Vicar's Blog ~ January 2020
I hope you had a good Christmas and a happy new year. Thank you for all the cards we received. It was a good Christmas in Church too, attendances at the Christmas services were up, as was the generosity from congregations, and indeed so too was the amount of money we raised for external charities, mostly Crisis at Christmas. We raised and gave away more this Christmas than we took in. This is what we hope to do, so thank you for that. Further details of what we raised are elsewhere in the magazine.
Raising money for charity at Christmas is something of a tradition, personally and corporately. Not only do individuals get generous, but so too to organisations and companies: sometimes there is a ‘Christmas bonus’ for employees, or, perhaps also, a gift to local or national charities. As we enter a new year with a new government, perhaps they too will be generous and charitable too! It all reminds me of a verse of Phillips Brooks’ famous carol, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ which we never sing:
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
It has been expunged from most hymn books and carol sheets because it is a bit close to the bone, it is actually the one that speaks most directly to us, and probably did so when it was written, too. For Christmas has not changed much since 1843 when Charles Dickens gave us Scrooge and Marley’s ghost, and while the details change, the big picture does not. The world of poverty and winter snow amid which he set A Christmas Carol is not so different to ours today. In 1840, three years before London first wept for Tiny Tim and cursed Scrooge, the population of England and Wales was almost 16 million. The Vaccination Act made free vaccination available, and a report of the Select Committee on the Health of the Towns exposed squalid living conditions in many industrial areas and recommended the creation of district boards of health. The Chimney Sweeps Act came into force, prohibiting any child under the age of 16 years being apprenticed, and any person under 21 being compelled or knowingly allowed to ascend or descend a chimney or flue for sweeping, cleaning or coring. A Grammar Schools Act allowed endowment funds to be spent on modern and commercial subjects. Some of the underlying issues are barely different today: education, health, employment rights, apprenticeships, living conditions, housing. It’s not the mills, factories and chimneys that concern us now, but there is still slavery, people trafficking, homelessness, waiting lists for healthcare and unjust and exploitative forms of employment at home and abroad. A few weeks ago a six-year-old girl found a Christmas Card in packet sold in Tescos that had been written on by someone who had been forced to pack the cards in a prison in China.
Crisis at Christmas and various other initiatives around the UK are but a drop in the frozen lake of poverty, but nevertheless there is a lot of charity out there. Meanwhile 80% of Londoners have no savings and a third of UK families can’t lay their hands on £300 in an emergency. The housing charity Shelter found that as many as three million working families could be just one pay cheque away from losing their homes. 130,000 children are homeless in the UK at Christmas, one in every 103 under-18s is officially homeless and more and more people are using food banks. So Christmas is still Dickensian, both socially and sociologically, in the best and worst senses.
In one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament (Mark 14:3-9), Jesus says that the poor will be always with us. Many people agree, and the evidence is that poverty has been a constant human phenomenon since well before the time of Jesus. Jesus’ comment therefore need not be taken as a prophetic, prescriptive or promissory, but rather simply as a statement of fact, as true now as it ever was. There are many individuals and organisations who have striven to erase world debt and global poverty, particularly in the last century, but not only has no-one succeeded, no-one is surprised that no-one has succeeded. Nor have we given up, and nor will we ever.