Organising Christmas?

This week we held a ‘Festive Celebration’ for local residents and others from the area. We invited loads of people in person and by distributing a simple flyer to some key places. We put up posters in the bus stops and on the trees and emailed and phoned the local organisations that had already been in touch. We saw it as an opportunity to share our work so far, draw in new people and to show off the facilities at Cambridge House. On the day, we drew up a map of the area (roughly!) and decorated it with photos of the neighbourhood (see the last photo below). We devised a quiz about the local community and wrote an introduction to our work to hand out. We invited the local businesses to support us and as a result had a prize for the most correct answers on the quiz. We invited the nursery to come sing at the beginning of our time and they brought over twenty toddlers along to charm us all (See right).

imageCarols at Christmas Time

We had also invited the local Anglican church to attend and the priest-in–charge had offered to lead some carol singing. The church did indeed turn up with about four or five members of the congregation and when the carols began, we must have had about thirty voices joining in (Photo left). Several people in the group – and especially from our host Cambridge House – clearly joined in with energy and enjoyment. But at the same time, some of the residents slipped away, not wanting to be a part of this ‘religious’ part of the event. Afterwards, in our reflection on the event, my colleagues questioned the carol singing fearing that it had been difficult for those in the room who held other faiths, no faith or had strong views against religion.

A Census in Bethlehem

This week, we have also heard a second batch of results from the 2011 Census of England and Wales. The ones that have hit the headlines have been those about the decline in Christian faith since 2001 and the rise in the numbers of UK residents born overseas since the last census. One in four people now say they hold no religion whilst the numbers of Muslims in England and Wales has risen by 75% since 2001. In Southwark, the changes have been even greater [Data from Guardian Census 2011 interactive]. The numbers answering the question ‘What is your religion?’ with the answer No religion rose by 70%. However the pattern was different to the national one for those answering Christian and Muslim; the same numbers gave these answers as in 2001. Alongside religious change, the ethnic makeup of Southwark has been changing. A rise of 425% in the number identifying as Asian or Asian British (Other) is important whilst Black or Black British (Other) (168%) and Black of Black British (Black Caribbean) (142%) have also increased noticeably. Drops in numbers of people who identify as Black or Black British (Black African) (-54%) and Chinese or other ethnic group (Chinese) (-46%) are interesting.

Faith Losing its Grip?

The reality for the faith communities has long been that the inner cities are fundamentally different to the rest of the country. Ever since the publication of Faith in the City in 1985, the mainstream denominations have recognised that despite numbers falling in Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches across the country, the number of worshippers in the urban centres have remained about constant. This has been due to the rise in black-led churches such as the New Testament Church of God and the Shiloh churches. In Southwark, an enormous number of mostly black congregations gather each Sunday in every part of the borough swelling the numbers of Christian worshippers vastly. Some of the white-led congregations – who have managed to develop some internal black leadership – are also successful in bringing black worshippers to their churches on Sunday. Indeed in North Camberwell, the largest Methodist congregation in London meets, made up mostly of West and Southern Africans. And we boast three other black-led congregations as well as a new and very active mosque.

Organising and Faith

But some of my friends remain very sceptical about the place of religious faith in organising. For those in Citizens UK, faith is ever present since their approach starts from a positive view of faith traditions in making justice happen. They draw in collective members who are often churches, mosques and synagogues and seek to mediate their differences through an emphasis on the common good. The distinctive elements of each faith are downplayed in favour of finding the core dynamic of shared priorities. For those working outside this model, faith is sometimes seen as irrelevant or divisive and often ignored or bypassed. In our ever more secular society, some friends view religious practice as part of the problem and seek to eliminate it from social settings.

Making Space for Religion

As a non-believer, I think that faith is a critical part of many people’s lives. It is central to many of those who take action to improve their communities. It encourages people to be selfless and to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable. In this community, faith – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or Jedi – plays a part that has to be handled carefully but handled it must be. Christmas brings to the fore the issue over how much we make of religion. In our team, we have both Christian and Muslim believers as well as people who are unsure or undecided. And we easily fear that overt expression of faith will cause disagreement or unease. Yet at our ‘Festive Celebration’, we sang carols in the company of Sikh, Muslim and atheist without any visible division or dissension.

imageCarol singing is a cultural norm at Christmas in England. Our multi-faith neighbourhood is only too aware that words such as Jesus, God and incarnation are uttered by thousands at Christmas with no more meaning than mince pie, angels and Father Christmas. It’s part of this time of year. However, for those seeking to be inclusive, these words of belief seem by their nature exclusive and intolerant. They avoid ‘ramming religion down their throats’ by avoiding faith all together. I know that religious faith is key to survival for many who find life hard and too difficult. Acknowledging this is not to be divisive but to welcome the whole of the community – not just those who are of a secular liberal viewpoint. Next time, we will hope to have the local Muslim community offer prayers, perhaps?!

And of course the Christmas story is all about a call to move out of your comfort zone, embrace the journey of discovery and all because a census is calling you to be enumerated! Perhaps we can join the outcast Jesus in a cold stable and see in the example of the Magi, a way to welcome people of all faiths and none.

Note to my Readers

This is the last of my posts for 2012. Thanks for your support and help in making this what it is through your comments and feedback. I’d be delighted if you wanted to share it with friends and family over Christmas but you won’t find anything fresh here now until January 2013. I’ll be away! But more will be coming in 2013 when new organising developments are coming thick and fast!

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3 Responses to Organising Christmas?

  1. zaikonik says:

    have a good rest, Mark!
    All the best, Nick

  2. Peter H says:

    High, just a quick thought, I would of gone for the singing but not the priest. These songs are part of our history and tradition and I have nothing against them and children singing is always nice. However religious speeches should be left for the Church, mosque or whatever, I certainly resent the presumption from faith leaders that they have some special privilege at this or any time of the year. There is a difference between celebrating different cultural aspects and giving them ownership of an event. Also I try to avoid having my child listen to anyone who claims authority and talks about gods, its an unwelcome intrusion. Cheers and merry Christmas, santaday, midwinter celebration, Horusday, or whatever you are having.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks Peter for your thoughts. I agree there is graded reality to acknowledging faith in the life of the community. I agree – I too would be uncomfortable with a “religious speech” at a festive celebration. But in fact our new Area Dean led the carols with enthusiasm and gusto which encouraged everyone to join in. She didn’t say much at all and left the carols to carry any message. As we had several contributions to the entertainment, and were clear in our introduction who was hosting the celebration – the organising team – no one could have got the impression that Rev Liz owned the event.

      That said, I wanted to write this post from my perspective of being a non-believer who is also respectful of the faith traditions in our neighbourhood. I do think that we often end up isolating a force for good in the community and such division does not serve understanding. Whilst faith is evidently seeping away elsewhere, in multi-cultural communities like Camberwell, it is still a powerful influence on many people’s lives. I don’t think we have to embrace the doctrine to take an open and accepting approach to people of faith, in positions of responsibility or not. Such a stance offers dialogue and cooperation rather than a rather grudging acceptance of the place of faith that many community-focused people take.

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