A Sermon preached by The Very Revd June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury
Micah 5 v 2-5a; Luke 1 v 39-45
If we’re doing anything in this coming week we’re probably doing some social visiting. With family, with friends, Christmas structures itself around getting together. And we’ve just heard the story of a social visit which forms part of the hinge between Advent and Christmas.
Mary the poor relation from the north visits her well-to-do relatives who live on the edge of the big city Jerusalem. We don’t know what takes her there other than that the two women are both pregnant and women who are pregnant tend to spend time with other women who are pregnant. But once there Elizabeth pours out this blessing on Mary. Rather unexpectedly it’s Elizabeth the older and wealthier one who says that it’s a privilege to have Mary under her roof, and that the visit has brought her great joy.
Christmas is a time for crossing thresholds; entering into each other’s homes, being blessed by the company of friends and family.
A friend of mine has by the threshold of his front door a sign which says
‘Bidden or unbidden God is present’
I’ve never discussed with him why it’s there, but I do know that the psychologist Carl Jung also had that same message by his front door. It feels to me like a declaration, a blessing for all who enter or leave, crossing his threshold. I’m sure both Jung and my friend mean it as a Christian blessing though it originates, as far as I know, in pre-Christian times at the Oracle in Delphi.
I’d like to just reflect with you for a few minutes on the nature of Christmas to show why I think this is such an appropriate blessing: ‘Bidden or unbidden God is present’
This country is committed to doing Christmas big time. We’re once again in the midst of it. The impact of Christmas on our lives seems to grow stronger every year and whilst it does, we’re less sure than we once were about the sacred or religious nature of these celebrations. Local authorities think twice before erecting crib scenes in their municipal spaces, more Christmas cards each year wish us ‘happy holidays’, and references to the Christ-child are largely contained within church.
It all fits with the questions some are asking of us about whether, in pluralist Britain, we ought to reduce our commitment to the Christian nature of Christmas in response to the changing landscape of religion. Two weeks ago a Cambridge Institute published the report of a commission looking at the role of religion in public life. And they began what they had to say by describing some of those changes on the religious landscape:
· Looking purely at census results it seems that half of us now say that we have ‘no religion’;
· Many more citizens of this land now devoutly practise a faith which isn’t Christian;
· And there’s a noticeable growth in charismatic or evangelical forms of Christian believing which for all its merits tends to be a brand of believing which focuses on personal response and affiliation.
The Commission’s report goes on to say some things with which I largely agree: that they want to contribute to an environment in which differences enrich society rather than to cause us anxiety. They usefully challenge the media’s approach to religion which often applies peculiar and passively hostile filters. So let me encourage you to take an interest in their recommendations – you can find their report easily available on the internet - which are based on a generous desire to respect our pluralities of belief, and to celebrate in British society the freedoms of enquiry, conscience and religious - or non-religious - expression.
But with the Christian festival of Christmas all around us I want to take issue with some of the assumptions I think I read in this report. I’ll just mention two.
Firstly, I think they build far too much on the fact that people tick the census box which says ‘no religion’. I suspect that a high proportion of the thousands who’ll choose to come through this Cathedral Church in the next week will be those who say they have ‘no religion’. Because I meet so many people in church who tell me they have ‘no religion’ I know that we should judge what’s right for our national life on something more than personal identification with institutional religion.
Following on from that, and again I can’t prove this but I suspect people of all faiths and none wish the Christian DNA of this country to remain strong and confident, whether or not those same individuals call themselves Christian or find church irrelevant. They know that our British culture and values are based on our collective Christian legacy and we jettison that for a pick and mix of values at our peril.
Bidden or unbidden God is present.
And the second thing I take issue with in the Commission’s approach is that they fall into the trap of treating that Christian legacy in some way as exclusive of others, whereas I believe it’s in its very nature inclusive, offering universal relevance and benefits. We’ve long celebrated Christmas as an uncompromisingly Christian festival not because we expect everyone to believe in the redemption offered through Jesus Christ but because it does all of us good for the festival to confidently declare that hope.
This land has always been, and I’m delighted to say continues to be, pluralist. Our Christian history and British culture – seen so sublimely in the experience of Christmas – recognises that God speaks through many creeds, lifestyles, contexts and accents. Yet you also need a strong religious basis of tradition and values if you’re at the same time able to make a trustworthy judgment about what is valid or truthful. We’ll be a diminished society if we totally secularise Christmas, thinking that the route to freedom and respect is by the road of no national religious identity. So whilst I applaud the call for greater religious literacy and articulation of our religious pluralities I’m absolutely sure that our Christian character needs to unapologetically go on being a dominant force in what it means to be British today.
So here is my plea on this weekend before Christmas: let’s not give people in this country a false choice between an entirely secular winter festival or a narrowly religious festival which is only relevant to those who tick the census box of being ‘Christian’.
Let us see this as a season of hope for all, in which something of universal significance is delivered through symbols, music, gift-giving, feasting and social visiting. Let it be the type of festival which would have worked for someone like Mary. Luke tells us nothing at all about Mary’s religious convictions but when she did her social visiting and crossed Elizabeth’s threshold she was blessed for her hope. Like all of us she was also going to know sorrow. She was going to suffer through the continuing demands of loving a family: she knew all that. She watched her child grow, strive, and fail. She hurt with him when he was tested and had his heart broken, when he was tempted to betray himself. Like some of us mothers today she feared her son had made poor choices and worst of all, she even had to watch him die.
In that Christmas which remains Christian but not compulsorily religious - which is for everyone - we’re offered the hope that when all the sorrows have sounded their tragic notes in our life there is another note which sounds – in all our crosses there is a resurrection.
In it all, bidden or unbidden God is present.