Country Life’s Christmas message, by Reverend Richard Coles: ‘I will celebrate Midnight Mass alone, save for my congregation of two dachshunds’

This will be a very different Christmas, says the Reverend Richard Coles, but mankind has been here before. And this time around, we have ingenious ‘virtual’ ways to worship and gather to celebrate Christmas at a safe social distance.

Will we even be able to offer Christmas Communion at all? As I sit writing this, a few weeks before Christmas, I very much hope we will. Locked churches — an oxymoron in the best of times, but particularly in these — have seemed desperately inadequate. Yet there are difficult choices to make when you are, on the one hand, trying to protect people from the risk of infection and, on the other, providing for the cure of souls, our solemn charge.

It is not the first time this has happened, of course. On the south wall of the sanctuary of my church, St Mary’s Finedon in Northamptonshire, you can see where the masons started to build a vault for the chancel — very grand for a parish church of the 14th century. The first couple of feet of a rib curving upwards have been carved, beautifully, but it ends almost as soon as it begins, in a rough termination. It looks as if the stonemason simply downed tools and left.

“When I checked the Burial Register for 1919, I saw that my predecessor at the time, Canon Greaves, had been officiating at six burials a day”

I think that is what happened, because it was 1349 and my predecessor, Roger de Colby, had just died, with half his flock, in the Black Death. A blunt reminder that normal service here has been interrupted by a pandemic before.

Not only then, either. In the 17th century, it was plague and, 100 years ago, it was Spanish Flu. When I checked the Burial Register for 1919, I saw that my predecessor at the time, Canon Greaves, had been officiating at six burials a day. And yet we endure, we always have and, in this pandemic, creative initiatives have evolved to transmit the lively oracles of God ingeniously.

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We are getting used to Zoomed Mattins and streamed Eucharists, as well as the light relief of clergy accidentally setting fire to their surplices or forgetting to disable the app that adds bunny ears to their on-screen image. And there have been wonderful things: the Rodolfus Foundation’s Digital Choral Evensong, for example, which gathered choirs and former choristers from Ely, Norwich, Wakefield, Llandaff and Winchester Cathedrals and Westminster Abbey, in a service that culminated with Parry’s I was Glad. Gladdening it was to hear hundreds of voices, recorded separately, conducted by music director Ralph Allwood remotely, to remind us, isolated by the pandemic, how good it is to come together in the house of the Lord.

It made the paradoxical point that, no matter how innovative we may be with technology, there is nothing like being together in the same place, at the same time. This was confirmed in the gap between the two lockdowns, when we gathered in manageable numbers and with the necessary restrictions, every Sunday and Wednesday morning. Masked, distanced, hymnless, unrefreshed after the service by Fairtrade coffee, superior biscuits and our favourite Sunday staple, the parish news, we came together to celebrate the Eucharist, make amends for wrongs done and to be nourished with the unmoistened wafer regulations permit.

We came together again, before lockdown was reimposed, for a wedding. A while ago, Eric, from our cricket club and local band The Cupping Melons, with whom I have made one or two memorable guest appearances, came to see me in church.

‘I think I love Lizzie,’ he said.

‘At last,’ I replied. It had been a bit of a saga.

‘There’s a problem,’ he continued. ‘She’s just emigrated to Australia and I don’t know what to do.’

‘You know exactly what to do, Eric,’ I said.

He got on a plane to Australia, missing a critical United away game, never missed before, and there went down on one knee. Lizzie said yes, so I married them in church in a ceremony rearranged for the day before our doors were locked again. It was a joy.

“It isn’t too fanciful to think that, 1,000 years ago, Finedonians walked up that same hill from pub to church to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord”

We came together, too, for All Souls, at our service of remembrance for everyone bereaved in the previous 12 months. This year, to manage the numbers, it was by invitation only and each bereaved family sat in its bubble in a dedicated pew. My older brother was there to remember his wife, Louise, who died with Covid-19 at the height of the first wave, and my younger brother, too, to remember my partner, David, who died at Christmas last year. As each name was read out, a candle was lit and placed on the altar, all the other lights in church extinguished. In darkness, we saw them flickering, in silence, save the odd uncontainable sob. Then the choir, reduced and socially distanced, sang the hymn Be Still My Soul. It was like rain falling on parched land to hear singing in church for the first time in nine months. And then lockdown was imposed again.

Also forced to close was our pub, granted a licence by Queen Edith, to whom the manor belonged, in 1042. The present building is not the first on the site and neither is the church up the hill: it is the third, replacing a Norman building and a Saxon one before that, in a churchyard planted with yews in Edith’s time and still growing. It isn’t too fanciful to think that, 1,000 years ago, Finedonians walked up that hill from pub to church to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.

They do it still, for even now, in spite of falling numbers, dwindling resources and the sense that, each year, the church is a few steps further from the centre of people’s lives, Midnight Mass remains a draw. We light the path from the lychgate to the south door with candles in coloured glass holders and, after 11pm strikes, people begin to arrive — the regulars, the occasionals, returning children, EU accession nationals, cricketers, outpatients, farmers, ICU nurses, those great in the estimation of the world, those down on their luck, those in disgrace, those who have never been before and do not know quite why they are here. In the full church, lit by candlelight, a treble solo voice sings Once In Royal David’s City and we process to the Nativity, where the youngest attender, allowed to stay up for this special job, places the infant Christ in the manger. In that moment, in all our difference, we are with the shepherds and the kings, alike in dignity, equidistant from God.

This year, I will celebrate Midnight Mass alone in a locked church, save for my congregation of two dachshunds. I have become quite used to this in the past year. However, I will place the infant Christ in the manger, light a candle and think what I always think: O magnum mysterium, that God should come to us not in a blaze of power and glory, but as a newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling bands, wreathed in the misted breath of beasts, lit by starlight. And, wherever we are, whoever we are, we are together again, for we are never really apart.