisation of a religious festival.
"Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity," the pontiff said. "Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season."
Twelve hours later – at his annual "Urbi et Orbi" speech in front of worshippers at St Peter's basilica – the Pope turned his attention to war, specifically naming Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. "May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts which even today stain the earth with blood," he said during the address, which translates as "to the city and the world".
Pontiffs often use their Christmas messages to call for an end to violence but this year's message had extra poignancy. Only hours before the sermon was delivered, scores of Catholic Nigerians were killed whilst celebrating Christmas mass in a bomb blast close to the capital Abuja.