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Should we preach at Christmas services?

carol singingDavid Walker, Bishop of Manchester, has done some research on the distinctive needs of occasional attenders who might come to Christmas services, but don’t attend the rest of the year. This appears to be an important group; I have noticed this year how many people are reporting increased attendances at carol services, and we saw the same at St Nic’s in Nottingham.

Some things were slightly surprising about this group.

Typically, two-thirds positively believed in specific details of the Christmas story: the shepherds, stable, and Wise Men. All but a tiny proportion of the rest were unsure. Only 13 per cent, however, felt that the facts were more important than the mystery. Half felt closer to God at Christmas, and yet more thought Easter to be, for them, the more important festival.

But other things were less surprising.

They were noticeably pluralist: they were far more likely to agree that all world faiths lead to God than that Christianity is the only true religion…On moral issues they were progressive: only 28 per cent disagreed with ordaining gay men as bishops.

(I wonder why a bishop labels this view ‘progressive’—or even why this is an important question to ask occasional church-goers at all…?). In other words, this is what you would expect to find in a respectable fringe group who think positively about church.

Out of this, David offers some helpful advice.

  • Don’t update the words of well-known carols to fit your theology…
  • Be imaginative. Use poetry, prose, and art…
  • Welcome people, but respect their personal space…
  • Mention other special events coming up in the calendar…

But in amongst them is one extraordinary suggestion:

  • If there is to be a sermon (and at carol services, it really is not a good idea)…

Not a good idea? Really? Here is a group of people, open to Christian things (possibly because they have attended church in the past) but without regular commitment—and it is not a good idea to preach? This is a very odd suggestion, for several reasons. First, it is not very Anglican. If you look at the ordinal and the 39 Articles, it is clear that the Anglican understanding of ordained ministry is that it is one of both word and sacrament—that preaching is as important as mystery, explanation as important as experience. (That is why, as Andrew Atherstone points out, it is historically odd that we are very happy with the delegation of preaching to lay ministers, but feel uncomfortable with delegation of eucharistic presidency to lay ministers.)


It is a particularly odd suggestion in relation to Christmas. The Christmas story itself is full of announcement and proclamation—indeed, if there is one thread running through every aspect of this multi-faceted story, it is that of proclamation. Gabriel to Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary, the dreams of Joseph, the angels appearing to shepherds, the Magi to Herod—how odd it would be to have no proclamation regarding a story of successive proclamations.

And what a story we have to proclaim. Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005—and is an atheist. Yet he loves to celebrate the Christmas story:

Nothing draws me more to religion than Christmas. That is not because I lose my atheist faith but because I intensely dislike all the commercial baggage and babble that surrounds the festival. So, in a spirit of protest, I shall try to attend at least one carol service and possibly a midnight Mass, too, as well as listening at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

All religions have stories at their heart. Christianity, to my mind, has the best: an omnipotent God who chooses to be incarnated as a human, born in the most humble circumstances imaginable. Whether or not we are believers, we should all celebrate that story in the coming days and ponder its meaning.

Pondering the meaning of this remarkable story is going to be a lot harder for occasional visitors unless there is some explanation or exposition of the story itself. The carols on their own will not do this.

So why would David Walker resist this? There are, perhaps, two clues in his article. The first comes early on with the only other reference to preaching.

There has always been a type of mission that ignores context, and simply struts its stuff. It is best illustrated by those who stand in city-centre streets, clutching microphones and tracts, and harangue shoppers and commuters with their favourite Bible verses.

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 09.46.39If this is your understanding of preaching, then no wonder you suggest avoiding it. But the best response to bad use is not no use—it is good use. There was a brief but wonderful example of this last week on the One Show. The final scene came from carol singing in All Soul’s, Langham Place, and Matt was talking to the Rector, Hugh Palmer.

HP: Giving appeals to our common humanity—I suspect the people who gave came from all faiths and none.

Matt: And that’s at the heart of the Christmas message that you would like to give…?

HP: Well, we often talk about charity beginning at home. But I think that charity begins with God, the good God, who is highlighted at Christmas. He looks and doesn’t just see children in need, but a world with all kinds of needs, and gives extravagantly, and not with a cheque, but gives himself, Jesus, and that’s the heartbeat of Christian giving. We don’t give so that God will give to us. We give, we love, because he first loved us—and that’s Christmas.

Matt: Well, thank you for that message…

It was a superb example of a concise, contextual and clear exposition of the Christmas story—to someone who came with rather different assumptions but some sympathy and openness.


The second clue about this reluctance to preach arises from the research questions. Although the attenders have been asked about the details of the Christmas story, and some broader questions about belief in God, they don’t appear to have been asked about the meaning of this story. Again, this is curious, since the New Testament stories themselves are laden with meaning and significance. As we can quickly tell, they are no mere recounting of facts. This tells us something important about this kind of research: the assumptions you put in are going to be the assumptions you get out. So if you don’t think that explaining and understanding the Christmas story is a priority as you start the research, your conclusions might just miraculously confirm this!

(Something similar has happened with the research into ‘ordinary theology’. It turns out that the majority of ordinary Anglicans don’t have a particularly orthodox understanding of either who Jesus is or what he achieved. And apparently, to take this seriously we don’t need to teach about orthodox Christian faith—we need to redefine it to include these views!)

Underlying this appears to be a lack of confidence that the story itself is compelling and attractive. If the Star Wars phenomenon tells us anything, it is that people love a good story. And there is no story as engaging and compelling as the story of the Word made flesh.


So, this Christmas, do preach. Make it contextually appropriate. Make sure it sounds like good news to those who might not have heard it before. Make sure you hold out the compelling truth of the story, and how it promises so much more. Make sure you focus, not so much on what people did or what we should do, but what God has done.

But whatever else you do—preach!


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47 Responses to Should we preach at Christmas services?

  1. Terry Jones December 22, 2015 at 9:10 am #

    Thanks for this Ian. I read this with several emotions two days ago. One was a bit of a ‘head-scratch’ and a ‘really?’ as you did. The other was a nostalgic hark back to my licensing by Bishop David when he was Bishop of Dudley.

    the other thing that really made me laugh this morning is that I remember thinking at the time, ” cue an Ian Paul blog!! The there it was this am. Love the quote from the atheist – I shall pretend he (or she) is there at midnight Christmas Eve. I too hate the haranguing ‘street preachers’ who to my mind can so easily inoculate people against reception of the message. Thanks for the reminder Ian to respect people I will do my very best to focus on the centre!

  2. Mathew Sheffield December 22, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    Thank you for this post, the timing is particularly appropriate as I’m due to be running the Christmas Morning service myself this week, and for the first time too.

    I’d been toying with this question on my walk to work, of how to communicate the Christmas message within what has been a fairly “standardized” Christmas day order of service, and was leaning towards ‘yes, preach, but be concise’ when I met a member of the congregation out for a walk who, when I asked their opinion, easily persuaded me otherwise (though I confess I didn’t take much persuading).

    I think I’ve changed my mind in response to this though and feel bad about my desire to take what is the easier option. It’s never too late to let God alter my plans, and to be frank I shouldn’t be surprised that he did. Hah.

    May you have a Thankful and Merry Christmas Ian,
    Mat

  3. Terry Jones December 22, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    Who’s the ‘atheist’ quoted Ian?
    TJ

  4. Jimmy Hamilton-Brown December 22, 2015 at 11:32 am #

    Yes, of course we should preach at carol services – otherwise the congregation will think all we do is turn out the same old carols & readings : & really could not be bothered.

    I have sometimes found it useful, rather than preach once, to give a short pithy introduction to the various Bible readings. The introductions in the traditional 9 lessons & carols are totally meaningless. What are we to make of “St.John unfolds the mystery of the incarnation.”? It is even more difficult than the Biblical text!

    Yes it is important also not to ignore the circumstances or the congregation. I try to send people off with something to think (or even argue) about. Jesus preached in very thought provoking ways – & people talked about his words afterwards.

    • Gary Stephenson December 22, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

      Yes JH-B I agree we shoukd give people good news ans something to ‘chew on’. That’s how I recall it at Bramcote in the late 60s too!

  5. Chris Green December 22, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    Absolutely, Ian. We’ve had three packed services already – how can we not preach? Don’t our hearts burn within us? Don’t we long for people to know, and know more, of Jesus?

  6. Anthony Delaney December 22, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    In the last few weeks we have seen many people not only hear a sermon but also say Yes, no or Alpha as the gospel is not just a message but one which calls forth a response from the hearer.

    If I say ‘that’s a tree’ it’s information you can decide whether or not matters. If ivsayv’that tree has its roots under your house’ that has implications.

    I encouraged people to say No if they were really sure there is no God, they have looked into it all thoroughly and are completely satisfied Jesus is not and was not the Son of God, convinced by examining it for themselves. If not, this is the most important thing that ever happened and they owe it to themselves to investigate it

    The world is ready for good news like never before! One couple came last Snday evening – first time ever in any church they said as they looked at the world this year they kept asking big questions and found us online. Both ended up receiving prayer in tears at the end of the service saying ‘This is just what we were looking for.’

    The Angels burst out of heaven they were so excited to bring the good news to ordinary people.

    To say that great privilege of proclamation which has been now entrusted to us is ‘generally not a good idea’ must be one of the reasons tears have to be wiped from eyes in heaven.

    Preach it. Preach it like my child or my Mum is there – deciding to give church and God one more Christmas a go or he’s leaving. Preach it having prepared the very best you can. Preach like it depends on you and pray like it all depends on God. Preach with the passion of a street preacher even if you haven’t got the same theology in every point. Remember the privilege and preach it to anyone who will hear so well they come back the week after to find out more about the person you love so much you just can’t help talking about him, so they fall in love too.

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

      Thanks Anthony for that wonderful reflection. Can I introduce you to your bishop…?!

    • Simon Ponsonby December 23, 2015 at 8:19 am #

      Bravo Anthony – and that’s why your church is flourishing when many are in decline –
      and grateful once again Ian for your clarity and prophetic writing. Often this year when I think the church has totally lost her faith, lost her courage or lost the plot I read you and feel all is not lost.

  7. Paul Seymour December 22, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    To misquote the Saint preach by all means and if you must use words.

    Actually the art of giving a very short message is to be much admired and is suitable for carol services. Anything longer may not drive folk away but won’t encourage them to come again.

    Personally the description of the nativity from a piece of projected art, or a presentation not dissimilar to the school assembly, with lots of interaction and humour to contrast with the moment of serious thought.

    Please let’s not however be preachy

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

      Thanks Paul–though of course the Saint never said that…!

      • Terry Jones December 23, 2015 at 10:30 am #

        Glad you said that Ian as I have always been a little dismayed by it when the scripture seems quite hot in ‘the word’ being sown!

  8. Mrs S Wilson December 22, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Good Biblical preaching is the biggest lack in the majority of churches today, and that is why so many professing Christians don’t know how to answer the revisionists and “progressives”, as well as why fewer people are going to church. We don’t need sermons the length of Spurgeon’s but we need the same truths proclaimed in ways people of today can understand and find helpful. The late Rev Ian Paisley said the secret of a good sermon was TCP – Truth, Clarity and Passion. Hard to beat for a description.

  9. Yr Ieithydd December 22, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    Do you not think that the words of scripture speak for themselves? I would argue that at a service of 9 lessons and carols the unfolding of the scriptures says what is needed especially in conjunction with the bidding prayer. That said our carols with the Sally Army tonight has 4 lessons and an address

    If you are going to preach at a carol service I would advice nor doing what a preacher at a CU carol service did when I was an undergrad which was day he was going to preach for 15 or 20 minutes but in fact went on for 15 and 20 minutes (Ie 35 mins). The Christians felt it was too long so I dread to think what non regulars thought; Numbers were noticeably down the following year.

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

      No, I don’t think the words of scripture speak for themselves. I spent 16 years attending church, listening to readings in every service, but not understanding that God invited me into relationship through Jesus and by his Spirit.

      There is a gap between contemporary readers and the text of Scripture, which includes culture, history, theology and spirituality. The task of preachers is to close that gap by communicating, ‘translating’ the text into the lives of listeners.

  10. Priscilla White December 22, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    A traditional carol service contains loads of words. Readings, carols, words of prayer. Many of these illuminate one another and people will make their own connections. I gave a reflection at our Carol Service encouraging people to think more deeply and make the carol service not just the beginning of Christmas festivity but a new beginning for themselves. Encouraging people to think, not simply explaining everything felt like an appropriate way to go in that service with that congregation.

  11. David Shepherd December 22, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    Here’s a really ‘preachy’ sermon about the incarnation. Radio DJ’s harangued the general public with the Alanis Morrrisette song until it reached No. 6 in the UK Singles Chart and No. 4 in the Billlboard Hot 100:

    What if God was one of us?

    If God had a name what would it be?
    And would you call it to his face?
    If you were faced with him in all his glory
    what would you ask if you had just one question?

    Yeah, Yeah, God is great
    Yeah, Yeah, God is good
    Yeah Yeah yeah yeah yeah

    What if God was one of us?
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home

    If God had a face
    What would it look like?
    And would you want to see
    If seeing meant that you would have to believe
    In things like heaven and Jesus and the saints
    and all the Prophets

    Yeah Yeah God is great
    Yeah Yeah God is good
    Yeah Yeah yeah yeah yeah

    What if God was one of us?
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home
    Just trying to make his way home
    Back up to Heaven all alone
    Nobody callin’ on the phone
    cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

    Yeah Yeah God is great
    Yeah Yeah God is good
    Yeah Yeah yeah yeah

    What if God was one of us?
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home
    Like a holly Rolling Stone
    Back up to Heaven all alone
    Just trying to make his way home
    Nobody callin’ on the phone

    ‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

    That’s what it means for the Word to be made flesh today.

  12. Tricia December 22, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    As a Reader with very much a focus on the word and enabling people to connect I was surprised by my agreement with the Bishop. We have just had our 9 lessons and carols by candle light service and it was very spiritual. The word of God is spoken 9 times, the story unfolds and the Spirit hovers over the congregation. I think that it was best to keep quiet and let God speak and the Holy Spirit work. After all it is the Spirit who leads people to God not us, we are merely assistants.

    • David Shepherd December 22, 2015 at 5:06 pm #

      Tricia,

      I get where your coming from, but we are not merely assistants. I hope you’ll agree that the Holy Spirit works in and through all of our faculties as God’s temples.

      Where I’d agree is that we’ve just laid too much emphasis is on de-mystifying and unpacking all Jesus’ metaphors, which He described to Nicodemus as ‘spirit and life’.

      While we consider little virtue in leaving people to ponder inscrutable depths of mystery for themselves, Jesus’ parables didn’t cater to the merely bemused, but morally indifferent masses.
      Instead, His stories challenged their resolve to discover more about God. Only those exhibiting genuine spiritual yearning and resolve sought and received more than ‘quick fixes’ and crowd-pulling dazzle!

      No sense casting pearls of wisdom before those who react to them as infuriating pellets!

      • Tricia December 22, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

        Hi David
        Thanks for you reply. I enjoy reading your posts and am usually in agreement.
        I was referring to God being the boss and us being the assistants. I know when I preach I only have anything worth listening to as “He lives in me”.
        I hope in my endeavours the sword of the spirit will prod those in the congregation as He knows their hearts and their need.
        As you say only those who have open ears and hearts will listen and it is difficult for us to know who they are.
        A friend of my husband who was a serial philanderer and on his third wife was the last person I would have thought of. What do I know? God obviously knew differently and I was astounded to meet up with him a few years on at a March for Jesus, leafing a whole new life. All things are possible with God.

    • Paul December 22, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

      Tricia, that’s an interesting take on this discussion. Do you take the same attitude for your conventional services during the rest of the year?

      • Tricia December 22, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

        Paul
        Thanks for your reply. No, I am only speaking of Carol Services as they are so full of scripture. I am all for making the word of God understandable to all and get the message across in a variety of ways. Family service can be very instructive for adults when interactive for children. Using video and you tube clips also. And of course prayer and waiting on God for inspiration in the writing of the content! But silence and waiting on God is also an important part in people encountering God in their own way.

  13. Peter Carrell December 22, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

    I find it very curious here the amount of help God is presumed to need even when speaking through nine readings of his Word and a similar number of carols written by his finest “assistants.”

    Rather than discussing whether to preach or not at such a Word saturated service, should we be discussing who we believe our God to be?

    Only one or two comments above touch on the simple fact that many sermon-loving Christians have groaned inwardly at the inordinate capacity of a poorly delivered, poorly constructed, poorly time-managed sermon on such an occasion to undermine the mystery and deflate the joy of those who have gathered. That is, there is a risk factor in preaching on such an occasion which might outweigh the potential for a sermon to do good.

    In sum, Ian, you have more confidence in preachers to get it right on such an occasion than you have in God to speak through the readings and carols. You may be right to have that confidence, but is it not an interesting confidence to have?

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

      Peter, as I have said elsewhere, I am not advocating bad preaching on this or on any other occasion.

      But this is the God I believe in:
      . he is Father, Lord of all creation who calls people in every time and place to bow the knee and recognise him as the Holy One
      . he is the Son, who became flesh in a particular time and place. At a practical level, this means that his self-revelation to all is actually at a cultural, historical and theological distance from almost all people around the world through history. But he is also
      . the Spirit, who continues to bridge that gap by communicating, most usually through the gifts that he gives his people.

      If God needed no assistant, I presume then you would be opposed to the work of translating the scriptures into contemporary language—we should just read the Greek and Hebrew texts and let God do his own work.

      In fact, the work of translation is just the first part of the process of communication we usually call ‘preaching’—bridging the gap between the word and the world.

      So yes, I believe that God the Spirit works through his called and anointed servants in order to communicate his good news. Come to think of it—that does appear to be the way it works at every point in the new Testament.

      As contemporary testimony to that, do read Anthony Delaney’s comments above. They are a striking contrast to the experience of most ‘traditional’ Nine Lessons and Carols in your typical C of E.

      • Peter Carrell December 23, 2015 at 8:17 am #

        Hi Ian
        I believe those things too and God has called his servants to preach etc.
        But God is not restricted to communicating through preaching.

        I groan when a beautiful drama in a service communicated a great message but the vicar, convicted that no service can never have a sermon, insists on preaching and ruins the dramatic message.

        With respect to Carol Services: they are once a year. Yes, an opportunity to good to miss but also an opportunity for the preacher to ruin the service, put those once a year attenders off from coming back next year, etc.

        If only God would guarantee a trapdoor to open on all sermonisers at such services who continue for more than five minutes and/or fail to say anything which punches home the message of the readings, and/or meanders round and round an abstract theme …

        • Ian Paul December 23, 2015 at 8:29 am #

          No indeed–God is not restricted, and preachers can foul things up. But the research evidence (as well as anecdotal) shows that where there is no preaching, there is reduced understanding.

          So I would encourage people to do it well—but do it.

  14. Andrew Archer December 22, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

    I think I see where the Bishop is coming from. There can be a danger that it is seen as the key part and the one opportunity to ‘preach the gospel’ to once a year visitors. Sometimes the 5 minute short talk can turn into a longer as the preacher hits their stride and gets carried away (seen it a few times!) and makes the service a bit more disjointed.

    It is quite a skill (and I admire those who are gifted by God and do it) to get the balance right to explain the gospel to people and capture people’s imagination without putting them off. People are wary of being ‘preached at’. Speaking to friends who don’t regularly attend church a lot of the points raised resonate with them, especially ensuring that they get the carols etc that they are expecting, and what put some off though was where it was felt that it was all about the sermon and then asking them to become a Christian which made them feel uncomfortable and has put them off going to another carol service.

    However i have seen plenty of fantastic Christmas services too which attract regular and new and speak to them!

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

      Andrew, sure, I understand that—but again, I will say, the answer to bad use is not no use but good use.

      If clergy cannot preach in an engaging way to people who are not churched, then they need to get out more and learn from those who can. People pay good money to sit and listen to 90 or 120 minutes of monologue which engages from beginning to end–so it is certainly possible.

      Get them to read this blog (see Preaching tab above)—or better still visit Anthony Delaney at Ivy Manchester!

  15. Will Cookson December 22, 2015 at 7:21 pm #

    We have, over the years, moved away from a traditional Lessons & Carols. Of course, some of the words of traditional carols are just plain embarrassing (Once in Royal David, Away in a Manger). So, if we are relying on God to speak through the theology of the Carols shouldn’t we make sure that they tell the right story?

    It has been wonderful to see people who don’t normally come engage with new ways through drama, reading, poetry and yes a preach in our revised service. We find that different people engage with different parts. I think that what jars is when people go with one expectation and find it totally different. So, we don’t call it a Carol Service etc – False pretences and all that. One non-church going person came out on Sunday evening and said to me “three words – radical, challenging, traditional”. Couldn’t have asked for more!

  16. Richard December 22, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

    Surely the example you give in the one show is a dialogue not a monologue and to use it to suggest preaching at services it so inconsistent with the context. at the very least it is conversation in interview style and far from preaching, hence it being a short conversational explanation. By all means tell stories and do so creatively but To suggest preaching is the right medium for these to be unpacked (and their need to do so in a carol context) suggest a simular lack of confidence in the story that you accuse others of.

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 10:32 pm #

      Richard, thanks for commenting. The point about the One Show example did not relate to form, but to context. I don’t suppose that Matt was either looking for or expecting the kind of response that he got from Hugh Palmer, as his follow-up shows. But Hugh managed, graciously and appropriately, to take the opportunity to explain what Christmas really is about, over against the assumptions presented, and it is this commitment I think we should emulate.

      I completely reject the idea that a monologue of necessity is dull. There are a good view comedians who make their living delivering extended monologues—and even charging for them!

  17. Peter December 22, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    Spot on, Ian! As it is a time of the year when folk are more inclined to show up at church, I aim to take every opportunity to share an accessible evangelistic message at my Christmas services.

  18. David Walker December 22, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

    Some really good conversation we’ve got going here. And I’m very grateful, as ever, for Ian, who so often gets to the heart of the matter, even when we disagree. He is one of my favourite bloggers, as well as a friend in real life.

    For the record, it’s only the Carol Service that I suggest is not helped by preaching. Ian pointed out that we minister in both word and sacrament. So if not every major act of worship has to be Eucharistic why should we assume every one has to contain a sermon?

    Bad practice should never be the excuse for driving out good practice, but some contexts are really hard to preach in without losing the mood and drawing people away from the awareness of the presence of God among them that my research suggests they come for and expect to find. The prime goal of worship is precisely that. To give people “teaching” instead, when they came to find God, is to short change them.

    I have other research in the pipeline, showing how important sermons are to sustain the faith of occasional CR hogging Anglicans in their 20s. But that’s for another day. Happy Christmas all!

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 10:27 pm #

      David, thanks so much for commenting and for your gracious remarks.

      I wonder if you came across the research by Rachel Philips for her MPhil, originally through St John’s? She demonstrates that the Nine Lessons and Carols as it is usually deployed actually leaves infrequent attenders with a misshapen understanding of Christian faith, and this could be addressed by revising the choice of readings and carols, and by adding a homily of some sort.

      You can read the thesis here: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/12096/1/Rachel_Phillips_MPhil_thesis.pdf (I will blog about this, probably next year!)

      I would also be interested in any reflection on Ivy Manchester, who clearly have a distinct approach compared with traditional Anglicans—despite being led by an Anglican with PTO (who also trained at St John’s)!

    • Ian Paul December 22, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

      Btw I rather like the idea of ‘CR hogging Anglicans’…!

  19. David Walker December 22, 2015 at 10:18 pm #

    Oops. Finall sentence mangled by the spellchecker. Should have read “churchgoing” Anglicans. Not sure who the “CR hogging” ones are. Noting to do with Mirfield, I assure you.

  20. Phill December 22, 2015 at 11:13 pm #

    I think it’s interesting, reading some of the comments – we seem to be operating under two different understandings of the carol service here.

    David Walker says a sermon may: “[draw] people away from the awareness of the presence of God among them”. So the point of a carol service is a sort of ‘mystical’ experience which would make people want to come back again. I can sympathise with this view, to try and draw people by a positive message rather than put them off with a negative one.

    I, on the other hand, with others here, would want to say that a Carol service presents an ideal opportunity to present people with the challenge of the gospel. I appreciate that most people want to come to a carol service to feel all warm and comfortable and have a nice glow inside, but that’s not the gospel. The gospel, and indeed the presence of God, is Christ who comes to save sinners through repentance and faith, not through nice, mystical warm feelings. So if a sermon disturbs their nice warm glow – good! Because I’d much rather they had the genuine call to repentance and faith than a nice warm glow.

    I’m also not convinced that the ‘warm glow’ understanding of a carol service really works – it might encourage people to come back the next year, but I don’t think they’d be any more likely to come back for a regular service. I believe people need something of substance.

    The other thing is – whether a sermon is needed in a ‘Nine lessons and carol’ services, because the Word of God is read out. I think actually it is possible to do such a service without a sermon – BUT I think one would have to choose a few unusual passages. I’m thinking of maybe John 3:16-21, 36; 2 Thess 1:8-10; Acts 16:30-31; Heb 2:1-3, 9:27-28; Rev 19:11-16 … I wonder if anyone would dare change one of the traditional ‘nine lessons’ readings for one of those?….

  21. James Byron December 22, 2015 at 11:46 pm #

    On practical grounds alone, keep it short and sweet. A brief into giving the Christian message, or a three- to five-minute homily sandwiched between carols, fine: an hour-long behemoth when people are getting cravings for mulled wine and mince pies isn’t the stuff success is made of! 😉

  22. Oliver James December 23, 2015 at 1:30 am #

    Ian,

    Thanks for this. I don’t always agree with the stance you take, but when it comes to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, “God with us” – I am with you 100%!

    I also think that James might be on to something with his “short and sweet” guidance 🙂

    Happy Christmas!

  23. Frank Cranmer December 23, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    If you’ll forgive a comment from a Quaker heretic: the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was a carefully-crafted piece of liturgy that was not designed to include a sermon, however brief. If you want to preach at a different kind of carol service, fine. But the most important elements of the SNLC are the readings and the carols – and the crux is that the lessons be read clearly and intelligently and that the carols be sung competently and musically. Badly-performed church music is one of the biggest turn-offs I know.

    Which is one of the (minor) reasons why I’m a Quaker…

    • Ian Paul December 23, 2015 at 10:57 am #

      Thanks, Frank; heretics of all persuasions are welcome to comment here!

      Yes, you are right—but as Rachel Philips points out, it was also conceived for an era where people knew the story well, were biblically literate, and knew (and mostly believed) the Nicene Creed. Since all three have changed, the service has lost its original significance, and now needs itself to be revised.

      • Rachel Phillips December 24, 2015 at 8:42 am #

        Not sure I put it quite as strongly as that, but I did (and still do) think that many people need help to understand the content/message of the Nine Lessons and Carols in the way the Church would like them to understand it. New media (and old media for that matter) offers many ways to do this, without detracting from the spiritual message that speaks to so many.

        Interested to discover from Google Scholar that my thesis is cited in one of +David’s writings.

        Happy Christmas everyone. Christmas is not just for Christmas.

  24. David Walker December 24, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    One crucial factor emerging in this thread is about what these carol service churchgoers are doing.

    For my part, based on the other evidence in my chapter in the “Anglican Cathedrals in Modern Life” book, which I summarised in Church Times, they are occasionally attending believers, who are genuinely experiencing the presence and love of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the medium of scripture and carols. I’m wary of a sermon jolting them out of that prayerful state, as I suspect the presence of God has far more power to impact on the lives of people than do my human words. Though I’m happy to concede that a really well done reflective three minute homily might work positively with the tone and ambience of the worship.

    Some other contributors (though by no means all) are clearly seeing in them non-believers, seeking after, at best, a warm fuzzy mystical glow (which I presume they are not interpreting as the presence of God), who need to be jolted out of this and given the message of repentance. What I’ve not found in the conversation thus far is any evidential back up for such a view. Neither my nor Rachel’s research (thanks Rachel for joining in, I remember fondly various exchanges when we were doing our surveys) provides the grounds for such a position. Without evidence all we have is at best anecdote and at worst (in the absolutely technical sense) prejudice.

    Merry Christmas one and all!

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