Reflection on Christmas at S. Thomas the Apostle, Elson

This is my last Christmas in this Parish: a parish I have served for seven years now. In a month’s time I will be moving to Plymouth to continue my ministry in a different group of Parishes with new expectations, new hopes and dreams. I am excited by that, but also anxious: anxious about the inevitable heartache that comes because “the new vicar isn’t the old vicar” and “that’s how we’ve always done it” and anxious about the next five months without Lou, Emma & Zoe who will remain in Gosport until the end of the A’Levels and the current class Lou is teaching. I believe that God has called me to walk with the good people of Roborough and I pray that he will help us all towards his sacred heart.

So, it was with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I approached this Season (a season which continues until the Feast of the Epiphany on  January 6th, I’d like to remind you…) – a desire to finish on a high note and just get it right. This isn’t a prissy sort of “get-it-right” which is more concerned with style over what goes on in our hearts – our best worship has all kinds of messy, human, incarnational and frankly cocked-up little episodes which make them, well, like us. I’m more interested in doing something in the right spirit rather than the letter. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Elson Junior School Christmas Service was on the last day of term, and with just under a week of preparation, the young people delivered a number of sketches and prayers which reminded us of the true meaning of Christmas, using a Derek Haylock sketch from “Plays on the Word” (a few still available really cheaply) “The Wallies Guide to Christmas”. I got about 45 seconds into my homily when I suddenly had a new idea and completely changed the direction of the homily. I thought it went much better after the first 45 seconds. The Choir directed by David Edwards was once again lovely. He will be finishing at Elson at the end of this academic year: more moving on, more change. He is an inspirational music teacher and enthusiast: a man of faith and great skill & he will be missed in Elson.

We gathered in the Three Tuns for Carol Singing in the Pub on the Friday before Christmas, and it served as a useful reminder that the work of the Church is not yet complete in Elson. Surrounded by regulars in the pub whom I know well and who were keen to support us, we also met with a considerable amount of antagonism, apathy and the extremely pissed of Elson. “Are you gay” slurred a young man to me as I distributed Carol Sheets, “excuse me?” I smiled back (my hearing isn’t great at the best of times and in a pub I usually struggle) “You must be gay.. ‘cos your religious!” (Maybe it was the clerical collar which gave it away) he declared, sort-of squaring up to me, which was a little unexpected. Now, my usual tactic would be to play along with that: challenge his assumptions, but the aggressive nature of this encounter made me think that a glassing wasn’t a good idea, even in jest; luckily he was out with one of the regulars with whom I have shared many pints, and he put the young man to rights without me having to say anything. Sexuality and faith, mission and humanity in one split second clash together. Most young people use the term “gay” as a derogative without even considering its context of sexuality, but I have to admit for a split second this married priest’s alliegence and support of my LGBT brothers and sisters was in danger of melting away to avoid a gay-bashing. Now I write this, I am a little ashamed of that: I suppose there is a little bit of S. Peter in all of us. Once we started singing, we had a good laugh: a good number of the Church turned up. Many of us are well known at the Tuns from the Quiz Nights. The more aggressively drunk decided that they were too cool for this ole school and left the Pub. The Landlord thanked us, because they were in danger of getting a little lairy and we did his difficult task for him. Glad to be of Service. The rest of the Pub had a good time, and we once again thank the Staff and Patrons of the Three Tuns on Elson Road for their love and support.

I was up at silly o’clock to get the oranges for the Christingle and rewarded myself with an early Wetherspoons breakfast. The usual small team gathered on Christmas Eve to make the Christingles whilst the Churchwardens and myself rearranged the Chairs and finished the decor. The Church looked lovely with new projectors and screens, voile and fairy lights. The Christingle Service was once again packed (see picture at the top): atmospheric, excited and just the right way to begin the season. I maintain that this service is the first evensong of Christmas, so the Holy Feast really has begun at the end of my countdown.

I just love mugging around, telling silly jokes and puns (thanks to @markloudon for his “knittivity” pun) and getting them all excited in order to deliver the punchline that it’s all about God in human form. I recorded the entire service, but am still in two minds whether to post it. The script was, of course, included in this year’s book my me: Creative Ideas for Sacramental Worship with Children which is proving to be a popular resource (and a good thing to spend your Amazon Vouchers on I would suggest). Numbers were up, and I believe it was enjoyed. I pray that the service continues to grow. I suspect that Steven & Mother Margaret will take it in new, good and different directions, which is only right, for the show in this form is of me, and should rightly move on.

I let Mother say the Vigil Mass which saw another increase in numbers, and I was back for the Midnight Mass: I felt I needed to be there at least an hour before. We were told that the wafers had been counted out, and so I fiddled around with other matters of my concern – my favourite headset microphone has a loose wire and needs to be resoldered. I was worried at 11.20pm that no one was coming. By 11.25 it was full and people were going upstairs. At 11.26, Steven who was MC’ing said “Are the vessels out?” and we realised that because we wafers had been counted out by the Vigil Mass server, no-one had checked that the sacred vessels were out – they were’nt! Mad dash, sort it out. Remember the bambino on the cushion…

Midnight Mass was lovely: the spooky-mysterious sermon was light on jokes and heavy on the mystery of the Incarnation. I think that was what was needed in that half-light. We communicated about 50 people and I blessed probably twice that. It was definitely the busiest Midnight Mass we have ever had. I didn’t set myself on fire either! This might have been because we put the Big Six on the altar this year. Still, the servers had kept a bucket of water behind from Christingle just in case! The incense was heavy and Vickie used my heavy thurible with remarkable skill.

Mother said Mass of the Dawn, for which I was grateful. The Parish Mass of the Nativity saw a reasonable turnout: a wholly young person’s serving team (which I love). I messed up the Memorial Acclamation, and almost the Eucharistic Prayer but it was Christmas – I was tired and the Congregation were in a very forgiving mood. It was lovely. I cheekily suggested to Steven that the prayer response should have been :

Have a good one

Cheers!

and he almost did, only changing it at the last minute. That would have been a zeitgeist moment of popular culture.

We must be one of the few Churches to keep the Solemnities between Christmas and New Year because I think they are important and at least someone is offering the Mass in this deanery. Come along at 10am all this week if you can. The numbers are low, but the faith is there and the welcome (and the church) is warm.

It was a Christmas to remember. Thanks be to the good people of Elson and most importantly, Thanks be to God!