The Queen and the Royal Family follow the German
tradition at Christmas of giving and receiving presents on Christmas Eve, in
order to leave Christmas Day for religion. 
Imagine my surprise therefore when I read in the newspapers after
Christmas last year that the Christmas Day church service they attended on the
Sandringham Estate lasted a grand total of 12 minutes.  12 minutes! 
Can this really be true?  Well,
almost certainly not, actually; even my own mother, in desperate search for the
shortest service in the South East, only managed to find a 22 minute service a
few villages away from where we lived. 
But it did get me thinking.  I
spent last Christmas in the mountains in France and the service I attended
lasted almost 3 hours – though I confess to having missed the crib bit, and
also to having left after communion, on the grounds that 1000 people for
communion might take rather a long time. 
But I’ve also had some other amazing Christmas and Easter experiences: a
seemingly interminable Lutheran service in Perth, with screaming kids crawling round
the altar in 42 degree heat.  An open air
midnight mass in Mumbai, where if I had wanted to leave early I would not have
been able to, so densely packed were the worshippers; a dawn service in
Barbados, which started around a fire at 5.30 in the morning, finishing with
breakfast at about 9am, and during which never less than a third of an
otherwise hugely animated congregation were fast asleep.  My own favourite was a Catholic Easter
Service in a small church in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney in Australia,
when after communion a woman got up from the pews, walked up to the altar, and
to the clear surprise of the priest spoke for several minutes on the importance
of women in the Easter story, even more unusually resulting in a standing
ovation.  When the cheering subsided, the
priest made his way slowly up to the altar, looked down at the congregation and
simply said “and for all you blokes in church today, there’ll be a beer out the
back afterwards!”

Archbishop Justin Welby has been quoted many times
recently on the worrying subject of church attendance.  The average age of an attendee at Church on Sundays
in this country is 62 years old; in 20 years’ time, half of the current
attendees will no longer be alive, and it is not obvious to see where the
replacements are coming from.  There is a
perennial debate over whether the Church should bend its views to fit ever more
rapid changes in society, or whether the church should remain a constant rock
in an increasingly tempestuous sea.  One
thing is for certain, though, and that is that Christmas services throughout
the world will be full, even if half of the congregation only know half of the
words, through some dim recollection of childhood memories. My plea to you this
Christmas is not to forget that it is a great Christian festival; wherever you
are, and whatever background you are from, why not go to church.   If you do not feel religious at all, then go
for the experience; try to understand why others go; sample the atmosphere of
celebration, of community and of spirit. 
Christmas is usually good fun for most people, but it is only by going
to Church that you actually give some meaning to the day.  Try it; you might surprise yourself.


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