A Parish Christmas

In this extract from The Parish Handbook, Bob Mayo reflects on a Parish Christmas

christmas-crib-figures-1904439_1920We have a Carol Service for children with special needs. It is a wonderful occasion. The children doing the Bible readings work their way slowly through each of the words in the passage, but noone in the congregation seems to mind. One of the children has Down’s syndrome and shares the reading of the passage with her brothers. It is lovely to have children at the centre of the service and not to have their parents needing to keep them quiet so that they don’t disturb everyone else.

After the service I talk with a mother and kneel to make eye contact with her child. He takes my head in his hands and sucks my nose. It is a tender moment, with him taking the lead and pleased at what he is doing. I am tentative and unsure of myself but do not stop him. He continues for a while. He is going to spend the rest of his life on the edge of other people’s conversations, and so for that moment I feel that he can do as he wishes. I feel very fortunate.

The child is my lodestar for the Christmas season. We, in the Church, find it easy to bemoan the effects of a consumerist culture on our Christmas celebrations. The greatest single knock-out blow delivered to Christianity by a consumerist culture is to see Christmas replace Easter as the main festival of the Christian year. Some 3.7 million people were reckoned to have logged on for the online Christmas sales (2013) that began at 12.01 a.m. on Christmas Day, while only 2.5 million went to church later on in the day. It is thought that 66 per cent of the population will be asleep at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day. This all means that the Church is operating in a crowded market in trying to make 25 December its one showcase day to get its message across. The story is told as if it all happens within a 24-hour period: Mary and Joseph arrive; a stable is found; the baby is born; the shepherds and wise men visit.

The real tragedy is not so much that the Christmas message has been taken from us but that we have given it away. The Church offers to society a theology that is more ‘Away in a manger’ with the little Lord Jesus’ sweet head than ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ along with the second person of the Trinity. Jesus was defenceless but he was not helpless. In Scripture Jesus is no longer a newborn infant when the wise men arrive. They don’t come to Bethlehem until some time after Jesus’ birth. They arrive at a house, rather than a stable, and see Jesus as a young child rather than as a baby (Matt. 2.11). Herod wanted all children under two to be killed, an intimation of the future suffering that lay ahead for this young child.

It is natural that we interpret the baby Jesus through the lenses of childhood with which we are most familiar. Modern notions of childhood touch on vulnerability and need. This is encapsulated in pictures of the baby Jesus cosseted and protected in pristine clean stable stalls. Childhood is to be nurtured and protected: it is age-graded and a gradual progress towards adulthood.

The idea that Jesus had to grow gradually into an awareness of his divine status appeals to contemporary notions of authenticity and self-realization but it has a pre-trinitarian logic of Jesus as subordinate rather than co-equal with God as Father and Holy Spirit. It is not a notion of childhood that can be mapped on to Jesus who was God in the womb (Luke 1.31, 35). God chose the time (Gal. 4.4) and the place (Micah 5.1) for his birth. The baby Jesus would have been akin to the disabled child who sucked my nose. He would have had a clear sense of who he was as the world changed around him.

Once, as I was cycling home, two young people sped past me on their bicycles. One of them turned round and shouted ‘Get an upgrade!’ It is maybe this that the Church needs for its Christmas message. I like to finish my Christmas Day sermon with the notices for Easter. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1.23), not Jesus lying in a manger, even if in our Christmas-Christianity it has become the latter. It is correct that in Jesus’ story we run together his birth and death. When Jesus is presented in the temple, Simeon tells Mary a sword will pierce her soul (Luke 2.35). John Stott (2006, p. 24) describes Jesus as born in the shadow of the cross.

On Christmas Day we see the trajectory of God’s character stretched across eternity – the pre-existent Word has become the living man (John 1.14) and will come as the returning King (Rev. 3.21). Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was T. S. Elliot’s still point of the turning world where past and future are gathered together: in the beginning of the story lies its end. We announce to people that the world has changed and we rejoice.

The four weeks of Advent are intended as the Church’s time of preparation after which the celebrations finally begin. The angels ‘hark’ only when the baby Jesus is born and they have something to ‘hark’ about. In liturgical terms, the 12 days of Christmas start on 25 December and end on 5 January with the Feast of the Epiphany during which our joyful celebrations continue.

When the Church reverts to a pious approach in an attempt to claim back the Christmas story, we talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ as if we can appreciate it and others can’t. T-shirts with ‘Happy birthday, Jesus’ or ‘Don’t forget the reason for the season’ dictate a response, but make light of the depth of meaning for our lives.

In the culture of consumption of which we are a part, people who may not have been in church from one year to the next will still want a traditional Christmas carol service available on demand. The Church acts more as a service provider than a truth teller. At Christmas the local church is seen as the guardian of a cultural heritage rather than a community of faith.

Nativity plays and Carol Services cherish people’s lost ideal of a family narrative rather than challenge them to live a new life in Christ. One year I had a nativity scene with neither a Mary nor a Joseph. She had not appeared and he refused to go on stage because he had wanted to play the role of an innkeeper. People were charmed because the appeal of nativity plays and carol services are driven more by a nostalgia for childhood than by any desire from them to learn the true meaning of Christmas.

However, the happy family narrative is divisive. At Christmas people feel excluded if they don’t have a family group to join and are sometimes pressurized if they do. Research from Age UK in 2014 concluded that 23 per cent of those aged over 65, the equivalent of 2.5 million people in Britain, do not look forward to Christmas because of loneliness and the fear that it will bring back bad memories.

Christmas cards used to be about mangers, kings and shepherds. Then they became about reindeer and robins. Now they are about us, ourselves. We send out Christmas newsletters telling others of what we have done during the year. There are even Advent calendars that go up to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and thus script out the significance of Christmas Day itself. As the cultural memory of Christianity fades, people are left to respond to the gospel individually and on the basis of what it means to them. We can’t call people to repent because Christmas is near, because there is no common understanding of Christmas as there would have been a common understanding of the kingdom of heaven when John the Baptist preached.

There are different worldviews in play. At our carol services we present the Christian story within one framework of interpretation, but it is listened to within another. We read the nine lessons, give out Alpha leaflets, sing carols and pray. People eat mince pies, drink mulled wine, and enjoy the festive cheer that marked the beginning of their holiday season.

Santa Claus is the public face of Christmas-Christianity. I have my annual conundrum of whether it matters my being Father Christmas at the school fete one week and then vicar in church the next. The same children will be sitting on my knee telling me what they want for Christmas one day and then hearing me preach in church on another.

C.S. Lewis gives a hint as to how Santa Claus might best be included in our Christmas celebrations by writing him into The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Father Christmas’s appearance in Narnia seems incongruous because there is no mention made otherwise either of Christ or of Christmas. Father Christmas comes just as the spell of the White Witch begins to weaken. The snow starts to melt and he arrives with sleigh bells jingling. He is ‘a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest’. C. S. Lewis is here reclaiming Christmas as a celebration that is forward-looking and outward-reaching. The children receive presents, but they are tools that they will need to use in the near future to bring about the downfall of the wicked White Witch. Peter is given a shield and a sword. Susan is given a quiver full of arrows and a little ivory horn to call for help. Lucy is given a little glass bottle of healing cordial and a small dagger to defend herself. C. S. Lewis is redeeming the role of Father Christmas because his appearance in Narnia is forward-looking and apocalyptic, helping the children to prepare for the coming battle with the wicked queen.

The Christmas festival is a hope for the future. It is a love affair between God and mankind. If things were so different in the past when Jesus was born in Bethlehem they can be so again in the future when Jesus returns to earth. The eschatological hope of Christmas is evident within some of the carols we already sing. We can truly rejoice through the realization that the tiny infant Jesus is God himself, who has come to share our lives and to save us from ourselves. As the words of the carol say:


Hail, thou ever-blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He who throned in height sublime,
Sits amid the cherubim.

Taken from A Parish Handbook, by Bob Mayo, available now.


SCM News, Winter 2017/2018

Welcome to another quarterly roundup of all things SCM Press…

becoming-friends-of-time-003John Swinton’s new book wins an Award of Merit

We were very pleased to learn that John Swinton’s new book Becoming Friends of Time which is published in the UK by SCM Press next month (see below) has recognised in Christianity Today’s 2017 Book Awards.  Bestowing an Award of Merit on the book, Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine said that “Swinton’s love and compassion for the disabled is contagious. He casts a Christian vision of time in which every person has a real, unique, and valuable identity”

John Swinton is no stranger to awards, having won the Michael Ramsey Prize earlier in the year for his book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God.


Word Made Flesh: Does the Church Really Need Academic Theology?

To celebrate Academic Book Week 2017, we’re proud to be co-hosting with St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square a panel discussion of the place and value of academic theology for the church. Chaired by Julie Gittoes, Residentiary Canon for Education at Guildford Cathedral the panel will be considering whether there is still a place for academic theology in the life of the church.

The event takes place at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Monday 23rd January, starting at 7pm.

Panellists for the evening include:

cymy1gkw8aaf3_oAlison Milbank (Associate Professor, Nottingham University)
Christina Rees (broadcaster, writer and chair of Women and the Church)
Lincoln Harvey (Assistant Dean, St Mellitus College, London)
Mark Oakley (Canon Chancellor, St Paul’s Cathedral)
Sam Wells (Vicar, St Martin-in-the-Fields)
Steve Chalke (Baptist minister, founder of Oasis Trust)

Tickets are free – to book and to find out more, visit www.wordmadeflesh.eventbrite.co.uk

The Parish Handbook launch

Last month we published The Parish Handbook by Bob Mayo, with Cameron Collington and David Gillett. On Monday 16th January we’re thrilled to be launching the book at an event at London Diocesan House at 2:30pm. The Rt Revd Graham Tomlin will be giving a Keynote address at the event, and copies of the book will be available to buy. If you’d like to attend, email David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk

SCM Roadshows

Every so often, we like to get out onto the road and bring a few of our books with us. The SCM Roadshow is an opportunity for students at theological colleges and university departments up and down the country to browse a selection of SCM’s books and maybe pick up a bargain or two. In the next couple of months, we’ll be visiting the following:

Ripon College Cuddesdon – 17th Jan
St Mellitus (away weekend)- 4th Feb
Trinity College Bristol – 7th Feb
Queen’s Foundation – 14th Feb

If you’re at any of those colleges then we look forward to seeing you.

New From SCM this Winter

becoming-friends-of-time-003We’re kicking off the new year by publishing a new book from Michael Ramsey prize-winner John Swinton.  In Becoming Friends of Time, John Swinton crafts a theology of time that draws us toward a perspective wherein time is a gift and a calling. Time is not a commodity nor is time to be mastered. Time is a gift of God to humans, but is also a gift given back to God by humans.

Swinton wrestles with critical questions that emerge from theological reflection on time and disability: rethinking doctrine for those who can never grasp Jesus with their intellects; reimagining discipleship and vocation for those who have forgotten who Jesus is; reconsidering salvation for those who, due to neurological damage, can be one person at one time and then be someone else in an instant.

John Swinton explains a little more about the book in this video, and you can preorder a copy here.


Our much-anticipated Studyguide to Preaching by Peter Stevenson is also published in 214553_cmsg-preaching-002January. It’s set to become a vital resource for anybody just beginning to learn the craft of preaching and an important go to handbook for those who have been preaching for years. With practical exercises suitable for individuals or by groups, the book considers in depth the process of preparing, designing and delivering a sermon.

Paula Gooder, Theologian-in-Residence at the Bible Society, has this to say about the book:

“This thoughtful yet practical guide to the art of preaching is a brilliant resource both for those new to preaching and for experienced preachers who are looking for ideas to reinvigorate how they preach. It blends helpful theory with down-to-earth examples in such a way that captures and communicates Peter Stevenson’s own passion for preaching. A must for every preacher’s bookshelf.”

You can find out more, or preorder a copy here.


9780334055082.jpgIn February we are publishing a new edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s profound and provocative Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer’s story continues to be as vitally relevant, as politically prophetic, and as theologically significant, as it always has. Collectively the letters tell a very human story of loss, of courage, and of hope. Published with a new introductory foreword by the Rev Dr Sam Wells, the hope is that this new edition will bring these profoundly moving documents to a new audience, and encourage those who have encountered them in the past to revisit them afresh.

Find out more about this new edition on our website here.


While a number of secular philosophers have written on global poverty, theologians have9780334055150-main either steered clear entirely or simply mimicked the political analysis currently on offer. As such, there are a number of Christian authors who have argued either for a free market solution to global poverty or for a radical reform of global capitalism as the best approach, but the theological underpinnings of such conclusions are noticeable by their absence.

Global Poverty: A Theological Guide offers a new way forward. Thacker, who is a lecturer in practical and public theology at Cliff College, offers deeply theological answers to questions around the effect of capitalism on global poverty and whether aid is really a sustainable long term solution for the world’s poor. The book will challenge theologians, church leaders and congregations to consider much more seriously the huge implications of faith and theology on our attitude to the 1.2 billion people in the world who live in extreme poverty.

More information on our website here.


What do Christian Churches say Islam is? What does the Church of England say Islam is?encountering-islam And, in the end, what space is there for genuine engagement with Islam? Richard Sudworth’s unique study takes as its cue the question of political theology and brings this burgeoning area of debate into dialogue with Christian-Muslim relations and Anglican ecclesiology. In Richard Sudworth’s Encountering Islam: Christian-Muslim Relations in the Public Square the vexed subject of Christian-Muslim Relations provides the presenting arena to explore what political theologies enable the Church of England to engage with the diverse public square of the twenty-first century. The books is published in March.

Lastly, don’t forget our Advent Prize Draw. You only have until Midnight tonight (16th December) to enter. Find more details here.







A few highlights from 2016 at SCM Press…

We have published some great titles this year covering biblical studies, introductions to theology, reader ministry and a wonderful collection of the writings of John Hughes.

97803340539342In September we published Paul: The Apostle’s Life Letters and Thought by EP Sanders. An expansive introduction to the apostle, it provides a fresh picture of the apostle as an ardent defender of his own convictions. We also published Paul on Baptism which examines Paul’s theology of baptism and highlights its practical application in ministry today. Our new Companion to the Old Testament offers a similarly practical approach to understanding the Old Testament.

In 2016 we added three titles to our Learning Church series – Encountering the Bible by Andrew Village, What do we Believe? Why does it Matter? by Jeff Astley, and Conversations with the Old Testament by John Holdsworth.9780334054054 As a whole, the series offers a gentle introduction to popular areas of theology and spirituality.  Suitable for adult learners and churchgoers, it ‘fills the gap’ between books of popular Bible study or spirituality and more academically-oriented introductions to theology. Find out more about the series here.

Andy Milne’s The DNA of Pioneer Ministry , which we published this Autumn, is an important resource for those looking to understand how pioneer ministry works. Andy uses his experiences of leading Sorted, a Fresh Expression in Bradford to offer a really helpful and practical text on the triumphs and obstacles of setting up a pioneer ministry. In many ways similar, although taking as its subject the beauty and reality of parish ministry, The Parish Handbook by Bob Mayo presents a series of a profound theological reflections on all aspects of parish leadership.

Human Being by Jocelyn Bryan (who has recently been announced as the new Academic Dean at Cranmer Hall, Durham) was recently reviewed by the Church Times. The reviewer 262193_uman%20being%20finalstrongly recommended the book, calling it ‘thoughtful and well-written’. The book’s aim is to introduce theology students, those studying practical theology and those engaged in ministerial formation or ministry to the significant current research in psychology which will deepen understanding of some of the core aspects of human nature. And whilst we’re on the subject of good feedback, Reform magazine named Thinking Again About Marriage as one of their “must-read” books of the year.

Finally, we were thrilled that John Swinton was chosen as the winner of the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing this year, for his book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who presented the prize, remarked that in writing the book, John “has done the church and our country a huge service”. Also published this year was John Swinton’s co-authored (with Harriet Mowat) second edition of the hugely popular text book Practical Theology and Qualitative Research . And look out John Swinton’s new book Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship, which we’ll be publishing next month.

Many of these titles are available at a special end-of-year discount of 20%, before 31st January. You can see a full list of all the titles we’ve included in the offer here.

And lastly, don’t forget our prize draw. Sign up for blog updates by midnight on 16th December and we’ll enter you into a draw to win you THREE classics on the SCM backlist. More details here.




In a Glass Darkly

Layout 1We asked Zoë Bennett and Christopher Rowland to sum up their book In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life in a few lines. Here’s what they said:

We have written this book as a way of exploring where we are as Christians in relation to the Bible and where we are as people in relation to the world. Like many, we have no one home or one tradition, but are finding our way on a journey, which is often ‘in the cracks’ of society, church,  academy and life generally. We wrote it together initially because we wanted to write a book jointly and equally by a biblical scholar and a practical theologian. But in writing it we have discovered just how important collaborative authorship is in getting a critical and reflective understanding – being able to see from another person’s perspective as we write, organise and understand together. We draw from the perspectives of many other companions along the road,  not least our students, contemporary writers and theologians, but also two historical figures who have wrestled with the Bible and who have meant a great deal to us, William Blake and John Ruskin. As we have, from the end of writing, reflected on the process of doing it we have understood so much more than we knew at the beginning: ‘action is the life of all’, to quote some words of Gerrard Winstanley.  So in the final chapter we have used Hegel’s image of the Owl of Minerva who takes flight at dusk – wisdom which only comes from the end as we look back along the path we have taken.

Our book is not about how we should interpret the Bible, but about how we have in fact interpreted the Bible in our lives. We start with the reality. And it is then critical reflection on that – what kind of interpretation were we using? How would we want to reflect on that? What does it look like from the other’s perspective? In this way our work is radical: both in the common sense of serious questioning of church and theology, but also in the sense of going back to our roots and examining them. So the book is first personal and only secondly theoretical. Personal doesn’t mean individualistic – we start with the ‘apocalypse’ of 9/11. Even where our chapters tell our personal stories, of struggle and loss and of new understandings, these are always embedded in the contexts of the life and work and church which we inhabit. Our hope is that, though the reader’s story will be different, the way we have reflected on our stories might be helpful to others in reflecting on theirs.


In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life is published this month. Find out more here.



Preaching – Discovering and Delivering the Word of God


214553_cmsg-preaching-002What is preaching? What makes a sermon different from an academic lecture, or a speech, or even a stand-up comedy routine?

Preaching, says Peter Stevenson, in the SCM Studyguide to Preaching (published next month), is much more than any of these. It is all about:

Discovering the Word of the Lord from the Bible, for this group of people, at this particular time, and then delivering that Word in the power of the Spirit, in ways that people can understand, so that they can respond in worship and service.

A tall order, perhaps, and one which has daunted many a new preacher. People listening to a sermon have the right to expect that a person who stands up to preach, can interpret the Bible competently, has a grasp of core Christian beliefs, and believes what they preach. All in all, that means there is are a lot of expectations riding on any given sermon.

Deliberately practical and interactive, the Studyguide seeks to help introduce the practice of preaching to those new to preaching and those in all kinds of ministerial formation across a host of church traditions. Online video introductions to each chapter, as well as a range of other digital resources, help to give further support to new preachers and those training them.

But what can we say to those who question the very point of preaching in our day? Is it an outmoded form of communication? In Igniting the Heart Kate Bruce argues that the day of the poorly conceived, ill prepared, dull, disconnected, boring, irrelevant, authoritarian, yawn-inducing, patronizing, pontificating, pointless and badly delivered sermon, is indeed over. She argues that crucial to preaching is a sense of imagination – both to frame how the preacher sees the task of preaching itself, and to help lead a congregation to an  ‘aha, now I get it’ moment of sacramental ‘seeing-as’. David Wilkinson, Principal of St John’s College Durham describes the book as ‘Honest, humane and humble, this is the book for all preachers who have a passion for God to speak’.

Good preaching, says Kate Bruce makes you ‘lean in’. ‘Such preaching’ she tells us ‘is utterly dependent on the Spirit of God brooding over the chaos and vulnerability of the preparation process, bringing to birth a new thing in the event of the sermon’.


There’s still time to enter our prize draw – just sign up to receive free blog updates using the box on the left. See Advent Prize Draw for more details.

Advent Prize Draw


The Christmas season is just around the corner now, and to celebrate we’re giving you the opportunity to win a set of three classic SCM Press titles. All you need to do is sign up to this blog by adding your email address to the box on the left-hand side between 1st and 16th December, and we’ll enter you  in to our prize draw to win a copy of Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan, Honest to God by John Robinson, AND The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

And even if you aren’t the lucky winner, by signing up to the blog you’ll receive an email straight to your inbox  whenever we post something new, so you need never again miss out on the range of extracts, exclusive author interviews, news and more which we feature on this blog every week.

Sadly, this prize draw is only open to UK residents – sorry!