Coffee House From the archive

Auberon Waugh’s Christmas Sermon

25 December 2013

Writing in the 23 December 1966 edition of The Spectator, Auberon Waugh considers the role of Christianity, in all its forms, in an English Christmas.

It’s not hard to see why most grown-ups detest Christmas nowadays. It is expensive and tawdry, a time for self-deception and false sentiment. It is a children’s feast, which is why we all pretend to be children and show gratitude for unwelcome presents and rot our fragile insides with poisonous green crystallised fruit. To crown all the meretricious jollity and make-believe, an enormous number of grown-up Englishmen go to church.

This has become as much part of Christmas as the plum pudding, and I think it is time it stopped. Christmas as we know it has nothing whatever to do with religion. Religion is something which flourishes obstinately day by day, week by week, in the hearts and minds of a tiny, disregarded minority. For them — or at any rate for those whose religion derives at some stage from Christianity — Christmas is yet another great feast in the liturgical cycle, not as important as Easter but rather more noteworthy than Epiphany or Ascension Day. Religion is not something laid on specially at Christmas to provide additional kicks for an already glutted consumer market.

The sad and sinister thing about Christmas is that many of the four million-odd Anglicans and million-odd Nonconformists who crowd into church for their annual sing-song will come out refreshed and fortified in their faith. If they really believed that there was a God, an omnipotent and infinitely inscrutable Power which created the world and the universe for reasons which have never been satisfactorily explained and to whom we are all accountable for every thought, word and deed of our lives, they would obviously go to church every week, not to say every day, and would seriously contemplate entering a nunnery. Of course, none of them do believe and if they were confronted with anything like the true picture of Christianity — an eternity stretching ahead and behind, their own life-span an infinitesimally tiny dot whose only importance or significance derives from God’s interest in it — they would probably take offence and stay away from church altogether.

Instead, they are reminded of a tiny new-born baby (how sweet) in a manger (how cute) surrounded by animals (better and better) and they come away with the feeling that this is what religion is all about. God is love, they hear, and love for the purposes of this occasion is defined as friendliness to the world at large, a concern for the material welfare of the underdeveloped nations and perhaps an ineffective disapproval of the American war effort in Vietnam. Is this how the churches justify their existence?

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The ecumenical movement, as it is strangely called, may derive from an awareness that the churches have nothing whatever to teach the world about peace, which is already adequately safeguarded so far as human ingenuity can devise, or about goodwill, which is a major industry. Ministers of religion may feel that they have nothing new to say which people wish to hear. So, lacking the strength of their conviction, or more likely lacking any convictions from which they might draw strength, they busy themselves with preaching to each other. Their motives are simpler to understand than their ultimate intentions.

It is easy to confuse true goodwill with a moronic good-fellowship, the base currency with which we prop up our own and each other’s self-esteem. Only with reference to the second can the alleged quest for church unity be seen as anything except a gigantic irrelevance. As a Catholic, I should be delighted to see all those sects which claim to derive their inspiration from some idiosyncratic interpretation of the Gospels reunited with the Church which Christ founded to continue his teaching. Above all, I would rejoice to see the Orthodox churches back in the fold. But to acknowledge the sincerity of Protestants’ objections is no way toward ecumenicising them. Either the objections are valid or they are not. If Catholics, in the dialogue with Protestants, decide their objections are valid, they should become Protestants. If they decide otherwise, Catholics can only point out where Protestantism goes wrong, and if it is not amenable to reason either beat it over the head until it sees the light or abandon further ideas of ecumenicism. The only purpose of Christian unity is to create one Church with the same teaching and the same beliefs. Although theologians may quibble over individual points of doctrine, it is basically a belief in the desirability of church unity which distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism. Individual Protestants may be ecumenicised, but Protestantism as such is by definition incapable of it. If the new probings do result in church unity, it will simply mean that Protestantism will have handed in its dinner pail, and Protestant motives for joining the dialogue are to do the opposite.

But of course few of the participants believe that it will achieve anything like unity. They speak maturely of great difficulties which will, by God’s grace, be overcome after a long time. How can time, even with God’s grace, reconcile the irreconcilable? All they are asking, in their mature way, is for a miracle. If that is what they want, they would do far better to retire into their separate corners and pray for one. Any further dialogue between them can only increase the magnitude of the miracle required.

We know that Boer Calvinism has ingeniously read into the Bible a blue-print for the principles of apartheid, even down to separate washing facilities. Other enthusiasts have read the Book of Revelation sideways, in Greek, under water, and come to the conclusion that Christ advocated a planned economy, or that Negro art is the finest expression of man’s striving towards perfection, or that the world ended in 1666. Even if one disregards the Old Testament, as being only of antiquarian interest, and the Book of Revelation as being plainly the ravings of a lunatic, there is enough contradictory material in the New Testament to provide inspiration for a thousand irreconcilable sects, if only they can find enough followers. But in the interests of inter-church cordiality we are to concentrate on getting together to pass the time of day in a spirit of amity. This is to be the new message of the Gospel. What Christ actually said, of course, was exactly the opposite: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I am come not to send peace but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, the daughter against her mother and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew x, 34; see also Luke xii, 51).

No doubt it was in response to this sentiment that Dr Ramsey announced as the first and only solid proposal from either side in the present ecumenical dialogue that he was prepared to accept concessions from the Catholic Church in the matter of mixed marriages. When a proportion of children in one family are brought up Catholic and the others Protestants he will have added his own ‘ecumenical’ refinement to Christ’s purpose by setting brother against brother, sister against sister, brother against sister. There’s progress for you. But in what, precisely, is he asking the non-Catholic members of the family to believe?

Traditionally, the great strength of the Church of England has lain in the fact that on any moral or political issue it could produce such a wide divergence of opinion that no one — from the Pope to Mao Tse-tung — could say with any confidence that he was not an Anglican. The High Church will tell you that it believes above all in the efficacy of its sacraments, the Low Church will tell you that all human wisdom is contained in the Bible, which only Anglicans can understand properly, and the Moderns will tell you anything which enters their heads.

Its weaknesses are that nobody pays much attention to it and that few people attend its functions. If it were a commercial concern, it would have been ripe for a take-over bid years ago. With £320 million in interest-yielding investments alone and a weekly church attendance which has never been counted but is probably under half a million, it compares with a Catholic weekly attendance of three and a half million; the liquid resources of the English Catholic Church are not known, but if assets were balanced against commitments in all dioceses I should be most surprised if it did not end up several million pounds in the red, almost exclusively the result of school building programmes. The case for a merger is unanswerable, if only there was any agreement about the purpose of it. The Church of England is a unique and lovable institution. Its members are among the pleasantest people on earth, but religion flourishes most on persecution and in years of cheerful compromise and civilised inactivity it has abandoned any pretence to being a church. At other times of the year Catholics might be excused for allowing their goodwill to lapse into secular good-fellowship, but on Christmas Day, at least, elementary goodwill should insist that we denounce it for the idle, dishonest, time-wasting, pseudo-religion it is.

And those Anglicans who will reply that the Church of Rome is tyrannical, arrogant and insufficiently concerned with the material welfare of lower-paid workers will at least be making an honest contribution to the dialogue.

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  • James

    Bron the Great. Can we have more old articles from him reprinted please?

  • Aloysius

    He was a wonderfully skilled writer, not as good or as well regarded as his father but ‘The Foxglove Saga’ is especially worth a read. This article is typical and wonderfully articulated. I’ve just discovered that he attended my preparatory school before he attended Downside.

  • mumble

    “I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.”

  • John Guest

    We can pray for the conversion of England (Mary’s Dowry after all), but please don’t bring your churches with you as we could never afford to fix the roofs.

  • anyfool

    The Church of England now a mouthpiece of the lefts worst excesses, nothing now whatever to do with trying to uplift the poor, more keep them in poverty to justify its own existence.
    When you lose your beliefs as the Church of England has it has nothing to offer, not even decency.

  • Peter Stroud

    How things have changed. Women priests in the C of E: even a likelihood of women bishops. Yet, the ceremonial has become more Romanist – if the first Eucharist of Christmas from Westminster Abbey, was anything to go by. As a lapsed Anglo Catholic, I still find it difficult to accept a woman in vestments saying mass.

  • Swanky

    Never understood why Christmas is called ‘less important than Easter’, which, let’s face it, is a bore. Culturally it’s second-rung, less an event than Guy Fawkes Night. The best thing about Easter is spring, which everybody enjoys, not just Christians. Christmas is supposedly the genesis of Christ and therefore of Christianity: why should it not be Top Holiday?

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    I daresay they wouldn’t want to merger now – what with all the pensions obligations and all the rest.

  • True_Belle

    This reminds me of a true story of a very nice likeable middle aged woman who was a widow. She lived in a beautiful old house up the lane opposite the village church , next to the turning point where the hearses stop to empty their dead cargo!
    Sadly the local church goers were full of important goodliness re the seven deadly sins! The dear poor woman was distraught and disorganised in her sudden widowhood that she took to drink in lonely solitude… she did however wander amongst the graves of dead villagers , drunk and crying .. her rescue greyhound it appears was a good unjudgemental companion.
    People tutted and whispered and cleared away her vodka bottles.. but who offered a hand? she was regarded as a nuisance.
    She wasn’t seen for a week , untill one day the postie called.. and heard the dog howling… She was found dead.. and the dog was so hungry he had chewed her…
    All the chin wagging and disapproval in the world from the PCC and the local Vicar and so called churchwardens who were her neighbours will never alter my belief that the spiritual soul and kindness of the C of E is missing , and that the Cof E resembles a closed club to many who are needful of friendship and understanding!

    • FuglydeQuietzapple

      You approve of vinegar mouthed contrarians then. While CoE clergy and worshippers aren’t infallible they usually do better than most, who also failed the old lady.

      • True_Belle

        Are you telling me you are a vinegar mouthed contrarian then? Who’d ‘ave thunk it!

        • FuglydeQuietzapple

          ZZZZ good night x

  • Treebrain

    “Shalom santa”, the bizarre, Nazi-invoking Tanya Gold rant and now this?

    What DOES the Spectator have against Christians and Christmas?

  • PaulHalsall

    It’s nasty triumphalism. Not what Pope Francis wants.

  • Baz Ryan

    An absolutely perfect characterisation of The Church of England. An institution which, in standing for everything now stands for nothing. A very nice slightly glorified social sevice provider.

    • Swanky

      What service does it provide? An organ and an officiator for births, marriages, and funerals, I suppose.

      • Baz Ryan

        They also do some spiffing tea mornings and the odd tremendous cake sale. Not to be sniffed at!

  • Daniel Maris

    And a Merry Christmas to you Auberon, wherever ye may be now. Always good for a laugh.

    I doubt his low estimate of 500,000 weekly Anglican attendances in the mid sixties. I remember in my parish church on the outskirts of London, there would be at 300 each week. There must have been other parts of the country were attendances were much higher.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Good Point, Daniel, but one should remember that in the 60s, when I was an adolescent, not attending Mass on Sundays or on Holy Days of Obligation was considered a mortal sin, punishable by eternal damnation… it may well still be the case… but cynicism has separated me from the religion of my birth and upbringing.

      So it is not surprising that Catholic churches then were much better attended than those of the Church of England, who did not threaten their flocks with such dire punishments for non-attendance.

      As I sat in a Catholic church that had the bare aesthetics of a rural village hall or working men’s club, I envied my Anglican friends who could celebrate their faith and traditions in architectural and religious masterpieces with all the inspiration which those places of worship and introspection provided.

      • Swanky

        Just think, for Presbyterians it was even worse. Nothing’s as dull as Christmas in a P. church. Especially if you’re an atheist, as I am : )

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