Midnight Mass for non-believers

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson on the comforts and joys of going to church at Christmas

24 December 2018 06:38

You could say I’m a regular at my local church, but that would be an unfortunate case of bearing false witness. Every time it hosts an art exhibition, a community Iftar, a street party, or even a summertime pop-up pub, we’re there – it’s as familiar a landmark as the park and the tube station. But we’re not part of the church. As common-or-garden agnostics who only sing hymns at weddings and funerals, we don’t attend services. Why would we? The church has become a venue for Instagrammable community events, not worship. So I never expected we’d find ourselves at Midnight Mass.

But do you ever get the feeling you’re missing something? Last year, as Christmas Eve approached, I realised that on the night, just a few yards from our house, people would be celebrating the season together, in the most respectful and probably joyful way. Meanwhile, we would be yawning in front of the TV or, if we were feeling especially sociable, splitting a bottle of prosecco with the neighbours. The prosecco thing sounded quite good, actually, but last year, to the confusion and consternation of our friends, we decided to spend the night before Christmas in church instead.

It takes a certain amount of determination to leave the house so late in the freezing cold, but there we were on Christmas Eve, lurking in a back pew, surrounded by strangers in jokey festive jumpers. It’s fair to say that this was a congregation with a sense of humour, or at least one that enjoyed a Christmas pun, which made me feel right at home. We like to think we know most of our neighbours, but in this room the only person we recognised was the vicar, who greeted us with a very hopeful smile. One of us had a hip flask in his coat pocket. Neither of us could quite explain why we were there.

Largely, we felt like tourists to begin with, and some people would say that we shouldn’t have been there at all. However, as the service progressed, we found the experience both chastening and enlightening. The carols were all familiar, and the readings too. It was refreshing, though, to hear people take pleasure in singing in church rather than mumbling in embarrassment. And the congregation (‘Tree-mendous!’, ‘Meowy Christmas!’) were unfailingly cheerful and friendly – rushing to wish us all the best and shake our hand. I didn’t expect the Christmas Eve sermon to take such a serious line on the matters of sin and so on, but to be honest I was already feeling a little guilty. For being there, and for not having been there before.

The most moving part of this evening took place when we couldn’t see anything at all.

It’s an especially beautiful church, built by William Douglas Caröe in the Arts and Crafts style and now grade-II*-listed. I looked it up on the Historic England website, where I read all about the splendours of its stained glass and Tudor-inspired roof. Now I know that next time I visit I must look out for the lettering on the foundation stone and the corbels on the chancel arch. The most moving part of this evening took place when we couldn’t see anything at all, though.

If you felt dramatic you could call it an act of God, though the more accurate term would be a power cut. Not that we knew that when the church was suddenly plunged into darkness. The choir were in full song, and some enterprising soul supplied them with candles for the final verse. The effect was so picturesque we assumed it was intentional – an impromptu candlelit carol service.

You couldn’t really have a starker illustration of the church’s value than that. If we’d have been at home, the power outage would have started the usual bleary panic, searching for torches and cursing phone batteries. We’d have been angry, and started fretting about the fridge full of gratuitous food. But at church, all was serene, and actually rather charming. Instead of being alone and in the dark, we were with friendly people, and the gloom was soon illuminated.

Church of England statistics tell us that church attendance is on the decline in general, even for christenings, weddings and funerals and at Easter, but Christmas congregations are rising. So there are an increasing number of us seasonal singers – whether you think we’re merely hypocrites, or connecting with something that makes our lives brighter.

I don’t want to put too much weight on a brief electricity outage in east London, but there’s a deeper point here, about everything being better in company, and how religion, at its best, can bring people together. My local church, along with its hall and rectory, was built at the same time as the houses that surround it – it was always meant to be a place where neighbours meet. Depending on how we use it, it can be an empty hall to be hired out for events, albeit one with eye-catching crenellations and gables, or something rather more meaningful.

Perhaps it shouldn’t take Christmas, with its carol services, evensong and midnight masses, to remind us of that fact – but, if it does, is that a bad thing?