We are about to commemorate a man whose birth in a stable as well as death on the cross were in worldly terms a failure. And in between these two humiliations, this man failed to convince quite a large proportion of those he encountered that what he was saying was true.
If Jesus could not persuade everyone he met that he is the way, the truth and the life, it is hardly surprising that his followers are often unable to do this.
Christians are bound sometimes to worry that in marked contrast to what is happening in other parts of the world, the Churches in this country are becoming weaker. Analysis of the 2011 census has confirmed a rapid decline in the number of people who describe themselves as Christian: a decline much too large to be outweighed by the arrival of Christians from countries such as Poland and Nigeria.
And Christmas is in some respects less explicitly Christian than it was only a few years ago. A smaller proportion of the music played in public places is the same as one would hear in church, fewer cards depict scenes from the birth of Jesus and there is a widespread official attempt to suppress public references to Christianity, in the generally mistaken belief that these might prove offensive to other faiths.
Charles Moore observed in yesterday’s Telegraph that the latter-day killjoys who wish to suppress Christmas possess a similar mentality to the Puritans who in the time of Oliver Cromwell attempted by parliamentary proclamation to abolish Christmas.
There is a kind of modern atheist who opposes with puritanical zeal any deviation from his or her own beliefs. Christians can find themselves confronted with a bizarre and humourless intolerance.
The altogether more severe dissensions of the seventeenth century serve as a warning against the temptation, to which people of a conservative disposition can so easily yield, to imagine that everything in the past was better.
In Dover Beach, written in about 1851, Matthew Arnold assured us:
“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…”
Fatalistic comfort can be derived from the belief that we are experiencing an inescapable decline from a golden age. But on examining the history of Christianity, it can be difficult to determine when that golden age occurred.
And it would be a pity to surrender so completely to melancholy that one becomes incapable of seeing anything good in the present day. The Church of England, with which as an Anglican I am most closely acquainted, is stronger than you would think from the way it is reported in the newspapers, for its life does not consist almost entirely of disputes about sex.
To be Anglican has become a way of being Christian without sounding triumphant, or even without sounding religious: which means that most of what the Church does goes unnoticed. This includes maintaining good relations with other denominations and faiths. A devout Christian often feels an affinity with a devout Muslim or Jew which someone with secular assumptions is unlikely to feel.
This kind of integration is not, generally speaking, newsworthy, any more than work in schools or hospices or prisons is newsworthy except when things go wrong.
But it thrives because the Church is not triumphant: because although it has parishes which are growing as well as those whose congregations are shrinking, it cannot speak from a position of assured predominance. Its overall membership has fallen sharply, just as the membership of the main political parties has fallen sharply.
These two declines are more closely linked than is sometimes appreciated. For socialists as for conservatives, religious faith has often compelled political action. Keir Hardy, the Nonconformist who became the first leader of the Labour Party, said:
“The impetus which drove me first of all into the Labour Movement and the inspiration which carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined.”
Christians believe that at Christmas, Christ was born as man. No wonder people shy away from this idea, for what would it mean if it was true? An incomprehensible paradox confronts us, of a God who chose to share our vulnerability. But here is a story that a Church which the world regards as weak can still hope to tell.