It was the vicar of Ormskirk, Chris Jones who insisted that we do not appear on stage alongside Santa. There has to be a definite boundary, a clear demarcation.
For this evening we have the peculiarly Ormskirk tradition of turning on of the Christmas lights.
Led by the police, we process from Ormskirk parish church – a collection of Disney characters and Welliephant, the Mayor, an assortment of clergy along with our church choir and an irritatingly jovial Father Christmas. For some unknown reason we invariably follow a proudly-kilted piper playing ‘Scotland the Brave.” (Next year’s rendition could well be considered seditious).
Cheered by the thronging masses we head to the market clock where an A-list celebrity will have been entertaining the crowds from a specially constructed set. This year we have Bruce Jones. You will remember Bruce as the cab driver Les Battersby which he played in Coronation Street prior to 2007.
At this point the atmosphere abruptly changes as the clergy, carefully lifting our cassocks, climb onto the stage. We then have a short and to-the-point carol service. Led by the Skelmersdale brass band and our choir we sing the traditional carols, even before Advent. Then one of the church leaders gives a short address, taking full advantage of the state-of-the-start pa system.
This year the lot for this challenge has fallen on me, probably the most difficult thing I do in ministry. Facing what to all intents appears like a huge fairground, I aim to clearly present the message of Christmas to the milling throng. One of the traditions established over the years is that the town cryer will introduce me by the wrong name. I cope.
We have honed this gospel presentation over the years. Indisputably the most memorable was in 1999 when our then-curate Mark Stanford commissioned Bernard Simpson to cut up a large Christmas tree into a cross using a chain-saw. How they escaped prosecution on health and safety grounds I will never know.
I guess I have 90 seconds to make a telling point. Anymore and you have lost everyone but the few on the front row. Then, the lights are finally turned on and everyone bursts into song. And the carnival resumes.
The big question is why do we do it? Are we selling out to the commercialisation of Christmas? Surely the celebration of the incarnation deserves a profound sense of awe rather than Snow White.
In many ways our participation in this annual bunfest presents on a small scale the ongoing dilemma of how do we the church of Jesus relate to society, now increasingly secular and dismissive of the challenge of the gospel. So Peter begins his letter by describing Christians as “exiles scattered to the four winds.” (1 Peter 1, the Message). This world is not our home, we don’t expect to fit in.
We do need to be alert to the risk of losing our prophetic edge and failing to represent God’s love and justice. But it was the prophet Jeremiah who urged the exiles to fit in and put down roots in Babylon.
“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:7). You may be exiles but get involved. Be a blessing to your community.
There is something special about the church’s role in Ormskirk, something to be prized and nurtured. In contrast when I was a vicar in Rochdale, the town council, sensitive to Muslim sensitivities, pulled the plug on the civic carol service. Certainly just a few years ago there was some pressure here on the churches to lower our profile for the turning on the Christmas lights. Hence the stand taken by Chris Jones.
Around this time Ormskirk Christian Fellowship made the strategic decision to get involved in Ormskirk Churches Together and in the civic life of our township. Since then the churches of Ormskirk have aimed to bless our community with street pastors, debt advice and the food bank along with Park Praise.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that only last year the Mayor here instituted the West Lancashire Carol Service held at Ormskirk Parish Church.
So just before the lights of Ormskirk are turned on in all their splendour, we together pray to the babe of Bethlehem. It is his presence among us which changes everything; he truly is the Light for the dark world. And amazingly he has chosen to shine through us.