I had to cross my fingers behind my back a good deal in church the Sunday before Christmas as we sang our way through the traditional Christmas carols. They are so full of concepts that no longer true for me. My integrity is challenged in singing them. But perhaps crossing my fingers behind my back makes it OK to sing them.
Of course it was mainly for the children that we acted out yet again the Christmas stories. Today’s service was entertainingly devised with symbolic Christmas presents brought forward for each element of the service. There was a lot of involvement of the congregation. Our curiosity was aroused as each parcel was unwrapped. And there were some whole-hearted laughs: after all, introducing the “Quirinius census” with an Inland Revenue Tax Return form was good for more than a bit of a giggle. And I can tell you the whole thing was a lot better than our recent Village Christmas service themed around a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
It’s OK to tell children stories that the adults understand are not “true”. There are usually elements of fantasy that are clues to help adults recognise fact from fiction. People can put imaginary quotation marks around these clues. But in the Christian stories the elements of fantasy or impossibility aren’t seen in that way by most people. Because they are found in the Bible, they seem to have become tests of our faith. Their acceptance has become a measure of our orthodoxy. No matter how improbable, unhistoric, or theologically unacceptable they seem, the fantasy elements of the Christian story have taken over the story.
I have no problem with re-presenting the story for the children at Christmas. But, let it be story. And when there are adults present let us be open and clear about what is most likely to be mythic. Maybe all we needed for the handful of progressives in the congregation this morning were one or two simple phrases. We could have been told that, “Of course, not all of us believe all these things actually took place like this... We’re telling a story that was created by simpler minds in a world of different truth… and so on”. Such comment was not there in this service. But perhaps I was the only person in 50 who felt a bit alienated because of it…
And what shall I say in ten days when I am invited to conduct the Christmas service in our former parish? How will I re-tell the story?