Apparently, I am a grumpy bishop who has lost his sense of reality and missed the point of Christmas ‘magic’.
Last Sunday the Telegraph published a story about my new book and gave it the remarkable headline Traditional carols are ‘nonsense’, says bishop. The story then ran across the media, bringing me a host of abusive emails and an awful lot of invitations to do interviews with TV and radio. I have also received a pile of positive emails and texts, including examples of adults doing nativity plays for children and re-writings of some carols. But before we get into what all the fuss is about, let me point out one fact.
Of all the stories in all the papers (including the original one from the Telegraph), only one actually involved a journalist calling me to ask about it. Arthur Martin of the Daily Mail gave me the opportunity to respond and comment before he went to print. (And I can add that every radio and TV interviewer – maybe with one exception – has been intelligent, reasonable, funny and generous in the last couple of days.) Even entering the more challenging lion’s den of the Alan Titchmarsh Show was enjoyable and they gave me the chance to speak.
So, I was interested to see that the other papers seem to have simply lifted the words of Jonathan Wynne-Jones from the Sunday Telegraph and reproduced them – sometimes without even changing them – and in every single case without checking sources and looking at what I actually say in the book. Jonathan should charge royalties for such reproduction of his words. And the so-called commentators should hang their heads in professional shame at earning their money from bouncing off a ‘great media story’ without even checking out the book itself. I don’t know if we put this down to illiteracy or laziness, but it sure isn’t very clever.
(If I took the first paragraph of John Walsh‘s silly comment piece and then dissed the rest of his article without reading it, I assume he would consider that to be inept and unreasonable. So, has he bothered to contextualise the quotations from my book? Er… obviously not.)
Anyway, the story is that I am a ‘grumpy bishop’ who is filling the annual ‘barmy bishop’ slot by condemning the nation’s favourite Christmas carols. Apparently, I think O come, all ye faithful should be re-worded (I don’t), Away in a manger shouldn’t be sung (I don’t) and Once in Royal David’s City should be ditched (I don’t). So, I am a miserable killjoy who wants to take the magic out of Christmas. Apparently.
It’s a bit weird, then, that I am doing the round of the studios encouraging people to sing the carols, enjoy the carol services, pack out the nativity plays and celebrate well. Even weirder that an Anglican Bishop (a category of human being normally being told by the same papers to get some backbone in defending a Christian Britain faced with all kinds of threats) gets ridiculed for saying that we need to distinguish between the Christmas story (from the Gospels)and the other stories (pantomimes, fairy tales, etc.) that dominate the Christmas ‘experience’.
How odd that the intelligentsia don’t think that content matters – that we can sing what we like and it shouldn’t matter. I somehow think that the line would change if it were the BNP youth wing singing fascist songs around a campfire. Of course, it matters what we sing. As someone said on the radio yesterday, if you take the ‘text’ out of ‘context’, what are you left with?
But before tiredness makes me really grumpy – which I haven’t been for ages (except with Liverpool’s bad form…) and which certainly doesn’t characterise the book – here’s what I am saying in the book.
Some children now can’t distinguish between the Christmas story and (for the sake of brevity) pantomime stories. I love pantos and I love lots of the Christmas stuff that is funny and cheerful. But does anyone seriously think it doesn;t matter if our kids grow up unable to distinguish between God and Santa Claus, angels and fairies, Jesus and Cinderella? At the very least this is an educational point – it doesn’t even get close to the question of what you believe about the Christmas story. So, I think the Christmas story should be told in a way that makes it real and allows it its integrity.
Now, some commentators say that Christmas is about sentiment (feeling), nostalgia and ‘magic’. They say that simple carols are great for children to begin to learn the story. Absolutely right. But the people arguing this are not children, but adults who want to stay as children when it comes to matters of God and faith and so on. Think like a child when you are a child, but, for goodness’ sake, grow up when you are an adult.
Some carols are great for telling the Christmas story and I praise carols and carol singing in the book. But we should sing them (as adults) with our brains engaged and reflect back on the original story they are telling. Is that really so hard to understand or so radical that it is threatening to the great British public?
The ‘magic’ of Christmas is fine – up to a point. But ask any clergy and they will tell you about the ways in which Christmas is hard for many people and how the ‘magic’ makes it harder. It is for them that the reality of Christmas hits home: that God has not remained a million miles above contradiction, but opted in to the muck and messiness of the world and meets us where we are – in the vulnerability of the baby in Bethlehem. To tell that story is not to be miserable – but the opposite.
I am just not prepared to encourage people to live in a fantasy world, but doing my job as a Christian bishop in calling people back to the original story. Grasp it – and then celebrate hard and fully. I’ll be belting out the carols and watching the nativity plays along with the rest of them. But I will also be living in the real world and engaging my brain.
It is probably too late to ask the people who have whipped up this media story to actually read the book. As I said on the telly today, it isn’t exactly the Communist Manifesto. It’s a short, straightforward introduction to Christmas – and a strong affirmation of Christmas celebration. Jonathan Wynne-Jones has enabled the meaning of Christmas to be debated and that is some achievement – despite the personal ridicule it has engendered for me.
I leave the last word to an unrelated comment on someone else’s blog. He explains that he posted a photo of me so that his readers don’t confuse me with the keyboard player from the brilliant Kaiser Chiefs (who has the same name as me). One bloke responded with:
Do you not think ‘Kaiser chiefs’ would be a great name for the house of bishops, though?