Pop open the mulled wine, fill-up on minced pies, enjoy the office parties, swap presents, take a holiday – but whatever you do, don’t mention Jesus. In fact, don’t even mention the word ‘Christmas’ – say festive season, winter break, or happy holidays.

Sounds like a joke, right? Wrong. It’s Christmas in Britain 2016. No, it’s not all pervasive, but it’s happening, the fist-in-a-velvet-glove reality for any number of people, particularly Christians, in workplaces up and down the country.

And it has led the British Prime Minster, a Catholic bishop, and the UK’s equality commissioner to speak out about this sort of nonsense – it has to stop.

Bishop Mark Davies has warned of a ‘strange silence’ fuelled by a ‘terrible perversion’ of political correctness that is making Christians fearful of speaking publicly about their faith.

Bishop Davies, head of the Catholic Diocese of Shrewsbury, made the comments during his homily for Christmas midnight Mass at the diocesan cathedral.

He highlighted comments made by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently told the UK Parliament that Christians should feel confident speaking about their faith in public, including about the religious nature of Christmas.

“There has been a danger of a strange silence falling over our land which has recently led the Prime Minister to urge Christians never to be afraid of speaking freely in the public space,” said Bishop Davies.

“She insisted that our Christian heritage is something of which everyone can be proud, and Christians must ‘jealously guard’ their right to speak publically about their faith. The Prime Minister is doubtless conscious of the strange phenomenon of local authorities and public bodies who fear that even to mention the word ‘Christmas’ might be a cause of offence.

“Somewhat more sinisterly, people tell me how they have felt inhibited or even intimidated in their places of work when speaking of their Christian faith and how it shapes their conscience and values.

“In a country founded on the Christian faith, it is a terrible perversion of political correctness that would so intimidate people from speaking of Christianity: the very faith and moral path which has shaped our way of life.”

Prime Minister May, a practising Anglican and the daughter of an Anglican vicar, expressed her opinions on the treatment of Christians in the public square in response to a question from Fiona Bruce, a member of parliament, in late November. 

Mrs Bruce asked the Prime Minister to welcome a new report by the Evangelical Alliance and the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, called Speak Up.

The report, she said, “confirms that in our country the legal rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech to speak about one’s faith responsibly, respectfully and without fear, are as strong today as ever.”

The Prime Minister welcomed the report, adding: I’m sure that we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also be able to speak quite freely about Christmas.”

Mrs Bruce also highlighted comments made by David Isaacs, the UK’s Equalities Commissioner, who is concerned that Christians were now fearful about mentioning their faith in public.

Speaking to The Sunday Times newspaper, Mr Isaacs criticized organizations, including public institutions, which have dropped references to Christmas unnecessarily from cards and celebrations out of fear of offending people of other faiths or none.

Back in 2013 during a homily at Liverpool Hope University, Bishop Davies noted the decline of Christianity and rise of secularism, saying that Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter may remain national holidays, while the saving truths they proclaim are often dimly if at all perceived.

But he his conclusion was far from pessimistic: “I want to suggest today that this may not be an entirely negative development as it dispels any ambiguity and requires of Christians a greater clarity in both teaching and witness.”

At the start of Advent this year, Bishop Davies announced a ‘Year of Mission’ for his diocese in 2017, describing it as an opportunity for “reflecting on the mission entrusted to us personally…It is precisely where we live and work that we take up the call to ‘announce the Gospel of the Lord.’”

There’s an image that goes around on social media at this time of year. It’s Santa Claus, hat off, head bowed, kneeling before a newborn baby in a manger. That, for me, sums it up nicely.

So to misquote a great Englishman: let us raise our glasses in toast to Christmas, but let us raise them first in toast to the child Jesus.

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Homily of the Rt. Rev. Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury at Midnight Mass, Shrewsbury Cathedral, Christmas 2016

On Christmas morning, church bells will ring out across this land announcing anew the birth of a Child in Bethlehem: the Saviour who was born for us, Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). This is news of great joy to be shared by all people; and the bright sound of those bells brings this joyful announcement to everyone, whatever their situation in life.

Christianity is not a cold theory or moralism: it is a message of joy and hope for all humanity, in Saint Paul’s words: “God’s grace has been revealed, and has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Titus 2:11). At the end of 2016, amid the many shadows and uncertainties in our world, Christmas once more announces the glory of God in whom is found indestructible goodness and truth.

However, there has been a danger of a strange silence falling over our land which has recently led the Prime Minister to urge Christians never to be afraid of speaking freely in the public space. She insisted that our Christian heritage is something of which everyone can be proud, and Christians must ‘jealously guard’ their right to speak publically about their faith.

The Prime Minister is doubtless conscious of the strange phenomenon of local authorities and public bodies who fear that even to mention the word ‘Christmas’ might be a cause of offence.

Somewhat more sinisterly, people tell me how they have felt inhibited or even intimidated in their places of work when speaking of their Christian faith and how it shapes their conscience and values. In a country founded on the Christian faith, it is a terrible perversion of political correctness that would so intimidate people from speaking of Christianity: the very faith and moral path which has shaped our way of life. It is the joy which Christmas announces.

In 2017, as we seek a new place in the world and an identity transcending any shallow nationalism, it is surely this Christian heritage that can again securely found our values and light the way for the future of our society. If the Christian voice were silenced in the public square and Christianity no longer shaped our laws, what would be left to uphold our human rights and dignity? “Be not afraid” was the message given to the shepherds on the first Christmas night (Luke 2:10). This is the new courage the Gospel offers everyone. May we too, like the shepherds, never be afraid to speak of what the Lord has made known to us and of the joy it brings. 

When the Earl of Shrewsbury first commissioned the building of a new Catholic Cathedral on the town walls of Shrewsbury, he intended that his famous architect, Augustus Pugin, would construct a great bell tower. Its bells would have complemented others across the town, both ancient and new. In the end, the site only allowed a single bell to ring. A single bell which may serve to remind us that we have each been given a voice which we can use for the good; a voice that can be raised with both confidence and respect, as we share with our contemporaries the hope found in the birth of a Child in Bethlehem. 

May 2017 hear Christian voices being raised as clearly and brightly as the bells ringing out so happily each Christmas morning! 

+ Mark Bishop of Shrewsbury