Deck The Halls

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It's nearly Christmas. Time for clergy persons everywhere to whine, bitch and moan about the unceasing commercialisation of Christmas. Well, what do we expect? We hijack the Saturnalia and complain when the old pagan festival brushes off its Christian veneer and reverts to form? Get over it.

However, being a clergyman and being rather partial to the odd spot of whining bitching and moaning, there is one thing I'd like to wb&m about. The holiday season offers, yet again, an insight into what I call the Social Credit syndrome. For the information of those of you unfortunate enough not be New Zealanders, and to remind those of you who really should remember your political history a little better (see, I'm in a hectoring mood) the Social Credit Political League was a political party that flourished in our fair country from the 1930s to about the 1990s. And by flourished I mean sputtered along, fueled by the enthusiasm of those who accepted its somewhat peculiar economic theories. Social Credit theory was the brainchild of a certain Major Douglas and had quite an appeal if you were keen on cure all solutions and didn't have a strong grasp of economics. The party was never very popular, but at one stage it managed to get a single solitary member elected into our parliament, where he accomplished...well... not much at all. For the last twenty or so years of its life the party was in a state of decline, -from small to tiny to miniscule - and as it went down the tubes it spent all its energy and resources holding conferences in which it tried to figure itself out and explain itself to itself. In other words, the main business of promoting Major Douglas' theories was gone and instead, the peripheral business of the party consumed it.

There is a principle in here, possibly an important one, and if you are scrabbling round for a topic for your Masters or PhD, you can have this one, free of charge. Here's the principle: as an organisation or institution declines in importance, the peripheral and/or ceremonial trappings associated with that organisation or institution take on ever increasing size and grandeur. Here's some examples:

1. Christmas. As the significance of the Christian faith declines in the West, Christmas has become ever more extravagent and expensive. So for that matter, has Easter. So for that matter have a couple of very minor festivals - St. Valentine's Day and Hallowe'en. The Social Credit principle is seen most clearly in Christmas, though, with the cost of gift giving, feasting and drinking putting families into financial difficulty well into the new year. I would guess that the families most likely to land themselves in these difficulties would be amongst the least likely to have any spiritual or religious motivation for celebrating the festival.

2. Weddings. As marriage has declined in importance as an institution, weddings have become ever grander and ever more expensive. Here is a picture of a wedding in the 18th Century; a time when marriage as an insitution was cruciual to the functioning of society:
Notice the simplicity of the occasion. The couple are decently dressed in clothes they would wear on other occasions. The ceremony is attended by family and friends but the celebration is comparatively brief and inexpensive. By comparison, the average cost of a New Zealand wedding is now around $15,000. Many weddings cost well in excess of $100,000. In all this haemorrhage of money from the nuptial couple, a tiny percentage is spent on the religious ceremony itself, of course. The amount spent on the wedding has no correlation to the longevity of the marriage. Sometimes I suspect exactly the opposite.

3. The British Royal Family. As the political power of the British monarchy ebbed away, the pomp and ceremony surrounding them increased. All the grand ceremonies we are most familiar with - the changing of the guard, the trooping of the colour, for example - arose comparatively late in the monarchy's history, and achieved their present grandeur only in Victorian times or even in the 20th Century.

4. Ordinations. As the
social significance of the church in the West has declined and as the role of the clergy has declined within the churches themselves, the grandeur of ordinations has increased, particularly episcopal ordinations. Within the Anglican church, the rise of the eucharist as a weekly event, and the increase, in most parishes, in the amount of decoration accepted as usual for the eucharist has also paralleled the decline in importance of the clergy both within the church and within the larger community.

Is my observation correct? I think it is. My suspicion is, that we will know the church is healthy again when we ordain a bishop at 10:15 on a weekday morning with 25 people present. We will know that marriage is truly honoured when a community of friends gathers in simplicity to honour together that thing which the couple possesses and which money can't buy. Until then, we sit back astonished as money flows into trundler loads of worthless junk at Christmas and into five thousand dollar dresses at weddings.


Verna said…
Well thought out Kelvin. I agree - how many candles did we say we needed this year for midnight? It will be interesting to see how much pomp and palaver goes in to inducting the new Dean of St Paul's Cathedral - won't have much to do with how effective his ministry is [imho].
VenDr said…
Hi Verna. I don't know Trevor James personally, but he is by all accounts a very fine priest, and he has a first rate brain between his ears. He's had a very wide and broad experience of the church in several different countries. If anyone can enhance the fortunes of the Cathedral, he will. I will be there at his induction, if at all possible, to wish him well as he takes on that enormous challenge.

But yes, our fist day on the job as clergy always has a lot of froth and bubble about it. It's nice to feel welcome, and there is a truthful emphasis on the role of leadership in the community, but this business of holding grand inductions and ordinations as though clergy are some sort of arriving royalty is, in most cases, counter productive. I think that in a declining church it only serves to focus attention on the priest and away from the more important systemic issues where it belongs. I think, probably more importantly, that it also sets up the priest for all manner of unhealthy projections and triangulations which can take years to get past.

Of course projection is inherent in the very role of priest. In some senses that's how priesthood works. But there's no need to lard it on with a spoon.
Janice said…
Hi Kelvin - I understand what you are saying about the Social Credit Pqrty as they were the party here in British Columbia for years, and ultimately went the way of the dodo bird. Our last socred premier stated once that it didn't matter if he did the wrong thing, as long as he didn't get caught(of course, that was right after he did something wrong and got caught. And I don't think the liberals who are in power right now are any better; our present premier was caught driving while drunk in his first term, and got away with it both with the law, and with the people. He's got some other bad habits too, apparently, but I wouldn't want to go on record, as no one else ever has, I don't think. I'd like to respond to the rest of your post, because for once I think I have something worth saying, but as I've been in hospital twice in the past two weeks, I think I'd better go to bed, and do that tomorrow.
Anonymous said…
Hi, Kelvin - yes, I do agree with you - there is an inverse relation to pomp & window dressing to the amount of serious content (just look at Tec). C. S. Lewis (naturally) has something to say on this, in this famous little seasonal essay - hey, you can use it on Thursday!
I'll post another link in a moment.
A Blessed Feast of the Nativity to you.
Vernon Crack-nil
Anonymous said…
Hi again - a propos of your comment that the Church pinched the Saturnalia, I had imagined that too (although in truth many Christmas customs come from northern Europe which wasn't evangelized untilthe 9th century), and an Orthodox friend begs to differ. Professor William Tighe offers this interesting rejoinder on the date of Christmas, arguing that the traditional date has nothing to do with the Saturnalia (which isn't Dec 25 in any case):

Vernon Crack-nil
VenDr said…
Hi Vernon; thanks for the CS Lewis link. Interesting about the Saturnalia. In one of those nice pieces of synchronicity, a day or two ago I came upon this article in Christianity Today which argues that Christmas trees - which I had always thought of as remnants of the Saturnalia - are actually derived from the Paradise Trees used in Medieval mystery plays, and thus have strong Christian.

There's no reference to trees used in Christmas celebrations until the Rennaisance, apparantly, leaving about a 1000 year gap for Christmas trees to make the jump from the Saturnalia to the drawing rooms of good decent Christian folk like you and me.