Despite the rumours we really do celebrate Christmas in Luton!
I'm just back from a wonderful start to the Christmas season -- an afternoon of celebration organised by Luton Borough Council concluded with the switching on of the Christmas lights by Mayor, Councillor Tom Shaw, and a prayer for the town this Christmas from new-in-post Town Centre Chaplain Michael Campbell. Following that many made their way to Market Hill for a short Christmas focused service hosted by Churches Together in Luton, featuring songs led by the Luton Community Gospel Choir.
OK, so thats nice! But what really makes it news is the way it undercuts a threat made a few weeks ago by "Tommy Robinson", leader of the English Defence League (EDL) in the Times.
“We are now sending letters to every council saying that if you change the name of Christmas we are coming in our thousands and shutting your town down.”
The full article based on an interview with "Robinson" (properly Stephen Yaxley Lennon) is behind the Times paywall, but is to be found here on "There's a lot of anger: Its about to explode" (cited here on Islamophobia Watch). The EDL's letter went on to warn that the average cost to a city council of preparation, policing and clean up for a big EDL demonstration was about half a million pounds. The letters seem to have gone out and news has been filtering out in local papers around the country of various councils that have been dismissing the threat - and the idea they had any such intent.
Luton issued a statement this past week and it appeared in a local paper today: Councils will ignore pressure over the use of Christmas word.
The EDL are clearly not just opposing extreme Islam here; they are trying to bring their influnce to the way people of different origins and beliefs in this country live together. Opposing the multiculturalism of past years, and the impact that has had, or maybe more accurately in some cases, the impact they feel that has had, on the place of traditional English culture, they are arriving rather late in the day to set their mark on the of this wonderful old chestnut.
A couple of years ago I took some time after Christmas to review the seasonal run of stories of opposition to Christmas from around Britain, starting with a report from Luton which some have held to be the frontline of the "War on Christmas" (27th December 2008). My conclusion:
So what is the state of play of Christmas around the nation? The stories are generally petty (but nonetheless important to those affected), localised, do not generally represent the other faith communities (and certainly not the mainstream), but rather local authorities, and they are reported exclusively in the [right wing press].
It is not the other faiths that has the problem with us celebrating Christmas, but a few secularist local authorities. (In passing, I've also noted the encouragement of other faith leaders for us as Christians to celebrate Christmas as fully as we can ( 'Put Christ back into Christmas' 2007 ) and some thoughts from one of our Church of England leaders, Bishop Alan of Buckingham ( "Faith speaks to Faith" Nov 18 2008; I am sure other Bishops have similar thoughts, but as a leading CofE blogger Bishop Alan's thoughts are better known!) Indeed late 2008 saw a remarkable serie sof exchanges between Muslim and Christian Leaders, among which was a "A Muslim Message of Thanks and Christmas Greetings".)
The irony is that the event today was planned in the summer and with no idea of the threat that would emerge from the EDL. When that threat did appear I have to say I read it with a sense of "we got there first!" While the article on Luton's response to the EDL threat says "Christmas has always been celebrated in Luton", it is true that todays festivities represent a more active involvement by the churches in the town than in the past decade.
Frankly I am not going to quickly jump in to judge Luton Borough Council. The changes that we faced in a town like Luton as a result of a population drawn from many places did place strains on them as to how to deal with people from different faiths fairly. In retrospect they could have done it differently, but it is very easy to speak with the wisdom of experience. I think we are all agreed we need to review multiculturalism, so lets do that positively.
As for the churches we too now have the benefit of experience. We are learning once again to play out part on the civic stage, but maybe to do it a bit differently now. We may have withdrawn too quickly, we may have suffered from a crisis of confidence, but lets learn the lessons now.
The important thing is that here in 2010, the Churches are celebrating Christmas on the public stage here in Luton. We will do so confidently and yet I hope humbly, as befits followers of Jesus Christ. We have not needed to make threats to "shut down the town because it panders to multiculturalism." We have not done so by bad-mouthing Muslims, and so many others as well. We have not done so by claiming to demonstrate peacefully, and yet in reality intimidating and bringing fear to a whole town. We are able to take that place because we are working together with people from across the cultures and faiths of Luton for unity and harmony.
I was sad at one thing tonight. That probably very few if any members of the EDL were there to experience what they have been calling out for. I hope I was wrong.