Are we really, as David Cameron claimed in his Christmas message, a country shaped by 'Christian values'? Yesterday’s Evening Standard poll – which found that shopping is three times more integral to Britons’ Christmas than going to church – makes you wonder what the phrase even means.
It doesn’t just mean do-goodery, though that is important. About 10 million Britons get help from a church-based group every year. If you see a queue of homeless people in a town centre at about 6 o’clock in the evening, you can bet there are a bunch of God-botherers handing out sandwiches at the other end of it. Where there is poverty, physical illness, mental illness, unemployment, the people who see it and respond are disproportionately likely to be Christians; realistically, the social fabric of the country would collapse without them.
But Christianity doesn’t only benefit people obviously in need of support. A 2014 report by the think-tank Theos noted that the churches’ contribution means something more than providing services which the state doesn’t. They also embody qualities which are hard to find anywhere else: perhaps above all, neighbourliness, a sense that we belong to each other. ‘In fractured communities’, the report observed, ‘within an increasingly individualist and lonely society, churches simply provide ways for people to come together.’ Churches preserve ways of thinking and living which everyone can draw from.
This point is well-made in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which was on ITV the other night. Alan’s station, Radio North Norfolk Digital, is being taken over by Gordale, a nightmare parody of corporate values: they have the lame phrases (‘Be the Brand’), the philistinism, the inability to understand that there might be more to life than making a profit. But Alan himself succumbs to Gordale's values: he will sacrifice his friends in order to be a star. He is only dragged back when the film’s token Christian, a vain and judgmental character called Lynn, reminds him of Jesus’ saying about gaining the whole world and losing your soul. It’s the turning-point of the film.
Of course, nobody really thinks that profit is the most important thing. But Christianity, so deeply worked into our institutions and our language, preserves that sense better than the British Humanist Association or the Home Office can ever hope to. Neighbourliness and compassion may be universal values, but the churches do a lot to make them concrete: which helps to explain why people still want Christianity at weddings and funerals.
All of which is less important and interesting than whether the thing is true: whether Christmas commemorates the greatest eruption of truth, beauty and goodness into the world that has ever been seen, or whether it is a made-up story which no honest person over the age of seven could believe. Still, for those on either side – and the majority in the middle – there are plenty of reasons to show each other some peace and goodwill.