Our Church Calendars

Israel had a cycle of a weekly Sabbath, seven feasts a year, a sabbatical year every seventh year, and a Jubliee year every seventh sabbatical year. Their days were patterned for them, and it was wisdom to follow them.

They function how the Church calendar was designed by our Christian forbears to function for us—now of course that doesn’t hold the same force, it is set by the Church’s tradition rather than the word of God, but it holds some force—each year the story of the gospel, God’s dealings with humanity, are re-enacted for us in our cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-Lent-Easter-Ascension-Pentecost.

I’m a non-conformist and happily so, but I like the calendar because of what I read in the Old Testament Law. This is good for us to do as well for much the same reasons as them. It’s important to note though that it fits in the category of wisdom and not law. Paul has plenty to say about those who were enforcing the celebration of days and seasons on the New Testament church (Galatians 4).

Of course, almost every non-conformist church I’ve met still follows a church calendar. We follow the academic year, despite this only really being relevant for teachers and those with young children—I appreciate Paul Blackham’s suggestion that since this is irrelevant for the vast majority of any church, we should largely ignore it. Honestly, who cares if it’s half-term? The academic year means more to me than most since I work in a University, but it isn’t that academic year that most churches I know map onto.

We might well do something for Christmas and Easter—most will, but probably avoid Christmas Day due to the reality of not being able to get access to our venues. Which is understandable, but then we assume Christmas is over immediately rather than enjoy the whole twelve-day feast.

Most likely though its other considerations which form our liturgical calendar, particularly the national calendar. We celebrate Mother’s Day in March, Father’s Day in June, and Remembrance Sunday in November. We probably acknowledge Halloween exists by doing something for it, but ignore Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sundays. What particularly makes this weird is that those last three are still baked into our national character—factories are likely to be closed around Whit Week, we still have a Bank Holiday for Pentecost (though it’s now fixed and doesn’t always coincide), and in the upper echelons of society they name their ‘terms’ after these festivals.

It makes sense to me that the national church provides a religious angle on some of these national events—and a bunch more, including the Queen’s birthday—but it’s my non-conformism that means I don’t want to. At least the Anglicans get the Christian holidays too. I don’t want to be in the established church, which means I don’t have to nod towards the syncretism of the national religion.

Instead, most non-conformist churches, in my experience, ditch the Christian parts of the national religion but swallow the rest of it whole. Which feels like straining gnats to swallow camels to me (Matthew 23).

Many would push back and say that celebrating Remembrance Sunday or the Jubilee or one of the card holidays is contextualisation. I am all for contextualisation, but I’m not sure that’s what this is. The argument is that if we do something for these days we do two things: firstly we provide a reason for people to include church in their celebration of the day, and secondly we teach our people how to think Christianly about them.

The number of people attending our charismatic churches meeting in school halls or converted warehouses because it’s ‘Poppy Day’ will be tiny. If they really want to include church, they will be going to their local parish church because it has a war memorial. The number attending because its Mother’s or Father’s day must be even lower. I’m not convinced by the argument anyway—we wouldn’t draw in the Ba’al worshippers by getting in some Temple Prostitutes—but even taking it on its own premises I think we’d do better to let the Anglicans do what they’re good at. We have an established church, let them do it so we don’t have to. Or, if we actually do want these national celebrations, we could have the courage of our convictions and become Anglicans.

On the second point it is good to want to instruct people in how to think Christianly, so do so. We should be speaking into national events and pastoring our people through them. Use the sermon when appropriate, or use your other contexts (not everything has to be a Sunday thing—and this is one of those occasions when there are potentially huge wins for churches leveraging digital platforms, despite all their pitfalls). Don’t add liturgical elements to your Sunday meetings that confuse what those gatherings are for.

When the Church gathers on a Sunday it is to meet God in song and prayer, in the proclaimed word, in the waters of baptism, and in bread and wine. Worship, word, water & wine—the four ordained, dare I say sacramental, elements that God in Christ has given us and said that he will come and dwell with us through.

I’m proudly British. There is much to love about our sceptred isle. There is probably much to decry too. I happily celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee earlier this year. I’m not a fan of the way Armistice Day celebrates have shifted noticeably in the last ten years, but I’m not opposed to the original form. I dislike card holidays but send a card to my Mum and Dad on Mother’s and Father’s Day.

But on Sunday morning with the people of God I come to worship King Jesus, declare him as my highest authority, and place the love of God as the highest of my loves. Let’s not confuse that with other stuff.

In some senses that’s an argument for ‘no calendar’ which sounds rather Puritan, and there are plenty of our more conservative brothers and sisters who would follow through on a no calendar conviction entirely.

I think there’s wisdom in the church calendar, I don’t think we need to slavishly follow it—in fact enforcing it is probably against Paul’s instructions (Galatians 4). There is something wise about catechising our people to think Christianly about their lives by shaping what we do across the year (and not necessarily just on Sunday) to fit the shape of the gospel. We will adopt a pattern of annual rhythms as a church whatever we do, it is inevitable, so it seems really strange to me that we would be shaped by anything other than the story of Jesus’ victory over sin, Satan, and Death.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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