A Christmas Poem

This address includes three poems, the first two of which were selected for entry into the BBC Publication ‘The Nation’s Favourite 20th Century Poems’. The first poem, by Wendy Cope, provided the title for this address

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle
The cold winter air makes our faces and hands tingle
And happy families go to Church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single

All very good humoured, but it is sadly true that there are far too many people who have good reason to feel excluded from the greatest festival of Christianity and indeed from Christianity itself.
          The other poem from the BBC collection is ‘Ballad Of The Bread Man’ by Charles Causley

Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

God in his big gold heaven,
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son
Suddenly saw you there.’

Mary shook and trembled
‘It isn’t true what you say’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel
‘The baby is on its way.’

Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said
‘That girls been up to no good.’

‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said. ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.

Mary never answered,
Mary never replied,
She kept the information,
Like the baby, safe inside.

It was the election winter
They went to vote in town.
When Mary found her time had come
The hotels let her down.

The baby was born in an annexe
Next to the local pub.
At midnight, a delegation
Turned up from the Farmers’ club.

They talked about an explosion
That made a hole on the sky,
Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag
To see God come down from on high.

A few days later a bishop
And a five-star general were seen
With the head of an African country
In a bullet-proof limousine.

‘We’ve come,’ they said, ‘with tokens,
For the little boy to choose.’
Told the tale about war and peace
In the television news.

After them came the soldiers
With rifle and bombs and gun,
Looking for enemies of the state.
The family had packed up and gone.

When they got back to the village
The neighbours said, to a man,
‘That boy will never be one of us,
Though he does what he blessed well can.’

He went round to all the people,
A paper crown on his head.
Here is some bread from my father,
Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry,
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the God in himself
Quietly standing there.

He finished up in the papers.
He came to a very bad end.
He was charged with bringing the living to life.
No man was that prisoner’s friend.

There’s only one kind of punishment
To fit that kind of crime.
They rigged a trial and shot him dead.
They were only just in time.

They lifted the young man by the leg,
They lifted him by the arm,
They locked him in a cathedral
In case he came to harm.

They stored him safe as water
Under seven rocks.
One Sunday morning he burst out
Like a jack-in-the-box.

Through the town he went walking
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? he cried,
‘Not today’ they said.

The Breadman of course represents Jesus, the man who was ‘charged with bringing the living to life’. In the line ‘they locked him in a cathedral in case he came to harm’ Causley apparently suggests that Christianity has been locked away and out of sight in the institution of the church. Causley places ‘The Breadman’ firmly on the margins; born in temporary accommodation, of doubtful parentage, viewed as something of an oddity by his neighbours, seen as a threat by the state, and, as might have been predicted, ‘He came to a Very Bad End’. He was an outsider, he was someone who didn’t fit in, he was ‘not one of us.’
          Just a few days from now we will celebrate the birth of the outsider, Jesus, in the greatest festival of all, Christmas. There is then something saddening and strange in the thought that someone who doesn’t fit in, like the single person in Wendy Cope’s poem, feels excluded at Christmas, the celebration of the birth of an outsider. Stranger and sadder still, that for almost two thousand years, so many who didn’t fit in have been excluded, not just from Christmas but from Christianity itself.
          How do we get from celebrating the birth of an outsider to the exclusion a very long list of outsiders? And exclusion puts it very mildly …. For far too long outsiders, those who didn’t fit in, were treated not with exclusion but with persecution
          It is said that God made man in his own image, to which some would respond that ‘man made God’ Whatever about that response I think it certainly is true to say that men made churches and they kept the churches in their own image. Churches were invented and reinvented by powerful men, not just to reflect their own images, but to represent and protect their own economic and social interests. There are branches of Christianity to validate and reflect virtually any Christian (and unchristian) outlook that can be imagined.
          Throughout history, and up to quite recently on this island, the state, churches, and wealth have combined in an unholy trinity. Between them they concocted sets of religious doctrines, social codes, traditional norms and state laws that ensured that everyone was kept in their place, - the insiders were kept in and at the centre and the outsiders were kept on the margins, or out altogether. We shouldn’t underestimate or overlook the willing compliance of the citizens and laity in the enforcement of these social conformities. And they weren’t just compliant themselves, but too often they demanded that civil and religious authorities take action against those who didn’t fit in. Those who didn’t fit in were excluded because of their bodies…… The colour of their bodies; the status of the parents (mainly the mothers) who begot their bodies; the parts their bodies did or didn’t have; whether their bodies might be in relationships with similar types of bodies; the clothes the bodies wore; the money the bodies didn’t have.
          In recent years, the links that joined the church to the state and to the wealthy have weakened or disappeared in this part of the world. They no longer combine as a trinity to set social standards to regulate our lives. We’ve witnessed a welcome secularisation of the state and, as it is no longer in their interest, the economically powerful no longer pay any attention to church pronouncements on social teachings. They just watch the bottom line. If that means being a reactionary conservative on social issues one week and ultra- liberal the next week, that’s just what they’ll be.
          The loss of church power and status has left many Christian denominations genuinely struggling to come to terms with the new order. But, of course, we see ourselves as an exception. We are different to other churches, - we are liberals and ‘this is a very progressive church’. True, we are a liberal congregation that’s part of a relatively progressive denomination. But, I’d challenge anybody here to say that the liberal views they now hold as individuals on ‘social’ issues are the same as the views they held 25 or 30 years ago. At some stage, individually and collectively, we delved into our conscience and changed our minds because in order to be a progressive, you must progress from somewhere. For example, a 1984 edition of the Irish Times ran the following short filler article: -

Gays Win Blessing. - The Unitarian Universalist Association, the liberal Protestant denomination developed by 17th century puritans, has become the first major Protestant Church in the US to approve blessings on homosexual unions

There are two ways of looking at this information. We might think, 1984? weren’t we ahead of the times?? (and we were). Or we might ask, why did it take us almost 300 years for our denomination to reach that decision? Even us liberals have to lift the scales from our eyes.
          When speaking about my personal beliefs during an address I gave a few years ago I said that, when CS Lewis was asked if he believed he had a soul he answered, ‘I don’t have a soul, I am a soul, I have a body’ and I added that I would like for that to be true. In the intervening period I have come closer and closer to the belief that it is true. But whether it’s true or not, imagine how different the history of humanity would have been if we’d thought of each other as souls rather than just bodies, be that somebodies or anybodies or, worst of all, nobodies
          Some ten or so years ago during a post service chat with Bridget we were approached by a visitor with a request for the church to be made available to host a Transgender Service. I should be telling you now that ‘of course I immediately agreed’, but to be perfectly honest I had to ask for some time to think about it. To be even more honest, I was almost hoping that some other church would step in and offer to host the service. But, after asking myself some hard questions I thought, ‘how could we not grant the request’? I think that acceding to the request was one of the best decisions made by the Managing Committee in the twenty years that I have been a member of it and I’m glad that I’ve attended quite a few of the November transgender services. My age and background means that I’m almost hardwired to feel awkward and out of place at the start of the service but it has been my experience that by the end of the gathering I will have stopped seeing, talking or listening to a gathering of ‘somebodies’ and have started seeing, listening and talking to a gathering of other souls.
          It takes time and thought and good intentions to make progress. On some issues we’ve made progress quickly, but on others it has taken us centuries. So, we shouldn’t be too quick to criticise other denominations who haven’t made progress at the same pace, particularly as others have to work to make progress in far more difficult conditions. We can make our own decisions as a congregation and we are not answerable any authority other than our collective conscience. One who has faced making difficult decisions is the Reverend Lucy Winkett, Church of England Rector of St.James Church in Piccadilly, London. When the of bishops of her church issued a less than enthusiastic statement on same sex marriage and the blessing of gay relationships, she responded by saying,

‘The strong commitment of this church remains to every person – to you – and every person, whether you identify as gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and all of you who are not sure or don’t know what your label is; as well as every person, every person who is straight , rich or poor, married, single, curious. Our commitment is to you when you are in work, out of work, grieving, glad, anxious, contented, despairing, if your mental health is robust, if your mental health is fragile, if you are lonely or in love, or pregnant , or wish you were or worry that you don’t want to be, if you’re worried about getting older or feeling that you’re too young….. our commitment simply mirrors God’s commitment to you, whoever you are, wherever you come from. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing or if you are thin or if you are big, or if you hate yourself or love the sound of your own voice. It does not matter to us because it does not matter to God. Every person, every person, whatever you have done, whoever you want to be, is honoured here, and loved and accepted’.

If and when we update our hymn book, I’d like to see these words included in the Readings as, for me, they provide one of the most powerful descriptions of what a Christian church should be. Which brings me back to the founder and his birthday celebrations. At the conclusion of an article ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Irish Times Thinking Anew column, regular contributor Gordon Linney writes … ‘the real Christmas never ends. Christmas has meaning for everyone, because in a unique way it reveals to us the God who is love. The poet Christina Rossetti wrote’

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men
Love for plea and gift and sign.

The celebration of Christmas is a celebration of the birth of love, a love that is there for all of us, regardless of age or gender or colour or status or who or how we love. A love that’s there for every soul, whether we see them or not

Rory Delany
St Stephen’s Green Unitarian Church                                       22nd December 2019