This discussion at the January 15 2008 meeting of the In Depth Group was based around the chapter called 'Thinking about Christmas' in Tony Windross's book called The Thoughtful Guide to Faith published in 2004 by O Books of New Arelsford, Hampshire (a cut down version of the book, not including this chapter, appears at Tony Windross is Anglican priest and Vicar of St. Peter's, Sheringham in NorfolkA visit by mystery worshipper Hermione for Ship of Fools to Sheringham in 2002 - with a photo of the church.

This account is mine and centres around my own contributions. Others may recall the discussion quite differently. Present were a group of six lay people, with a number of people absent and the session remaining unadvertised. This was the first meeting since November 2007. Some of this material refers to blog entries at around December 2007 and January 2008)

On Christmas: A Group Discussion

There was quite an exploration of the Christmas theme, given that Christmas had passed and the jollities were over. The presentation was based on Tony Windross's chapter ten, Thinking about Christmas, in his (2004) book A Thoughtful Guide to Faith published by John Hunt. A criticism of this chapter can be that it is very introductory and tackles nothing substantive but the presentation did, illustrating how the birth narratives were constructed out of the Hebrew Bible. On comment recalled a recent lecture by a church member who had described how the young woman of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible had become a virgin in the Septuagint, which went towards the construction of the virgin birth. The birth narratives were written from a post-resurrection perspective decades later. He said Matthew was written before the destruction of Jerusalem but I queried this. The presenter recalled how when he was a child he forgot where Jesus was born and said Nazareth, and added here, "Little did I know that I might have been right."
I presented the view in discussion that Jesus was born unknown. He was a builder, not just a carpenter, but must have been literate and known his Hebrew Bible as they had it then. I suggested he was the religious child or one of them of the family. I suggested Capernaum rather than Nazareth as the possible birthplace, but this was queried - there is the synagogue reading Jesus did (the basis of this is archaology - Nazareth was so tiny and there is no evidence of a synagogue there, but Capernaum is larger and there are clues that this is home turf). A lot is made of Jesus and the disciples being poor, I said, but they had businesses and were capable. I said the ministry starts with John the Baptist, from whom he received legitimation, John the Baptist being less Qumranic than Qumran, and Jesus even less Qumranic than John the Baptist. One contributor said Jesus indeed started with the same words as John the Baptist, so there are clear similarities. As a speculation I suggested that Jesus will have known the scriptures and the Bethlehem birth place, so when he talks about the coming of the Son of Man (on clouds of glory) is he referring to someone or something else? How much did he identify with this figure?
Another point I asked was if the little bricks of the birth narratives are not history, then there is a question about getting the big brick of the Incarnation. The presenter had mentioned the post resurrection perspective, which is one way to do it as the last great miracle, or there is the chosen by God approach in the unitarian-messianic synoptic gospels and the Arian if trinitarian compatible John's gospel.
This led to side discussions about Arianism, with a mention of the litany at Epiphany which had been Arian in content. Someone said it had come from liturgical sources. On this I said there is the early Arianism that had Jesus Christ as the first born of creation. One asked that surely people had been born before him. No, just as in the Trinity, where Jesus Christ is eternal, here he is similar, but is actually first born, and then does the work of creation, to pop down to earth as a human too for a while. He thought all this was so much hooey, and I said it is but we go through it liturgically every time - and the argument of the priest is out of this complete package comes the nuggets. I said how I am a liberal in contrast. The Arianism of the Reformation is different in that here Jesus's humanity limits his divinity and subordinates it in relationship to God. That leads on to the unitarian where either there is no divinity or no more divinity than there is in any of us. The key is subordination to the Father, said one contributor.
The point was made that there is not one Christmas story but there are two. This led me to tell about the bizarre interview by Simon Mayo of the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he was asked if it is historical, and he said yes he thinks so, and then gave an answer close to gospel texts - which is not the same thing. I said he is under pressure and did not want the press to expose what he said, but The Times did anyway by saying he said something that he did not say.
There was another side discussion about blogs giving specialist information, sometimes from insiders, even when from a point of view, that exposes the bias and second hand nature of religious journalism. The Daily Telegraph was also mentioned - sometimes interesting and sometimes infuriating. I reckoned the agenda was not a religious one but about authority in general.
There was another side discussion that came from this - rather more a monologue from me - about the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) business covered in the blogs; asked if the Archbishop had reacted to this I said he did again to Simon Mayo when he said that as it was not official Communion business people were free to attend it. I said where is the ostrich and the sand to put your head into. I received advice not to listen to such interviews more than once. I said how the Bishop said don't come as he has a reconciling issue and involves Palestinians, but Africans have empathy with the Israel experience in the gospels and there is pro-Israel American money, and despite the Archbishop there saying at least come afterwards they are going anyway to get the agenda in first (before Lambeth 2008). Plus when a theologian of the Global South gave criticism, an Archbishop gave him a thumping criticism that was written by an American anyway. I said Militant Tendency would welcome legitimation from others but would thump friends harder than their enemies, and a small number retain control of this Jerusalem conference. The website domain was bought before the meeting in Nairobi to decide to have the conference, so it was a fix. I said the Bishop of Rochester cannot take a diocese out of the Church of England if he wanted to, but he and the Bishop of Lewes are in on this conference and probably will ignore Lambeth. Like Canada and the USA they will come to get congregations in England - they have already called Rowan Williams a false teacher. [See the blogs]
The discussion did come back to Christmas. The idea that people were pushed out and had to live with animals may not be right, one said. In Tibet, for example, people live with animals. It is quite normal. Indeed in some places the animals live downstairs and humans upstairs, where they feel the warmth of the animals coming upwards.
The gospel stories are full of meaning. For example there are the shepherds who were regarded as low in status because they worked at times which were against Jewish Law. On the other hand there were kings who arrived. The way this was said gave again the impression of history - but the gospels are history-like as well as being biography-like.
Again from the Simon Mayo interview I mentioned the wise men, where the Archbishop had said astrology was bunk but that these were professionals of the day looking for signs (the two points are contradictory - professionals seeing signs were using astrology!). We agreed that the whole astronomy thing (which star or comet...) was a sterile and pointless discussion.
So many do celebrate Christmas and it is perhaps the least questioned festival, one said. People are comfortable with it. Whereas Christians have had Christmas pushed forward to even Candlemas, the general public have pushed it forward and it ends quickly. I suggested that the Epiphany celebration of light and gifts was what was Christmas to the general population. One said about Leicester having "Happy Diwali" and then,with the same lights, changing to "Happy Christmas". Reference was made to Puritans and thus Christmas having less impact in Scotland, and also Russians having Christmas at Epiphany and the old New Year on 13 Janary - that the Communists having introduced the Western Calendar means a long period of celebration for Russians.
A point was made about being careful during sermons, given that they are one way. There are answer-back sermons I suggested. Given a mention of it, I said I had myself been involved in a discussion sermon, and it was unscripted. He was a realist and I was the non-realist. I was asked if that made me a fantasist - no, it's a philosophical position. One recalled reading Honest to God (1962) four decades back, London: SCM PRess, and still having a personal impact. Another handed back my High Dawes (1992) Freeing the Faith book, London: SPCK, with the reflection that he has had these thoughts and then finds someone like him has already been thinking on these lines. With such comment I gave him John Hick's (1983) The Second Christianity, London: SCM Press, to read.
Next time, also using Tony Windross' book before discussion, we will tackle the Resurrection. In the context of the side discussion about GAFCON, I said they would regard this group as revisionist.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful