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December 24, 2004

Have yourself a merry (unbelieving) Christmas...

Posted by Peter Mullen

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen asks, how much of the Christmas story do many of the clergy actually believe?

You may not think of yourself as a regular, fully committed Christian believer, but you turn out for a Carol Service or Midnight Mass and, if you're lucky, you find you have avoided St Knees Up where they use the Noddy language services and fall about kissing and cuddling in the middle of the ritual. Or the horrible Christingle, with its oranges and safety pins, or whatever. As I say, perhaps you're lucky, you find a crib and candles. The carols are familiar and there are the traditional lessons from the Authorised Version of the Bible. So everything is as it should be then?

Unfortunately not. For many of the clergy are actually doing a double take on the Christmas message. When it comes to Christmas services they don't want to perform anything too modern and so put off the revellers turned temporarily religious. But how much of the Christmas story – or the whole gospel if it comes to that – do the clergy actually believe?

According to a recent survey conducted by Christian Research into "The Mind of Anglicans", only 53% of the Church of England clergy affiliated to the leading grouping Affirming Catholicism believe what it says in the Creed - that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world. It turns out that Affirming Catholics don't actually affirm very much, despite the fact that they form the party from which most of the bishops are drawn.

65% don't believe in the Resurrection – except as some sort of "metaphor" for "new life". And when it comes to the Christmas story still fewer – only one in five – believe in the Virgin Birth. It reminds me of the irreverent "miracle" which forever caused Evelyn Waugh to marvel: the species of modern clergyman who, while believing scarcely any of the ancient doctrines of the Creed which he professed at his ordination, can yet receive the full stipend of a canonically appointed Clerk in Holy Orders.

Try taking the Vicar on one side this Christmas and ask him whether he believes that the three kings came to the manger at Bethlehem. He will reply with a lot of learned chit chat and "modern scholarship" by which he will affirm that no, actually, they weren't kings, there weren't three of them and in any case they very likely never came unto Bethlehem. And the gold, frankincense and myrrh were a symbolic representation from a much later date. The star guided by God? Come off it – this was a conjunction of Mars and Venus, and anyhow it happened in 7BC.

The choir of Angels singing "Glory to God in the Highest and peace on earth…"? Not really. Not angels that you could have seen if you'd been there or photographed on your digital camera. Because – despite the fantasies of numerous Italian painters – angels don't have wings. They are part of "the primitive world view" which used to imagine the way of God with men before science came along to disabuse us.

So there you have it, the Christmas gospel according to the modern parson: kings were not kings; angels were not angels; The star was a fiction; and Mary was not a virgin. Add to this the certainty that the Angel Gabriel (non-existent as he is) did not visit Mary at the Annunciation: if the Angel Gabriel had made any announcement (even supposing he had existed) it would certainly have been to Joseph – "because first century Judea was a male-oriented society". And of course, there was no flight into Egypt. This was a clumsy attempt by the fictionalising and reactionary St Matthew's gospel to parallel Joseph's earlier escape to Egypt. Shepherds abiding in the fields? Not likely.

They will tell you, these learned modern clerics, that only St Matthew's and St Luke's gospels contain accounts of the birth of Jesus. They were late compositions anyway. Better to prefer St Mark who doesn't mention the birth of Jesus at all – or the Resurrection either incidentally - because modern parsons prefer to cut St Mark short halfway through the last chapter. How about the magnificent opening of the sublime version by St John:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.
Don't be daft. This they dismiss as a piece of Greek philosophy which wasn't written until a hundred years after Christ had…well, not exactly ascended but…er died.

The contemporary church combines the worst aspect of historicism and crass literal-mindedness with the worst kind of scientism. Like Mr Gradgrind, it is entirely bereft of imagination and so worships facts – or at least those "facts" which are allegedly "the fruits of modern scholarship". And the modern church has swallowed whole "the scientific world view" which is not actually scientific at all, and not even modern, but the discredited positivist ideology, a magisterial arrogance and bigotry which rules out a priori what the demythologiser-in-chief Professor Bultmann used to refer to as "the miracle stories of the New Testament".

Never mind. Taking your imagination with you, venture out into the night on Christmas Eve, find a church and remember that God's tidings at the first Christmas are still true and, for your comfort and joy, they remind us that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.


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Some South Pacific island tribe that I read about, perhaps the Maoris, had an old myth of them arriving on X number of boats with Y number of families, Z many generations ago. It was long debunked by scientists as too recent and too few and too far. Until about two years back when cross-checking their mitochiondrial DNA more or less proved it was all as their legend had it (apart from the number of boats, still guessed at). It is most entertaining to watch scientists discover, again and again, that it all happened more or less as our forebearers told us.

Posted by: s j masty at December 26, 2004 06:22 PM
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Umm, well our 'forebearers' told us the Sun, moon and planets went round the Earth, and everything was made from earth, air, fire and water ... even the Vatican has finally had to apologise to Galileo now.

Posted by: A Skeptik at January 14, 2005 03:02 PM
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