I never thought I’d say this, but choir robes are growing on me. On Sunday night a motley crew including a village shopkeeper, an ex-head teacher, a clutch of nurses, an airline pilot, a journalist and the local pharmacist were transformed into a Christmas choir with the simple donning of robes.
We processed in stately fashion up the aisle of the ancient country church, singing Once in Royal David’s City like generations had before us. Children turned their heads in fascination to see the singers pass by, as if we were a thing of wonder. It’s hard not to have a sense of Christmas past in a setting like that.
Everyone settled in their seats: the children sang Away in a Manger and everyone thought how sweet they were and probably everyone thought too of Newtown, Connecticut, where Christmas will never be the same again.
There were carols aplenty, sung with varying degrees of gusto. There were readings from the Bible which recounted the familiar nativity story. (Which reminds me, someone accidentally tweeted this week that his daughter had been in a “naivety play” – a great concept!).
Candles flickered in the draught on the wide window sills. It was cold, even on a mild day. Outside, darkness fell on the grassy graveyard where those who used to take part in this were lying in silence.
It was tradition, it was religion, it was a rural Church of England parish doing what it’s done for centuries. But was it alive, relevant? Some parents of the children’s choir looked out of place and bewildered, gazing unsingingly at the choir and looking as if they’d much rather have been shopping or on the sofa. Other people looked distinctly bored and fidgety, and peered round to see what neighbours they could recognise. Small children nodded off in their parents’ arms.
Some people were enduring it, rather than enjoying it, I think it’s fair to say. So should the church go on perpetuating religious rituals that leave millions of ordinary people literally and metaphorically cold? A large part of me would happily ditch all robes, religion and ceremony, and get the church back to Plan A – enthusing about Christ. When I first found out this choir sang in robes, I very nearly left. “I don’t DO robes,” I muttered.
But rereading the original story of the nativity this week, I noticed that the first two strangers who spotted that Jesus was the Messiah were elderly temple-goers in Jerusalem. They were observing strict Jewish religious duties when Jesus turned up. They recognised him straight away, even as a baby.
Religious settings can be a major obstacle to the Christian message, which is essentially about love and relationship, not rules and form. Choir robes, ancient words and chilly churches may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and nor should they be.
But even in the darkness, light shines. I hope even the reluctant found something to take away and ponder this Christmas.