Bishop Richard's Christmas Message

When does Christmas start for you?

20 December 2013

This year, as in recent years, the church has been asking what seems like a simple question. When does Christmas start for you? The range of answers fascinates me. For some it starts at their child’s nativity play. For others it’s when the decorations go up. For some it seems to be when the increasingly epic advertising hits our television screens. But I wonder for how many does Christmas start with an understanding of the real significance of what happened in a humble stable many years ago.

We all have an idea of the outline of the Christmas story. But the prettified story told in so many places and shown on many Christmas cards does not give the full picture. A picture of a baby born into extreme poverty in an obscure middle-eastern town called Bethlehem.

Every Christmas, pilgrims take the journey to Bethlehem and to the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. I was privileged to lead a pilgrimage for the Diocese of Liverpool there back in October. We had a long wait of over two hours to reach the place of Jesus’ birth in a cave under the Church. But the act of waiting, descending and finally kneeling gave me plenty of time to think about the sort of place Jesus was born into. And how little has changed.

Jesus was born into poverty in an unjust world. He came to show how God was on the side of justice. He spoke to the poor about how they could be saved. He challenged the wealthy to look out for the needs of the least. He spoke the need and desire for justice – a theme that resounds throughout scripture as God continually calls his people to look out for the lost and speak up for the marginalised.

Sadly that need is still here. We live in austere times but as a church leader and pastor I worry that this austerity has hit the vulnerable the hardest. That those with little or no voice are bearing the brunt. I recognise the need for prudence but it seems that many of the reforms to the benefit system have left the needy more vulnerable and led to others needing to step in and provide that safety net.

It’s clear from conversations with churches in Warrington and Wigan, where Universal Credit is being piloted, that there are grave concerns as to whether we are losing the safety net that the benefit system should provide. The main reason that people seem to be coming through the doors of the many Foodbanks, largely run by the local churches, is due to delays receiving benefits. I can see several good reasons for bringing in the universal credit system but I fear that the needs of the individual may be lost in the process. We must put the needs of the least able to cope first. But with the onset of the bedroom tax and benefit reforms it feels very much that the burden is placed on the most vulnerable in society. This, I fear, increases their vulnerability making it easier for the pay day loan companies to operate and people’s lives to be further undermined.

We daily hear the stories of those forced into desperate choices between food, rent and clothing. We worry about Wonga and the pay day loan culture which seems to push more people into a cycle of debt. This autumn, on International Credit Union Day, I joined Partners Credit Union in support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the national church in trying to find an alternative, ethical and non exploitative method to support the poor and marginalised.  Credit Unions bring together people with an interest, and in this case a financial stake, in making the world a better place.

I am pleased to be part of a church that plays its part. In our parishes, in the work we do with Foodbanks, debt advice, challenging the cycle of poverty, helping those who come to our doors because they are desperate. And it is heartening to me that much of this is done through churches of different denominations uniting together with a common purpose, as seen by the Hope+ partnership between this city’s two magnificent cathedrals.
But we need to continue in our efforts. For just as in the time of Jesus, God calls on us to help bring justice to the poor, marginalised and vulnerable. It is among these that Jesus was born.  It is among these that we are called to serve. And, for me, this is where Christmas starts.

Christmas starts in the Foodbank where a needy family are not just given food to survive but love, care and a sense of hope for the future. Christmas starts in the Credit Union where a desperate father is given a loan to support him in a way that won’t be crippling for him over future years. Christmas starts in the many churches who give gifts to the poor and spread love, peace and joy.

Christmas starts there because Christmas started with Jesus Christ born in humble surroundings. Born to bring justice into the world, peace into all our hearts and a hope for the future. This is where I believe Christmas starts.

I wish you all the joy and hope of Christ this Christmas time.