The Spectator understands the work pressure on vicars at this time of year. We know it is tempting simply to read out the diocesan Christmastide message. So here, for all clerks in holy orders, we offer this cut-out-and-preach sermon for use at carol services:
May I speak in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — though for many of you it might as well be in the name of the heathen god Thor. Interesting chap, Thor. Red-headed. Liked to hurl bolts of lightning and cause mayhem. A Norse Simon Heffer.
I come not in peace. I will not wring my hands and speak to you in the voice of a primary school teacher. I am not going to employ some drippy parable while smiling at you like a flatulent goat. The Britain of Jeremy Paxman demands something ruder.
As you can see, I am not standing on the same level as you, on the floor of the church. I am up in this historic pulpit because it allows me to look down on you. I can keep an eye on you. And I’m not sure that I necessarily like what I see.
A packed church! About time, too. You love the tradition of carols, don’t you? I bet those opening bars of ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ sent a shiver down what passes for your spines. You like the candlelight, the smell of this building’s musty old stones, the glug of gluhwein once the service is over. Then out into the December cold, still humming ‘Adeste Fidelis’. How sweet the old customs.
But I had a good mind to refuse you entry this evening. I’m serious. I thought about hiring a couple of bouncers from the local convent’s rugby team to check your credentials. I wanted them to ask: Are you a member of this Church? Are you up to date with your subs? Or have you bought the received wisdom that we are now a ‘secular state’ and that Anglicanism is shot? Because where the blazes have you been the rest of the year?
Regular services here are scandalously ill-attended. You find more people at day two of a midweek county cricket match in April. Why should we let you in if you are not regulars? Why should we admit you to our fellowship, our spiritual embrace? Because Jesus would have done? He might have done so eventually, but I suspect he would also have had sharp words with you first about duty to the community. Jesus wasn’t like that character from The Life of Brian. He was direct, confrontational. He’d have wiped the floor with all-comers on BBC1’s Question Time.
Church matters to pew-dodgers more than you think. I see your eyeballs rolling. So let me address your narrow self-interest: property values. Yes, I thought that might prick your curiosity. House prices in towns with an attractive, functioning church are higher than those in areas without. Just think: if you apply yourselves to the life of this church for, say, an hour or two a week, you could be adding thousands of pounds to the value of your home. And you still think Christianity can’t make you happy?
Next item on the nest-feathering agenda. Weddings. Pretty little daughters you have there — yes, you, the guy near the back in the Paul Smith jacket. I bet you hope they will one day grow up to marry successful men. Perhaps you dream about a white wedding in a church, with you walking them up the nave, the proud father. Well, if you want that church to exist, you’d better start supporting it. Now. Tomorrow ye may die. And so could it.
If we are lucky we reach old age. The Church knows more about old age than most other institutions. Our best customers are OAPs. The closer they approach their rendezvous with death, the more they pray.
You baby boomers. You Blair-generation groovers with your Daddy-O electric guitars and skinny jeans and drophead Audis. The grim reaper is coming for you, maybe sooner than you think. It doesn’t matter how much wrinkle cream you apply to your gorgeous cheeks. You’re expendable. In the end we all wrinkle as the stone of a peach. Religion can be a comfort in old age but its effect is magnified if you have built a rhythm of churchgoing. Don’t wait until you have cancer before you start coming here. Start now, once a fortnight if you like. Feel your way.
Christendom is under threat. In the Nativity story those fellows from the East are ‘wise men’. Today they could be bearded nutters with bombs in their rucksacks. A few years ago some spoke about a post-religious age. Rot. We are in a neo-religious age, or at least our rival civilisation is. Unless nominal Christians arm themselves spiritually they may be vanquished. Al-Qa’eda is threatened a great deal less by aircraft carriers than it is by the cadences of Thomas Cranmer.
Attending an Anglican church isn’t succumbing to the holey moleys. It’s a declaration of cultural pride, national identity. I know some of our bishops and curates do their utmost to make the experience a misery. They squabble about gay rights and introduce happy-clappy hymns and liturgy as plastic as airline forks. But they only get away with it because you lot, the mainstream undecideds, aren’t there to stop them. You say, ‘But I’ve got doubts.’ Of course you have. We all have. Even St Thomas had doubts. Religious certainty is only for fools. It also happens to be deeply un-British.
So don’t just sit on the outside tutting about this. Get involved. Tell the vicar that you’ll come to matins if she drops ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ and uses the proper Prayer Book. You’d be surprised how quickly she’ll change her tune if she thinks it’ll increase the Sunday gate.
Carry your share of the load. It’s called adulthood. Englishness. And there is nothing more English than joining the flower-arranging rota. If you don’t like this message, get out. I mean it. Stand up and leave this carol service now. I see you’re staying. Good. I’ll take that as a yes, then.
We now sing our offertory carol. Unless you are very hard up, I don’t want to see coins on that collection plate. I want notes. Unless you’ve brought some frankincense or myrrh.
Quentin Letts is a writer for the Daily Mail.