Bradford Cathedral Choir sang Mozart’s Coronation Mass on Christmas Morning and it was brilliant. You can’t hear music like that ‘live’ and not find your soul taken up, shaken around and given a taste of something bigger than ‘here and now’.

Which was an interesting experience, given that I had been saying at various Christmas events that Christmas is all about (a) God coming into the ‘here and now’ (as it is and not as it should be), and (b) setting the ‘here and now’ in the context of ‘eternity’ (as God sees it and wills it to be). As I suggested to the choir afterwards, Mozart is a classic example of someone who was deeply conflicted, morally inconsistent, and yet whom God touched and from whom such sublime music came. Somehow we have to hold together the hope with the reality, the messiness with the vision.

Archbishop Cranmer is always worth reading. Yet, I feel he slightly missed the point in his Christmas post (entitled Christmas concerns: a pope, a queen, and a couple of archbishops). Cranmer was looking for Christmas joy, found it in the Queen’s address, but couldn’t detect it in the words of the Pope, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster. He begins with:

Having trawled through the Christmas messages of leading Church figures, there was only one glimmer of light; only one person used the occasion of the birth of the Son of God to communicate joy to the world. And it wasn’t a cleric in a pulpit.

He concludes (before showing a video of the Queen’s speech) with:

There was only one Church leader who spoke inspirationally of courage and hope; only one who used the occasion to speak of the importance of family, friends and the indomitable human spirit. Only one who spoke of the gospel of forgiveness, the uniqueness of Jesus the Saviour, the love of God through Christ our Lord:…

Funnily enough – and, obviously, before I had read Cranmer’s complaint – I asked in my own Christmas Day sermon whether the Archbishop and the Pope were being miserably negative and should cheer up a bit… or whether Christmas joy actually has to begin with the particular context. After all, hope is not the same as wishful thinking, vision is not the same as fantasy, and joy is not the same as escapist indifference. I contended (I think) that Christmas can be happy precisely because it calls us into the celebration of a God who comes among us, right where we are and as we are, saying, “I am on your side – I am for you as well as with you.” Joy comes from the hope evoked by (even small numbers of) people who are captivated by this understanding of God’s generous surprise and then living together in generous ways that look to the interests of their neighbours – even those neighbours who are complete strangers.

The problem for archbishops and bishops is that our roots are deeply planted in the real lives of real people in real communities in real places. Perhaps we see too much of the fear, the hopelessness and the ‘reality’ of too many people’s lives and cannot dismiss those when trying to articulate a Christmas hope that is not just wishful thinking or disincarnated fantasy. Maybe we find it hard to get the balance of the message quite right. That is for others to judge.

However, I take Cranmer’s point. And, as we now continue to work out how our churches are going to support the increasing numbers of families using food banks, how we shall care for people displaced from their homes because of changes in the benefits system (a reality I am merely noting without comment here), how we shall square a gospel of joyful freedom and abundant life with the reality we encounter every day, how we shall face the challenges by global political, financial, economic, ecological uncertainty, etc., I shall also take seriously Cranmer’s challenge to keep the focus on a gospel of hope.

I hope there was joy at Christmas in Bradford. At least, that’s what I was encouraging. And the sort of joy that then spills over into generosity and incarnational care for people like the shepherds outside Bethlehem who were the utterly surprised first visitors to the newly-born Christ.

(And, having seen the shameful – but not entirely original – footage of ‘rival priests’ (!) fighting in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I simply offer the following picture – although I have no idea where it came from and cannot attribute it.)

If you have a problem, why broadcast it to over ten million people? Good question.

I was back in the Chris Evans studio at BBC Radio 2 to do Pause for Thought this morning after a six month break while I settled in to Bradford. I’ve missed it – not because I’m a groupie, but because (a) it is unfailingly enjoyable and (b) it’s an interesting challenge to write and deliver scripts that work in that environment. Chris and his team were very friendly and welcoming despite the pressures of running an auction for Children in Need.

In this morning’s script I wanted to connect to today’s ‘Dine and Disco’ theme. Basically, I can do the ‘dine’ bit, but the ‘disco’ gives me the wobblies. Some people can dance, some can’t. I try, but I’m hopeless. Unfortunately, at the end of the slot Chris asked me to show him how I dance. He stopped me pretty quickly. Now he knows… (Radio is always better than telly for activities such as this.)

I referred back to the two gigs I got to last week: Imelda May at York and Jools Holland in Bradford. Both were fantastic, but you can’t sit still to either of them. Rockabilly, rhythm and blues, boogie woogie – even I had to get up and … er … dance … sort of. Fortunately, it was dark…

But, one of my favourite Imelda May songs ( which she did in York) is Proud and Humble. I think it’s really a prayer in which, with her extraordinary voice and cracking band, she wrestles with the attempt to live right while also trying to make life happen for herself. Addressing herself to God, she recognises where she fouls it all up, but pleads that at least she’s trying to get the most out of the life God has given her in the world which he created and loves.

And my point in this morning’s script is that I think this hits the button. We all need to own up to our failures, but not fail to celebrate the good stuff. We need both.

I think this is why the two gigs last weekend were full of joy. (I tried to find a less cheesy word than joy, but I couldn’t.) Even songs about loss and longing made the audiences dance – perhaps because somewhere in us there is a deep recognition that, as Bruce Cockburn once sang, ‘joy will find a way’. It comes when we know we’ve got nothing to fear – because the God who made us still knows us, beckons us, loves us, still holds open the possibility of a new start.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: music hits the soul and demands a response. I concluded my script with the following profound observation: Several thousand years ago a Psalmist wrote: “You turned my grieving into dancing.” Many of us know the feeling. Even though, I fear, my dancing would have made him grieve.

And that’s when Chris asked me to demonstrate. And then played Genesis’ I can’t dance. Very funny. And very accurate. How sad is that?

(Chris also clearly knows Bradford and bigged it up. Good to hear such positive stuff about the place.)

I was struck bythe great Sir Terry Pratchett‘s comment in today’s Guardian when speaking of the impact of Alzheimer’s on his sense of self:

I think I’m open to moments of joy… But then I think it’s also made me more… cynical.

The debilitation of such a creative and generous person as Pratchett is a tragedy equalled only by the dignity and eloquence with which he is handling it. He wouldn’t thank me for it, but I thank God for him and his huge creative output – even though I disagree with his views on assisted suicide.

However, I did also think that most of us combine joy with cynicism in one way or another. That’s how most of us experience life: bursts of joy at moments of light and the disbelieving protection against disappointment that cynicism – born of experience – shadows over us. It reminds me of Bret Easton-Ellis’s sad observation quoted in Guardian G2 on 26 July 2010:

Pain’s interesting. Depravity’s interesting. All of my books come from pain. What’s ever been interesting about joy?

Well, actually, most people would settle for joy – however uninteresting for Bret Easton-Ellis – over misery. Terry Eagleton recently mocked ‘exciting’ perceptions of evil, claiming that evil is usually banal, boring and lifeless. Joy is what fires the imagination, engenders hope and shines new light on what had previously looked ordinary.

Here in Hannover I was wondering what this might look like in a community rather than as an individual experience or an abstract concept. Unexpectedly, I caught a glimpse of an answer in a very unusual church.

My friend Silke collected me from the airport and drove me to my hotel. She then took me to visit a church on the site of the Expo 2000 on the outskirts of Hannover. This church was built to last the year of Expo and is shaped like a whale. It is known as the Expowal. Run by the Landesverein für Innere Mission, it is an exploratory community of Christians who want to offer a new way for people to encounter God. Silke and I were given a history and explanation of the ethos and vision of the church before having a look round the building itself.

Two things struck me (apart from the infectious curiosity of the guy who administers the place and engages with the businesses that rent the building when it is not being used as a church):

  1. Rather than point the congregation towards a wall in order to minimise distraction, here they look past the pastor and can see through the windows to the outside world. There are no walls, just windows. The congregation cannot hide within the safe confines of their secure ecclesiastical space because they are visible from the outside. Conversely, outsiders can look in and be curious about what is going on and why.
  2. The leaders are very focused on whom they are there for. If ‘insiders’ don’t like the music or how things are done, then that’s tough. It isn’t for them. Everything is designed to be accessible for and encouraging to those who are outside ‘normal’ church or who feel alienated by their experience of church elsewhere. Church is the means to a greater end: people encountering God in a community context.

The church’s strapline is: “Eine unglaubliche Kirche” (“An unbelievable church”). Given that 5-600 people drive out there each Sunday (two services) or on a Wednesday evening, it seems to be scratching where these people are itching. They simply want to enable people to find, in a  community with others, that God can be encountered and life enjoyed. The realities of life are faced and people of all sorts welcomed. And nothing happens without food, drink and hospitality.

I haven’t the time to translate all their stuff on the website, but it is simple, clear… and joyful. “Auftauchen ins Leben” (“Emerge into life”) is their invitation and it is not a bland religious or merely ‘spiritual’ sentiment; rather, it is a welcome into a community that faces real life – with all its joy and cynicism – and starts where people are.

This church is run by one employee and dozens of committed volunteers. Their vision (from which they do not wish to be deflected) is simply:

We strive to be a New Testament-style community filled with the love of God and serving one another with joy; a community that expects everything from God and infects people who are distant from God with this hope.

Refreshing, encouraging and interesting – and surprising to find behind Ikea on the site of a trade fair miles from the town centre.