We won’t go to church on Christmas Day again. It had been one of our traditions. As kids, we’d be bundled into the car and, singing carols on the way, we’d go to the Christmas Day service. It wasn’t about God. My parents didn’t believe. It was the only day of the year that we went, but they wanted to make Christmas Day special, to dilute the frenzy for an hour or so and give us the opportunity to sing carols.
They wore their English identity lightly. We grew up as cultural Anglicans. Church on Christmas Day, therefore, made sense. We’d all bellow our hearts out with great gusto. It was an adventure. We continued that family tradition until Tuesday.
At the church it became clear that it was theirs and not ours. The service was for its congregation. Familiar carols were given a twist that made them hard to sing. New and obscure carols that only the choir of four knew were on the list.
I too don’t believe, but the service felt a million miles away from the cultural Anglicanism I grew up in: of school assemblies, Henry VIII and, of course, Christmas.
Is it a coincidence that I’ve noticed the congregation dwindle in our local church on Christmas Day? There’s the small hard-core congregation. There are fewer and fewer people like us. Our local vicar is a good man, and if you believe in what he believes, he’s no doubt great, but the service was run without even a nod to those who want to be there without believing.
It was a remote experience and, therefore, not worth doing again. It was not an adventure. None of this would matter, if we hadn’t been at an Anglican service. The Church of England remains so powerful both nationally and globally, and our church service is part of one of the most influential institutions.
Therefore, the fact that, to all intents and purposes, we felt we did not belong has a much wider significance than if we had attended a local faith group meeting. What the Church of England says still goes, and our microcosm experience in our local church reaffirms that this institution, whose power puts it at the heart of national life, is increasingly becoming part of the problem.
The Anglican Communion could play a wider role. There are countless examples of the power of the Church of England for making change and thereby making itself relevant. When the Church is inclusive, embracing those of all faiths and none, it can make a difference.
A simple and clear example is the Church’s role in ending the arbitrary persecution of gay men in the UK back in the 1960s. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, recognised the human waste of targeting gay men in this way, and it was his leadership that contributed to the equality that LGBT+ people in the UK now enjoy.
That hasn’t happened across the globe, and in fact, the criminalisation of homosexuality and the global Anglican Communion go hand in hand.
The link is empire. The legacy of British colonialism is large Anglican congregations in places where the British once were, alongside odious criminal laws punishing gay men. However, on the issue of criminalisation, the bedrock of LGBT+ persecution, Lambeth Palace and its present incumbent, Justin Welby, keep schtum.
They continue to kick the issue into the long grass. They have no meaningful strategy for attempting to end this global shame where criminalisation endures in almost half of all countries, the bulk of which had those laws bequeathed to them by the British.
A couple of years ago the London School of Economics, with the full backing of its Anglican chaplain, produced a compelling report identifying how the Anglican Communion could try to get to grips with its role in ending LGBT+ hate. It advocated an independent commission of inquiry made up of Anglicans and experts to identify options and solutions.
That mantle was then picked up by a brilliant Jamaican activist, Maurice Tomlinson, who held a groundbreaking conference in Jamaica in 2017 which also promoted the idea of an independent commission, something with genuine authority, to push the debate forward. The papers from that conference, “Intimate Conviction”, have just been put on line, and the clarion call from a former Archbishop of the West Indies, John Holder, is well worth reading.
Whilst the Anglican Communion permits LGBT+ persecution to continue globally without doing all that it can to end that harm, it will remain a fundamentally flawed institution. Without the leadership of Lambeth Palace on this issue, the Anglican Communion as a whole lacks credibility.
We see through it. It is remote and out of touch. It feels inauthentic. Is being an Anglican simply being a member of a club? If that’s all it means, why shouldn’t it be stripped from national life?
That lack of authenticity is why next year we’ll find some other way of taking the frenzy out of Christmas. And we will leave our local Anglican congregation to themselves.
Maybe one day we’ll be back. Christmas Day is their opportunity to allow cultural Anglicans to celebrate along with them. The welcome we need isn’t just an acknowledgement of who we are, but should also show Anglicans are a force for good in the world and promote genuine equality.
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