Christopher Idle has difficulty communicating
‘Lovely service, Vicar!’ So began a feature in a church weekly. It wistfully recalled those appreciative words, spoken so often in the afterglow of midnight, or Carols by Candlelight, by someone who would not step that way again for another twelve months. A relative of mine spotted it while visiting us, and ruefully acknowledged its truth. Many of us know the feeling; but is it one of annual success, or 51-week failure?
The opposite also happens. It takes a certain type to start laying into the clergyman who stands, hand outstretched and a Christmas greeting on his lips, as the congregation streams out into the frosty night air after the final carol, blessing, or mince pie. I recall three; all, as it happens, female.
Take thirty-something Cathy. ‘That’, she said, ‘was the worst sermon I have heard in my life!’ It may have been Advent; I had spoken from Psalm 98, cunningly weaving in the story of Isaac Watts and ‘Joy to the world’. A favourite Psalm; a very favourite hymn writer. There is a selection of good answers to that greeting. On the spur of the particular moment I don’t think I found them. It didn’t seem quite the place for levity; ‘Just wait till next year’, ‘Bit chilly for the time of year’, ‘Why don’t you really speak your mind, Cathy? All this sitting on the fence.’ ‘And a happy Christmas to you too!’ She was serious wanting more Psalm, less Watts. She had a point, and not just on her tongue.
I was sufficiently awed by this to hesitate over next Sunday. With due acknowledgement I inserted chunks of someone else’s sermon. My source was both eloquent and impeccable. Afterwards a young man informed me that if wanted to know Dr So-and-so’s opinions he would buy his books, but when I get up into the pulpit he expected to hear me.
Years go by. Next time it really is Christmas. Kate ex-Youth Group emerges from the ancient door with a brother in support. This time it’s the choice of carols; I didn’t even select them. Why didn’t we have ‘Away in a manger’? What we did have was a new carol that (I tremble as I write) she had never sung before! Christmas is for the children, etc. All this, at nineteen!
Again, not much joy in the porch. I call to see her in January, and if at church I dropped a brick, here I dropped a bungalow. After sketching in the deficiencies of the said carol, centring on ‘no crying he makes’, I outline the dangers of sentimentalizing the incarnation and reducing its impact on mature Christian understanding. In words simple enough for a nineteen-year old. I have not planned a major debate, just to fix a time when we could talk more. But somehow the whole family piles in. I suggest that if I had enjoyed a special meal at their house, and on departing I had said that the food was badly chosen, disgustingly served and tasted lousy, she might have considered me marginally out of order. So Miss Kate flees to her bedroom in a tearful tantrum, and her mother (who is on the PCC) doesn’t show up at church for six months. She takes a bit longer to sort out than Kate. Or is it I who need sorting?
Fast forward another eight or nine years. I am filling in at Midnight during an interregnum. Unlike the first two, my third porch-lady is a stranger. Forty-something; sorry, Carol, if that’s wrong too. It’s dark. Her voice stands out a bit from the murmured ‘Thank-yous’ and other greetings. ‘Why’, she demanded, ‘was there no mention of the birth of Jesus tonight?’ Why indeed? I did a brief double-take; yes, she had said that. Er, the carols (four); the prayers? The seasonal items in the liturgy? The Bible readings? And, for crying out loud (unlike you know who), the sermon! Nothing about little Jesus. And there were children here; if she (Miss C) didn’t understand a word I had said, she is sure they didn’t either. My first instinct is to apologize; so I do. My second is defence. Children? Well come to think of it, the benefice has provided Nativity plays, a Christingle, Crib service, Family service, and carol events too numerous to list. If I had come to a Midnight service as a small boy I would not expect a children’s talk. And so on. After defence, attack. I am unlikely to see this person again, and even if I do… In Carol’s hand is a small white paper tube stuffed with chopped up smelly dried brown leaves; she seems about to set fire to it. ‘And you had better give that up’, I say, ‘before it kills you’. The Cathys, Kates and Carols of this world are not used to having the next-to-last word. ‘When you go,’ she says, ‘you go.’ With which she went. The churchwarden said he didn’t know her.
Dis-ease with God
Cathy, you will have spotted, was a different cup of tea. But ladies two and three; it is no use trying to meet them on a logical level. Their basic problem seems to be that they cannot cope with the Incarnation. We all find it hard and wonderful enough; mind-blowing, heart-rending, soul-searching. We try to say so. But any suggestion that it may require an adjustment to our adult mindset or lifestyle is a nasty shock to those whose need at Christmas is to be reassured by a baby doll in a toy manger that God is, after all, quite sweet. Little Jesus, we will rock you, etc. So, come to that, is his mother mild. The problem with my known and unknown critics was not really the details they had unwisely chosen to pick on. It went much deeper. If somehow I had made them uneasy about it, perhaps after all I had got further with them than with the ‘Lovely service’ brigade – who are usually male. Perhaps if I was doing my job I would be surrounded by angry protesters after every Christmas service; every service! One dissident every ten years is not really very impressive. Our Lord offended rather more often.
Meanwhile: O yes, how to preach. Evangelicals tend to say the Incarnation is only there for the Cross. Catholics tend to say the Incarnation is all there is. Charismatics say whatever it’s there for, it’s lovely to see you. Liberals say what the Guardian said last week. Skip it. Try to tell us what your chosen Scripture says, and why it says it, and what it means. If we know that, we stand a better chance of seeing what it says and means to us. Don’t be gratuitously offensive, but if you let the Bible do its work, you should have someone gunning for you before the night is out.
Probably a lady, if my careful statistics do not lie; possibly a queue. In that case, have some answers ready. Or just don’t stand in the porch.
Christopher Idle hangs around church porches in the Diocese of Southwark.