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Christmas, Christianity and Communities

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Christmas, Christianity and communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. The motion is on Christmas, Christianity and communities, and I will speak of all three. “Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city”—I remember that song playing so often when I was young. My mum loved Christmas; I think that is why I love it so much now. The city streets look so wonderful with all the lights shining brightly. There are Christingle services with church choirs singing carols old and new—what is your favourite, Dame Maria? Slade and Mariah Carey are playing on every radio station, local and national; there are bustling shops; people are rushing about, trying to get a present for a loved one; and Santa’s sleigh is making appearances up and down the country in our villages and towns. Lions Clubs do so much good work, raising money for numerous charities while spreading festive cheer. Father Christmas is in department stores and garden centres. Advent calendars are excitedly opened by kids—and adults—across the country, counting down to this very special day. There are Christmas get-togethers, the sharing of cards, Christmas movies—it truly is the best time for so many of us.

Christmas is obviously getting very commercialised, and as I mentioned in my Easter debate, there will always be those who want to change the name of these festive periods and who want us to forget the real meaning of Christmas. But with 2 billion-plus people across the globe who all know the reason for Christmas, we can be safe in the knowledge that the reason will never be forgotten. To make sure we do not forget, however, I will play my part now and make sure we all know.

We celebrate Christmas because of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin named Mary, in a barn—the most unlikely place for the king of kings.

It is widely acknowledged that Mary and Joseph were migrants travelling by unconventional means. Had the authorities in Bethlehem decreed that migrants travelling by unconventional means should be deported to Rwanda, how much further would the three wise men have had to travel to celebrate the birth of our Lord?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I expected something exactly like that from someone like him during this debate. I will continue with my speech, and will address his comment any time he wants, out and about.

Jesus was visited by those deemed the lowest in society—the shepherds—and by the highest, the wise men. He was raised as all boys were at that time. Jesus would have gone through many of the challenges we all face but always in the knowledge of His heavenly father. He had siblings. He learnt a trade from His father, Joseph, a carpenter, but then, in His 30s, He started to spread the word about His reason for being here. He carried out miracles and preached as no one had before or ever will again. He told the world that the only way to be right with the Lord and have eternal life was to believe in Him. He knew His time was limited on this earth and that He would have to make the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. He knew he would be crucified, and He was—crucified so that all those who believe in Him will be forgiven. He made the final sacrifice so that we can be right with our maker, not through words or deeds but simply by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

What does that mean to us, 2,000 years later? It means simply this: if we repent and ask Christ to come into our lives, He will. That is it: the greatest gift we can ever be given is simply an ask away. It does not matter what you have done in the past. No matter what your thoughts or deeds have been, what addiction you have, whether you are in prison or not, or whether you are wealthy or broke or healthy or sick, just ask Him to come into your life, and He will. You can ask Him alone or with others, in church or not, on your knees or not, eyes closed or not. You just need to ask, and there is never a better time than now.

Do not think that you are not good enough to ask—that is what I thought. I lived for decades without the Lord because I thought I was not good enough to be a Christian. Trust me, you will never not be good enough and nor will I. Forget all your reservations and just ask, and when you do, you will start watching the negatives in your life fall away. Why? Because you will fill all those voids in your life—the ones you have filled with poor choices—with the truth that our Lord, Jesus Christ, loves you. From that moment forward, you will never be alone and will never be without help or hope, because our Lord is always with us.

I have spent much time this year talking about suicide. Two of the many issues related to that are loneliness and the feeling of having no value. With Christ in your life, you are never alone and you can be happy in the knowledge that the Lord values you. What a wonderful gift that is. We really need to spread this message.

The next thing you need to do is to let people know and to seek out your local church. The Church was always at the heart of the community. Sadly, some churches are closing. I often speak about building a strong local economy. If we all buy online, there will be no shops. Likewise, if we do not go to our local churches, they will inevitably close. At Easter, I spoke about the importance of our Christian heritage and about the wonderful chapels and churches that make our towns and villages the places that they are. They are also home to a Christian community that is leaned on by many in society when a tragedy happens. Unless we go to those chapels and churches, they will no doubt close their doors, just like our shops have. So when you have decided to let Christ into your life, if you were not already in church when that happened, go down to your local church and tell them of your decision—they will be delighted to see you. There is a church community out there that is just waiting to welcome you: a community that is full of forgiveness and care, love and hope—a community that needs you.

This Christmas, make that decision to follow Christ and then become part of that community, which can change our society as a whole. We were never meant to be alone. We were meant to be in families and in a community, with faith at the centre of our lives. I hope that all Members agree with that, and I hope that the Minister will do all that he can to promote our communities and our churches.

This wonderful gift of forgiveness and eternal life was given to us at Christmas, and it is a gift that we must share. But we must also engage in the forgiveness part. If there is one thing that we can and should do as Christians, more than anything else, it is to forgive those who have wronged us. This place is meant to reflect society and, although that is often a good thing, sadly it also reflects the bad in society: anger at each other, gossip and lies, selfishness and attempts to get ahead. We can all be guilty of some, if not all of those. If God can send His only son for Him to eventually die on a cross for our sins, we surely must be able to forgive an act or deed against us. If you are upset with mum this Christmas, give her a call; if you are not speaking with a sibling, send them a card; if a neighbour is not currently on your Christmas card list, go and knock on their door; and if an argument with a friend has turned into six months of silence, send them a text.

Let me be the first to practise what I preach. Let me start by apologising to all those I have let down over this past year—families, friends, colleagues, the good people of this country and the Christians who think I should do better or differently. Trust me, this place can make you look like a villain even when you are not, but if I apologise here and now, hopefully you can all forgive me.

I say now that I have already forgiven those who have wronged me, especially those on social media. They call me the most awful things, Dame Maria, but trust me, I forgive them all. Why? Because God has forgiven me. What would Christmas be without forgiveness, friends, family and Christ in the centre of our communities? Happy Christmas, everyone.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on succinctly, but honestly and sincerely putting forward the greatest story ever told, as it truly is. As I look around Westminster Hall, I see many kindred spirits, like the hon. Gentleman who set the scene. I think my contribution will be replicated by others—we will all have the same story and will all be telling the greatest story ever told.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. We have been in Westminster Hall together a few times now, and I have fond memories of, and thank him for, his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I also look forward to hearing from the two shadow spokespersons. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who will speak for the Labour party, has belief and faith, as I and others here do. I know that her contribution will reflect that, as will that of the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).

This issue is truly close to my heart. I so love Christmas because of my faith and the fact that I love Christ, which enables me to love my community. It took me some time fully to grasp the verse that I learned as a child:

“We love because he first loved us.”

At the age of eight—the hon. Member for Don Valley referred to this happening—I accepted the Lord Jesus into my heart, as a wee boy in Ballywalter. I grasped early that He loves us when we are right or wrong, when we are on the mountain top or in the valley, or when we are argumentative or are peacemakers. That encompasses all we are in this House, what we believe and what we try to put forward.

I learned that because I benefit from an all-encompassing love, and I understand that Jesus loves my neighbour, the person who comes into the office and shouts at me, and me with the very same intensity. He loves the drunk person who dented my car coming out of the pub as much as He loves me. That is what the hon. Member said: it is about loving people who sometimes might do things that injure, annoy or distress us. When I understand that, how can I help but love those He loves so passionately?

That feeling is replicated throughout the faith sector, and that is the reason why so many Christians give up their time and money to help in their communities. I want to talk about what Christians do in their communities. That unfailing love that we cherish in Christ has to be replicated, because, as He said very simply, the first commandment was to love God and the second was to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

In this House, I have always tried, in every way that I can, to be ever mindful of those of a different political opinion, who might have different thoughts about policies. It is no secret that my policies and politics are left of centre, and a social conscience drives me in regard to the things that I believe in. In this House, however, “Do unto others as you would they do unto you” is my simple philosophy. I have tried to do that in all my time in this House and in all my life.

A survey showed that church or faith-based organisations were the most common type of organisation that individuals volunteered with—39% of individuals volunteered with those, while 29% volunteered with sports organisations and 17% volunteered with local community, neighbourhood or citizens groups. Women were more likely—the proportion was 43% —to be volunteers in church or faith-based organisations than males. The fact is that in churches, it is the women, the ladies, who keep us all in check and make the contributions, and inspire us. I am fortunate to have a 92-year-old mum who inspires me every day.

It is clear that the Church is taking the responsibility to love seriously—how can we not do likewise? When we look at the love of God, which saw the redemption story beginning at Christmas and ending with the resurrection of Christ, the message was clear: God’s unfailing, unending love always wins. It won victory then and it helps us to win victory now, including victory over loneliness. All of us know of examples of loneliness in our constituencies and communities. A young woman in my local community uses the local church hall to heat Christmas dinners for 110 lonely people on Christmas day.

Love wins when we see families with no money being given food and toys for their children by the Salvation Army and the food bank. We all have food banks, the Salvation Army and churches that contribute greatly. Love wins when we see Christian missionaries carrying out feeding programmes funded by those who are struggling themselves. Love wins, and that is all inspired by the love of God seen at Christmas in the gift of the lovely Lord Jesus, who loved me and gave Himself for me and for you—for everyone here in this Chamber, everyone outside this Chamber and all those listening to this debate.

In a world of darkness and despair, I am so thankful that the light and love of Christ can still lead the way for those who trust in Him—I am one of those people. I celebrate His birth, as we all do in this Chamber, and the changes that were wrought in me when I first trusted Him.

I love Christmas because of Christ—I think we all do. That is the thrust, the core, the story of what we are discussing today. I love my community, as others do equally—I know that. He loves them and that love inspires service and dedication. I love His Church and I am thankful for the branches throughout the world that seek to be His hands and feet across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I sincerely wish you, Dame Maria, and every right hon. and hon. Member here, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. I remind everyone of the love as they show their love to their community and family this year.

We have a number of people who want to speak. If we keep contributions to about nine minutes each, we should get everybody in.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing it so well, and so authentically; I think we all sensed that. I am grateful to him for giving us a reason to come here to remember the reason for the season.

It is worth pausing at the beginning of this debate. As we head back to our constituencies today, and as our constituents gather with their families to celebrate Christmas, we should have a thought for the 360 million Christians around the world who live under fairly serious forms of persecution, and who will not be able to celebrate Christmas as freely and as easily as we can, if at all. People in North Korea probably will not be able to celebrate Christmas at all, for example. Three of the 11 countries where there is extreme persecution of Christians are Commonwealth members: Nigeria, Pakistan and India. We should perhaps say a little more about that.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a call with the spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and we had the privilege of listening to the parish priest of Bethlehem, where Christians will just have prayer this Christmas, because their hearts are broken over what is happening to their Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters in Gaza. We should think of the people in the Latin Church in the north of Gaza, who are running out of food and being sniped at as they try to go to the toilet. We hope and pray that rescue will come to them shortly. We should never take for granted our freedom to worship freely in this country; it is a precious gift.

In the United Kingdom in 2023, we live in a world beset by anxiety and fear, so when I read Luke 2:10—

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people”—

I see so much of the answer to the problems, issues and anxieties that face our constituents. That message of the angels has never been needed more in our country than today, when a third of people live alone.

People everywhere are desperately searching for love, community and purpose. At Christmas, and quietly week by week, churches provide that relationship of love through Jesus Christ; a sense of community with fellow believers; and purpose, as regards why we are here, and what we were born for. I am told that carol services are packed, particularly with young people. Someone said yesterday that as many as half of Londoners will turn up to a carol service. There is a hunger to learn more about our faith, and for that love, purpose and sense of community.

At its best, church is family. Christianity is, at heart, a relationship of love with the Lord Jesus. The best definition of community I ever heard was from the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

“A place where they know who you are and where they miss you when you are not there.”

If you go to a church where that is not the case, it is possibly not the right church for you—or maybe, if you are in a larger church, you need to join a home group.

I have the privilege of speaking in this House on behalf of the Church of England. There are many churches up and down the country of all denominations doing fantastic work, but it would be remiss of me not to put on record that the Church of England has a presence in every community in England; it has 16,000 churches, 42 cathedrals and 31,000 social action projects, and educates 1 million children every day in church schools. That is an amazing footprint. I am grateful for those parish priests and workers who quietly, week by week, day by day, bring the light of Christ at Christmas and throughout the year.

I end by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley for bringing us here this morning for an important debate that goes to the heart of so many issues in our country.

It is an honour to serve under your guidance, Dame Maria, and a privilege to follow several hon. Friends, in particular my friend the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for being bold enough to secure this debate, and for delivering a great speech. I hope that I have done nothing that he needs to forgive me for.

Christmas, Christianity and community are all massively important. It is great to have this debate at this time of year. Over the past few days, I have had the joy of visiting Christmas markets at Shap and Orton, and Grange Christmas tree festival, where I gave a little talk. I read a lesson at Kendal parish church carol service, and attended the wonderful nativity at Kendal’s Dean Gibson Roman Catholic Primary School, which included the privilege of giving the award to the winner of my Christmas card competition, Anna Kay. Her design of a Herdwick sheep inside a Christmas wreath—it could not be more Lake district—is being delivered by our wonderful volunteers to 40,000 houses.

I visited several other schools that had taken part in the competition, and joined in their Christmas celebrations. What a joy all of that is. At my church in Kendal, our Christmas celebrations reach many more people than would normally attend our services. I know that is the case for churches the length and breadth of Westmorland and Lonsdale and, indeed, the whole country. I do not need any persuading that Christmas is important to communities, locally and nationally. It brings us together, family by family, street by street, village by village, town by town.

The shared acknowledgement of the importance of this festival as a time of rest and a time for family is significant for the collective life of our country. However, for those working in healthcare, social care, the police, the fire services, hospitality and many other professions, including some in my close family, it is a time of continued, if not enhanced, busyness. We are grateful to all those people; we pay tribute to them and thank them.

Traditions are important, and we have them in our family. We decorate a tree in the midst of the woods near our home in Westmorland. We do the same family walk every year on Christmas eve. We share the annual festive disappointment of an en masse family trip to Blackburn Rovers, and we watch the same films over and over. Without even checking, I know the entire script of “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2”—not “Home Alone 3” or “Home Alone 4”, because they are abominations.

No, the most wonderful Christmas film is “It’s a Wonderful Life”, with James Stewart. That tells everything about everyone’s story, and how people influence one another. That is what we do in this House, so to me, that is the best Christmas film ever.

I would say it is a tie between “Home Alone 2”—because I think Tim Curry makes it—and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The other tradition on Christmas eve is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”; then I sit around with my brothers-in-law and watch the “Father Ted” Christmas special—I know all the words to that, too.

Some decry the loss of the Christian message from Christmas, seeing that as an undermining of British values. I understand that concern, although I do not think it is anything particularly new. Commercialism and escapism have been displacing the Christmas message for decades if not longer, and a nice, feel-good, schmaltzy, vague magic has been allowed to displace the meaning of the nativity for longer than I have been alive, at least. I have had the best parents, but I was not brought up to go to church, although I was raised in an era when the assumption was that we believed in God—probably the Christian version. Nevertheless, the first Christmas story that I remember having read to me as a very small child was “The Night Before Christmas”, which begins:

“’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”.

I remember the thrill of being read that by my mum, as I perched on my bed on Christmas eve, ready to be tucked up. I was aged three and a half. There was an empty stocking hanging expectantly, and a tingling sense of excitement. Lovely and traditional though it was, it has no more to do with the Christian message of Christmas than “Home Alone”, “Love Actually”, “Elf”, or any of the other stories that we enjoy at this time of year, so before we get too upset about Christmas being joylessly erased by winter festivals and all that, let us not forget that the Christian message has always been seen as something of an inconvenience—something uncomfortable to be brushed aside, whether it is Christmas or not. In fact, Christmas is one of those rare occasions when you can more easily get away with talking about Christianity. This debate is a case in point.

My contention is that Christianity has always been and always is counter-cultural. It is meant to be. It is deeply disturbing and even offensive. I am reminded of Lucy asking Mr Beaver about Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. She asks nervously, “Is he a tame lion?” “Oh no,” says Mr Beaver, “he’s not tame, but he is good.” He is good. Jesus is not tame; Christianity is not tame; and Christmas is not tame, but He is, and they are, good. I would say to people: if you are prepared to allow yourself to be disturbed and offended, you will discover that He is good—good for you, even.

Christmas is all about stories: there is Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”—best performed, of course, by the Muppets—“It’s a Wonderful Life”, the “Home Alone” films and the many legends of Father Christmas and the trials of his reindeer. The Christmas story, however, is a different kind of tale altogether. It is told in just two of the gospels in the New Testament—Matthew and Luke—and the jarring thing is that the writers expect us to believe that the nativity is history. Just before Luke launches into the account of the nativity, he starts his book with this:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Those four short verses tell us something pretty shocking about the story that is to follow, in which the God of the universe writes himself into our story. He comes into the world that he created as a baby, born in poverty in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. He comes into the world for one chief reason: to suffer and die in our place, so that sinful human beings can be forgiven our wretchedness and have eternal life. Luke’s verses tell us that this story cannot be a fairy story. It cannot be a fable or a feel-good, festive yarn. Given Luke’s introduction, this story can only reasonably be one of two things: fact or fabrication. When we look more carefully into the evidence of the eyewitnesses, we see that fabrication soon falls away as a plausible theory, too.

Maybe we get a shiver down our spine when we think of the magic of Christmas. How much more of a shiver might we get if we realised that what we read about in the nativity is true? The fact that millions have accepted that continues to be crucial to our society. The nativity tells the story of a teenage mum who, along with her husband and new child, becomes a refugee from a tyrant, lost in an empire that cares little for them and that values them as nothing more than tax fodder. There is so much there for so many people to identify with. It is a reminder that God never considers us an irrelevance or an insignificant and anonymous number; every hair on our head is numbered, and our names are written on the palm of His hands. Commercialism and escapism will not make Christmas mean anything, really.

Maybe our difficulty is that we feel inclined to miss Christmas, or at least to celebrate less, because, after all, look at the state of the world—what is there to celebrate? God looked at the world and saw the mess it was in. He did not hide under the covers; He entered in at enormous cost, because He loves us. Christians are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, running the food banks, providing support for those in debt or poverty, housing the homeless, befriending the lonely, and loving our neighbour in practical ways. That is not because we seek to earn God’s favour, but in joyful response to the fact that by His Grace, we already have it, and Christmas proves that we have it.

If the Christmas story is true, yes, it is disturbing, but it means that there is justice. It means that evil does not win; good does. It means that there is love beyond our wildest dreams. It means that there is ultimate truth, and that there is meaning in every life, and in every part of every life. It means that human rights actually exist. They are not just a passing 21st-century fashion; they are the invention of the inventor of everything. Because we have ultimate dignity of bearing the image of God, that means every other human being does, too. No Parliament, President, despot or dictator can change that one jot.

Christmas is also a time of personal sadness for some. It may be the time when we feel the loss of loved ones the most. Christmas is a time of great joy for me, but all the same, this Christmas will be my 20th without my mum. I mentioned earlier that the first story I remember my mum reading to me was “The Night Before Christmas”, and the last thing I read to my mum in her hospital bed was this from the last book in the Bible, the Revelation:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with humans, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”

If Luke is to be believed that the nativity is eyewitness testimony, we can believe those things, too. It means that there is real hope, even for a scumbag like me. Happy Christmas.

It is good to follow the hon. Member for—sorry, I wrote it down but I cannot read my writing—Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I credit my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), which is easier to pronounce, for securing the debate and being so true to his personal conviction and faith. We have a role in sharing truths this morning.

On Christmas morning, families will gather to open gifts and enjoy traditions that have become special over the years, and we have mentioned some already. I wish them all a great day, and the very best for the year ahead. I also thank everyone who will be working on Christmas day and across the festivities. They may not be at the forefront of our minds as we wake up on the 25th, but firefighters, policemen and women, possibly road gritters, doctors and nurses will be among those giving up their family time to ensure that services are available, if we are so unfortunate as to need them. I thank all those who will be serving up meals on Christmas day. I know a project in west Cornwall that will be serving up breakfast to people who are homeless, and lunch to those who are alone, and to many others; it is offering friendship and company to those who need it. We also remember that around the world British servicemen and women will be working for peace and to protect our interests and security abroad. I pay special tribute to everyone who is working, and thank their families for their personal sacrifice at a time when the rest of us are united.

As we have just heard, we want to remember all those for whom Christmas will be a deeply sad and troubling time, because many have lost loved ones in the past year and in many previous years. Christmas, as we have heard, is a time when that is acutely painful for so many.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men on whom his favour rests.”

That is a well-known part of the biblical account of the Christmas story. They are familiar words to those of us who have attended children’s nativity plays. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale seemed to take pleasure and joy in attending so many Christmas events and nativities. This is not for anyone outside this room, but I confess—I may be the only one here being honest—that children’s nativity plays, even when my seven-year-old daughter is in them, are just not my favourite pastime. Even so, I am hopeful that they are not entirely irrelevant. I have watched lots of nativities, some better than others, and they are important. I do not particularly enjoy them, but I hope that we have not lost their relevance. I am also hopeful that the Christmas story has not just been mixed up with many fairy tales and other romantic accounts. I suspect that for many, it has; it has been mixed together with Father Christmas, elves and all sorts of other things that we love to think of.

We parliamentarians have the opportunity today to speak of the role of Christianity and Christmas in our communities. Christianity is an important part of our history, and gave birth to many of the precious institutions that we hold dear. Early Christians, for example, pioneered care of orphans and the elderly—something in which we take great interest, and take time to do today around the world. Many hospitals and schools in the UK were established by Christian organisations. In my constituency, I have old hospital buildings dedicated to the service of God, and there are ragged schools that still bear that name, set up by Christians who recognised the need for education for the poorest families and their children.

Churches and chapels were central to every community. Unfortunately, many of those are now converted into dwellings and used for other purposes. It may not be the case today that our churches and chapels are central to everything we do, but it is appropriate to recognise that although things change so quickly in modern life, the principles of the Christian faith are still the same. During my time as a Christian, I have had constituents who have questioned whether it is appropriate for a Bible-believing man who attends one of those happy clappy churches to represent them in Parliament. It makes me smile, because my motivation for serving in this place is driven by a commitment to public service that is commonplace among those all sides of the House, including among those in this room today.

Those comments cause me to pause and ask: what kind of Christianity are we presenting to those around us? Time does not permit us to go into the great depth, history and truth of the Christian faith as we see it. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley did a great job of making that clear, and we have heard from others on the subject since. My faith reassures me that we human beings are not the top of the tree. In other words, if we think we have all the answers, it is for us to know how to fix the things that are not right. If we are ultimately responsible for all that occurs, whether just or unjust, that is a burden too great to bear, and certainly not one that I want to hold. Christians believe that humankind is not the top of the tree. Humankind does not have the authority, ability or understanding to claim such a role. Christians believe in a God who is far from our understanding, and who holds the world in His hands. The burden of responsibility sits with Him, and I am grateful for that.

There is, however, a challenge for us Christians; our job is much simpler, but it is important. It is our job to display love, joy and peace, to be long-suffering and to show kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I suspect that few would take issue with any of those attributes, and in a nutshell, that is what Christianity is for me. I confess, once again, that it is a journey that is not over for me yet. I have a lot to do, and my long-suffering family would keenly testify that I have not achieved those nine attributes in full.

Returning to Christmas, I quoted the words:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men on whom his favour rests.”

The Christian principles our fathers treasured are many, and are still relevant today. Among them is a longing for peace on Earth—we have heard about the situation in Gaza and across Israel—and good will towards one another. We seem to live in a world in which it is easier to tear others down than build them up. It may not be social media that made it so, but it has certainly created a platform for sharing comments and opinions about third parties—possibly a public servant or a celebrity—with a much wider audience. Previously, those comments would have been limited to friends talking over a drink, or a discussion in a crib hut on a building site.

My hope for Christmas and 2024 is for something better. I had a discussion with a constituent in St Ives library, and he left me with a lot to think about, including his personal commitment to leaving the people he engaged with more cheerful than they were before the encounter. I have tried to apply that ever since—it has not been successful every time, but I have tried. There is so much to be thankful for, and the Christmas season often highlights that for us. As we move into a new year that has the potential to be even more toxic than the previous one, I hope for peace and for more good will to one another than we have become accustomed to.

Because everybody has been so disciplined, the last two speakers can split the time between them. We will move to the Front-Bench speeches at about 10.50 am.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this very timely debate on the three C’s: Christmas, Christianity and communities, between which there is a clear link. Clearly, without Christianity there would be no Christmas, and it is the celebration of our saviour’s birth that brings communities together.

It is fair to say that not everyone who will be celebrating next week would acknowledge the Christian faith or the real reason we celebrate, but this Christmas festival can still work its magic in bringing communities together. It is also the time of year when the retail trade makes much of its profit, and with the decline of our high streets that is very welcome. Sadly, many gifts are now bought online, but we must also recognise the many people who work in the online community and deliver all those parcels. In recent days, we have heard the news that Royal Mail may give precedence to parcels over cards and letters—I hope not.

My hon. Friend and others recounted various Christmas traditions. I am old enough to remember a time when there were not hundreds of TV channels, and squeezed in after the Queen’s speech was “Top of the Pops” and Billy Smart’s circus, and then the Monopoly board came out before Morecambe and Wise came on.

For our churches, Christmas is an opportunity when the pews are much fuller than usual. There are carol services, Christingle services, nativity plays and Christmas morning services, and midnight mass is part of the seasonal ritual for so many. Those, like me, who are regular worshippers will be there because it is a major Christian festival. For the Church, it is a great opportunity to proclaim the Christmas message and perhaps—just perhaps—touch the hearts of those who doubt, who used to believe or who were dragged along by members of the family. There is magic in the Christmas story.

In a strange sort of way, the Church of England speaks for mainstream middle England. Although it annoys me at regular intervals—I want to say, “Please concentrate on preaching the gospel”—it represents communities up and down our land that do so much to keep our society together. It is the Women’s Institute, the parochial church councils and parish councils. It runs food banks, the scouts, the guides and so much more, and all those things involve the Church and the community.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred to “Home Alone”, which gives me an opportunity to say, “Not Home Alone”. Nina Stobart and her team in my constituency provide Not Home Alone events for people who are alone. They can go along to a gathering of about 80 or 90 people for Christmas dinner, donated by a generous local hotel. There are so many opportunities.

The Sunday before last, I attended a service of lessons and carols at St Peter’s church in the beautiful village of Ashby cum Fenby, in the south of my Cleethorpes constituency. It was pleasant and uplifting, and epitomised the three “C”s that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley included in the title for today’s debate: Christmas, Christianity and community.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his wise words. I am mindful of his words about what we will all perhaps be doing this coming Sunday or Monday, in relation to Christmas day. There are many places across the world where the opportunity to worship God will not be available, which we need to be ever mindful of. I brought up the example of Iraq in a business question last week in the Commons Chamber. In Iraq, Christians will not be able to worship God in their churches, because of persecution. That is an example of what happens across the world, when we have the opportunity to worship right here.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Sadly, it is very much the case. He does so much work, along with the Prime Minister’s envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), to highlight persecution of Christians.

I return to the service in Ashby cum Fenby. A local businessman had donated Christmas trees, and various community groups and businesses had decorated the trees. The congregation were asked to vote for their favourite. I opted out of this, on the basis that there will be more losers than winners. It is not wise for the local Member of Parliament to get involved.

The Domesday book lists the manors of Ashby cum Fenby, together with a summary of their assets. In 1086, Ashby cum Fenby was in the hundred of Haverstoe in Lincolnshire. The village had three manors and 29 households, which is considered quite large for that time. St Peter’s church is grade II listed, and has an early English tower, aisle and belfry, a decorated chancel, and a perpendicular font. Beneath the tower are the remaining parts of a 13th-century rood screen. In the north aisle are monuments to Sir William Wray and his wife Frances, both from the 17th century, and to Frances’s sister, Susanna. The fact that they have plaques in the church suggests that they may well have been the elite of their community. Nevertheless, they were part of a village community that came together to worship, then as now. The Christian message had brought them together.

One of my favourite passages from the Bible—perhaps even my favourite—comes from the Christmas gospel: chapter 1 from St John. It begins with those immortal words,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

For me, the most striking passage in that gospel is, as the authorised version says:

“He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew him not.”

That is sadly the case now, just as it was when St John wrote those words. How much better the world would be if we recognised that Emmanuel, God is with us. How the communities that we represent would be so much better if the Christian message reached deeper into them. Dame Maria, I wish you and all my colleagues a happy Christmas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this debate, and opening with such a lovely and humble speech. I am pleased we are having this important debate. As a Christian myself, with a firm belief in loving my neighbour, I believe that the Christian message of love and hope is important for us all to reflect on, particularly at this time of year. Indeed, when we treat others as we would like to be treated, our society is a better place. I am proud that Darlington has a wide and varied Christian community. It serves our town in many ways, from providing food and support to those in need both near and far, to raising funds in its many activities for a wide range of organisations.

I particularly want to highlight the work of Darlington Town Mission, established by Quakers and Anglicans in 1838. To this day, it supports the elderly and vulnerable by tackling loneliness. Only last week, I was pleased to attend one of its carol services, bringing many people together to sing familiar carols. So varied is the Christian community in Darlington that I have not yet managed to visit every place of worship, but I have visited All Saints and Salutation Blackwell parish church; Darlington Baptist church; Elm Ridge Methodist church; Embrace church; Houghton on the Hill Methodist chapel; the Holy Family church; Holy Trinity parish church; King’s church; Northgate United Reformed church; Saint Augustine’s church; St. Cuthbert’s church; the parish church of St James the Great; St Matthew and St Luke; St Andrew’s church; St Columba’s church; Saint Teresa’s Roman Catholic church; St Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic church; St William and St Francis De Sales church; the Salvation Army; and St Anne’s church. Indeed, there are many more left to visit.

On Wednesday night, a Christingle service will take place at Geneva Road Cemetery chapel for the first time in many years. That redundant chapel has been taken over by the community and, over the last few months, they have been working tirelessly to restore, clean and prepare it for that festivity this year. I will be delighted to attend that.

During the pandemic, our communities came together to support one another, and that was clearly evident in our faith communities. Following my election, and seeing how important faith was in our town, I established an inter-faith forum that brings together not just the Christians of Darlington but our Quaker, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities to discuss the issues that our town faces. We continue to meet regularly, rotating our place of meeting. When we respect and embrace each other’s differences, those of different faiths and communities can live together in much greater harmony.

As a gay man, I know how difficult LGBT people of faith can find certain teachings in coming to terms with their religious belief and sexuality. However, in this season of peace and love, it was wonderful to see only last week the first blessings of a same-sex couple in an Anglican setting. Yesterday’s news from the Vatican of potential blessings for same-sex couples will be a joy to gay Catholics around the world. For me, my faith has taught me that we are all made in God’s image and there is value and worth in every one of us. It is for that reason that I have continued to campaign for the much-needed ban on conversion practices. Christianity is about loving our neighbour as they are. I will continue to press the Government to ban the abusive practices of conversion therapy, which simply bring darkness and misery to those subjected to them.

While I appreciate this debate is about Christianity and Christmas, and I have focused on Darlington’s thriving and vibrant Christian community, which I celebrate involving myself in, I want to highlight the other faiths in Darlington. Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all, in their own way, talk of peace, love, respect and the victory of light over darkness—Christmas messages to which people of faith and non-faith can all relate. I would also like to extend my Christmas wishes to colleagues across the House, all the staff who support us and the entire community of Darlington, regardless of their faith. May we all share in the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise men, the obedience of Mary and Joseph, and the peace of Jesus Christ at this time.

Finally, entering into the Christmas spirit, I would like to declare my Christmas list to the Minister. Drawing inspiration from Mariah Carey—don’t worry, I won’t sing—I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there are just a few things I need; I don’t care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree; I just want some dentists in my town, and conversion therapy to be brought down; more than you can ever know; Minister make my wishes come true; that is all I want for Christmas.

Before I begin, I pay tribute to the late Alistair Darling, whose memorial service will be taking place not long from now in St Mary’s Episcopal cathedral in Edinburgh. He was a remarkable man who contributed much to Scottish politics. I echo the tributes that have been paid across party lines, and I send condolences and sympathies to his family.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this debate. We often say, “Oh, this was a very timely debate”, but this literally could not be more timely—right at the end of term, just before we break for the Christmas recess. It is a pleasure to see so many Conservative Members in Westminster Hall. That is not always the case, for whatever reason. Last week, or two weeks ago, there was a debate on the anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights; regrettably, not a single Government Back Bencher was able to attend. It is important, however. We heard about the Christian roots of the human rights declaration and framework from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), and it is great to see so many colleagues here today.

Of course—I beg forgiveness from the Father of the House, and indeed the chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and chair of the Procedure Committee, who also appeared towards the end of that debate; although, regrettably, there were no speeches. Anyway, in a spirit of consensus, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale spoke about the historical roots of Christianity. It is pretty unlikely that Jesus was born on 25 December in the year zero AD—not least because the Jewish and Roman calendars in operation 2,000 years ago were slightly different from the ones that we use today. Indeed, as I heard the hon. Gentleman say, most historical scholarship suggests that Jesus’s birth was shortly before what we now reckon was year zero and others suggest that the date was arrived at in the early Christian church as a co-option of pre-existing Roman or other pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice. That is not necessarily incorrect, or a diminution of the significance of the celebration in any way. There is a natural human instinct to celebrate the time of year when the dark days of winter begin to grow shorter and light appears earlier. As we heard in many of the contributions today, for Christians the coming of Christ is indeed the coming of the light of the world. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) quoted from the Gospel of St John: the introductory paragraph says that

“the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it”.

The message that has come through in all the contributions today is that if we want to remember the reason for the season, if we want to put Christ back into Christmas, then Christians have to be that light that shines in the darkness. They have to be the example and the leaders in their communities. At this time of year hon. Members are right to draw attention to the role that churches and Christian communities play in supporting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our societies—and other marginalised groups. I echo much of what the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) said about LBGT Christians and the moves being made in different denominations to be more welcoming and supportive of them.

In Glasgow North, many of the Christian churches and other faith communities run important outreach programmes. St Gregory’s in the Wyndford area runs a food bank. Sadly, it sometimes struggles to cope with the level of demand. The Catholic church at the top of Maryhill road, the Immaculate Conception, and Maryhill parish church across the road, have a formalised co-operation agreement that has led to inspiring collaborations—not just for prayer and praise, but in charity fundraising, litter picking and the provision of warm welcome centres in collaboration with other churches along the Maryhill corridor, so that anyone who feels the need has somewhere warm they can go any day of the week, have something to eat and enjoy friendship and fellowship with others.

We have heard about similar examples and experiences from many other hon. Members, in their own communities. Of course, that is true of many other faith communities and organisations not connected with religious belief that provide similar outreach, especially at this time of year. I echo what the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said about thanking all those who will be working while the rest of us—and so that the rest of us—can enjoy a holiday or break during Christmas.

Glasgow North is the home of two cathedrals: the Episcopal Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin on Great Western Road, home to one of the finest choirs in Scotland and famed for its open and inclusive approach to ministry; and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Luke in Dowanhill, which is an important focal point for that community in Glasgow and the country as a whole. The city of Glasgow is also home to the historic Cathedral of St Mungo, which has a Presbyterian congregation that is, unusually, housed in a building called a cathedral; and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Andrew, the seat of the Archbishop of Glasgow and successor of St Mungo, currently Archbishop William Nolan. We welcomed Archbishop Nolan, along with a number of his brother bishops, to Parliament a couple of weeks ago on an historic visit which coincided with the visit of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who comes to Westminster every year. That was a reflection of the St Margaret’s declaration which was signed by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, outlining their shared beliefs,

“rooted in the Apostles, Christ’s first disciples”

and acknowledges a common heritage as Christians in Scotland. It also recognises the divisions of the past, apologises for the hurt and harm caused, seeks to make amends and commits to working toward greater unity. The Scottish Government collectively and the First Minister in particular have endorsed those steps towards greater collaboration and understanding between the Christian Churches and indeed between all faith communities.

In a previous role, I worked for the aid agency of the Catholic Church in Scotland—the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund—and we were very pleased to have the support of Humza Yousaf, who was then the Minister for External Affairs and International Development, and is now the First Minister of Scotland. He has spoken very warmly about the work of all the Christian aid agencies in Scotland.

However, it is difficult to reflect on Christmas, Christianity and communities at this time without considering the situation in the Holy Land. The hon. Member for Don Valley spoke about our favourite Christmas tunes. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has always been one of my favourite Christmas carols. Bethlehem, or the House of Bread, is the place where Jesus was born, but in a stable—indeed most likely in a cave—where he was laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn. It seems that in those days Bethlehem was full. Now, some argue that towns and cities in this country are full. The very first Christians were told that they were not welcome, and that the authorities and communities would not support them; they had to make do by themselves, somewhere else.

We have also heard from the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Indeed, he and I were at the same meeting as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), who is also here today, where we heard from the parish priest of Bethlehem and also from the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem about the particular struggles of the Christian community in the Holy Land at this time of year, in this time of crisis, and the impact on their ability to worship. We also heard about the impact on others who want to come on pilgrimage.

That is why Christian leaders of all denominations, from the Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the patriarchs in Jerusalem itself, have called for an immediate ceasefire on both sides, to allow aid into Gaza, refugees out, the release of hostages and the negotiation of a peaceful settlement. That has been echoed in calls that I have heard from thousands of constituents, many of them motivated and encouraged to make such calls by their faith and their faith communities.

One constituent of mine in particular, Helen Minnis, who is the professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, wrote to me to reflect on the “Coventry Carol”, which will be heard in many carol services up and down the country at this time of year. She said that it was recently listed as one of the top 20 carols, but she also said that she had discovered that it was about the massacre of the innocents. She said that a

“few hundred years ago when it was written, it was one of those small strident voices. I keep thinking of it just now because it tells how every mother of every child being killed must be feeling”.

The “Coventry Carol” goes:

“O sisters too, how may we do

For to preserve this day

This poor youngling for whom we sing,

‘Bye bye, lully, lullay?’

Herod the king, in his raging,

Chargèd he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee

And ever mourn and may

For thy parting neither say nor sing,

‘Bye bye, lully, lullay.’

Thy tiny child, bye-bye.”

I hope the Minister will reflect on that powerful testimony and will perhaps draw it to the attention of his colleagues in the Foreign Office.

Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, it was the massacre of the innocents 2,000 years ago that led the holy family to flee Bethlehem and make their way to Egypt—indeed, to what is quite possibly today Gaza—as refugees and asylum seekers. What would have happened if the Egyptian authorities had decided that they were not welcome there either and should be deported somewhere else or handed back to King Herod?

That is why it is right for Members to draw attention to the profound impact that Christianity has had on the whole of humanity and on our world today, but it is also why those of us who profess the Christian faith must try to live up to the enormous challenge that that represents. We must try, and fail, as we often do—certainly, I often do—but we must try and try again. That is why the hon. Member for Don Valley is right to say that we should ask for forgiveness at this time of year and, of course, I do the same.

In all of this discussion, it is vital to recognise the importance of freedom of religion and belief, which includes the right not to hold any religious belief and to disagree with the teachings and principles of organised religion. I recognise the work of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is also here today, and I hope that the Government will look seriously at the Bill that she has brought forward about making her position as a FORB envoy a statutory role.

The Government could also take some quite practical steps to support Christian Churches and other faith communities. Church buildings and other places of worship are a hugely important part of our heritage, but repairing and maintaining them attracts VAT, which is a huge challenge. Maybe that is something that the Minister would like to think about.

Also, the reality of the immigration environment means that it is now very difficult—indeed, it is often impossible—for Churches to bring in supply ministers to cover for their own clergy during the summer or in quieter months of the year. That leads to a reduction in the number of services, or even cancellation of services, and a lack of access to precisely the kinds of support and community cohesion that we have been celebrating throughout this debate. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to that point and some others.

However, in the spirit of this debate, this time of year, and the Christian injunction to love our neighbours—even if they represent different political parties—and to do unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves, let me conclude by wishing you, Dame Maria, all hon. Members here today and across the House, all of our staff and everyone who helps us in our jobs all the peace and joy of the season and a very happy Christmas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this morning, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing—as other hon. Members have said—this timely and important debate. I thank him for opening his contribution this morning by reminding us about the spirit of Christmas, and that we must not lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas—that is really important.

I also want to thank some other hon. Members for their contributions this morning. It is always a pleasure to serve with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). No Westminster Hall debate would be complete without his presence, so it was good to see him take his rightful place this morning. He reminded us of one of the most important commandments of loving God, but also loving our neighbour. We have to remember how we treat our fellow women and men and the importance of doing unto others as we would want them to do unto us.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made the really important point that we are free to celebrate regardless of which religion we belong to, but many people across the world do not have that luxury. I think back to the attack on St Theresa Catholic church in Nigeria—my country of origin—a few years ago, where I think 37 people were killed just for coming together to worship. We must continue to ensure that our Government calls for the freedom of religious belief and for people to be able to worship.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about the work of the different communities in his constituency. He spoke of charities and the many people who will be working over Christmas, including helping him to deliver his many Christmas cards. The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke of how we as Christians celebrate our faith. It is really important as parliamentarians that we are proud of our faith. We are here to serve and respect all our constituents of faith or no faith, but we should be proud of our faith and not hide it. That is what God wants us to do, and that is the true meaning of us being Christians.

However, I cannot believe the hon. Member for St Ives does not enjoy nativity plays. This time last week I was at my six-year-old’s nativity play. It was a delight seeing the children dressed up, and there was delight on parents’ faces when they realised that their child was not the donkey. No matter how in tune the children are, they are all little angels, are they not? There is something good about nativity plays, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that and get into the spirit for next year.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) highlighted how the commercialisation of Christmas has crept in, and the fact that some of our high streets and online retailers will welcome the additional boost. I think for Christmas I would like the online retailers to pay their fair share of tax, in the same way that our shops on our high streets pay their business rates. That is a really good way that they could celebrate Christmas.

I must be honest, I cannot remember some of the TV programmes the hon. Member for Cleethorpes referenced —it may be that I am a little bit too young—but one of the programmes I always remember is “The Snowman” by Raymond Briggs. It is such a classic, and watching it is a tradition I started with my husband when we started having children. We can all remember the little boy’s face, and then the shock horror when he turned up the next morning and the snowman had melted and saw the carrot for his nose and the coal for his eyes. Every year my husband and I take our children to the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith to watch an adaptation of the original “The Snowman” called “Father Christmas”.

I salute and commend the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for recognising and reiterating the point that so many LGBTQ+ people are of faith, and they are proud to be of faith. It is important we remember that, and that we welcome them and continue to embrace them. I hope the Minister has listened to him, and many others, on making sure we address the issue of conversion therapy.

Lastly, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) highlighted the light. With so much darkness in the world now, it is easy to forget that there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. As we all come together with our families to celebrate, it is easy for us to forget that many people will not be doing that. It is important that we hold on to that light and that we hold on to that truth, spirit and the fact that Christ lives in us in that light.

I want to touch on my own reflections on the meaning of Christmas, community and Christians. I am one of the Eucharistic readers at my own church, Our Lady of the Rosary Brixton, which I have attended all my life, so I know how important Christmas is. I will be reading on Christmas day next Monday at the 10 o’clock mass—if anyone is still in London, come to Brixton. For me, it is an important tradition that we start Christmas by going to mass on Christmas day before we eat, and I know that many Christians will start Christmas day that way.

It is a time when we remember the birth of Jesus and the light he brought to the world. It is a time when we celebrate our faith, but we also know that ours is a multi-faith, multicultural society and that Christmas represents different things to many different people across the country. Many people celebrate Christmas not just for Christian reasons, but for the happiness it brings. For some people, it is a time to relax and recharge over the difficult winter months. For some people, it is a time to come together and see family members and friends. For others, it is about giving and receiving gifts—that is quite high on my agenda because I have an eight year old and a six year old, but my children and I always look to give gifts to less fortunate children. It is important that we think about those young boys and girls who will not be opening Christmas gifts. It is important that we educate our children that it is not always about receiving; it is about giving. Those are the true values of Christmas for me.

I commend the hon. Lady on her sensible and helpful contribution. Reaching out was in the press about four weeks ago, which I think we should try to do in our own constituencies. Many people will be alone this Christmas. A phone call may be one way of contributing, but the suggestion—this probably has more impact—was for people to visit a lonely or elderly person who is on their own. That is a Christmas message and something we should all try to do.

I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford; that is so important. Going back to an issue that many members highlighted, on Sunday last week, my church held the Christmas luncheon for the elderly. It was really good to see so many parishioners coming together, cooking, exchanging gifts and singing carols. It is important that those events are celebrated and that we continue to hold them.

Christmas means so many different things to different people, and that gives us the strength to continue to enjoy it today. It is also important that we look at how traditions have evolved over time. Christmas should not be confined to a certain era or style of celebration. The Christmas we will enjoy in 2023—not just here, but across the world—is a melting pot of centuries of change, reform, and adaptations in society. In the 17th century, Christmas survived laws introduced by English parliamentarians after the Puritan revolution to ban the celebration. Can you imagine banning Christmas? Father Christmas appeared in John Taylor’s pamphlet “The Vindication of Christmas”, which argued in favour of Christmas and celebrating Christmas. Later, the character of Father Christmas would be combined with depictions of Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas give us the modern-day Santa Claus who delivers our presents or, as my eight year old almost broke it to my six year old, “You do know Santa Claus isn’t real?”

I know—shock horror. She said, “But Jesus is real” so I said, “I’ll take that instead.”

Several Members referenced the films and TV shows that have become commonplace in our lives. We have seen these figures adapted on our screens. New films capture the spirit of Christmas and have rapidly become traditional. Christmas today represents a combination of all these traditions in all our different communities.

I am proud to represent Vauxhall, and it has been great to see all our communities and constituents come together over the past few weeks to attend different carol services. I am proud that people across the world can come to celebrate their own Christmas traditions with their community as well as discover new ones. I am proud that the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital and all our emergency and public services will continue to work throughout Christmas to keep us safe. Come Christmas day, they will be saying, “Merry Christmas”, “Feliz Navidad”, “Buon Natale” or “kú dún” as my late mother would have said in Yoruba. It is important that we recognise all the traditions that come together for many people.

I am proud that our churches and communities will throw open their doors for the less fortunate and the lonely this Christmas. The hon. Member for Don Valley highlighted loneliness and suicide, and the sad reality is that many people will be lonely this Christmas. The Campaign to End Loneliness found that around 3.8 million people in Great Britain experience chronic loneliness. Sadly, that can be exacerbated at Christmastime, when society expects people to be with family or friends or at every Christmas social.

I think about the students and young people in Vauxhall who may have moved from around the world to be here. From the evidence of the “Tackling Loneliness” report, we know that loneliness is high at this time among 16 to 24-year-olds, even among those who do not normally feel lonely. Some of those young people may not be able to afford the flight home, to take time off work or to socialise with a wider group of friends or those who are going back home. It could be their first Christmas apart from their family, and chronic loneliness can be quite depressing. It is important to recognise that this Christmas will not be a joyful one for some people.

I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley for highlighting the work done in our churches when they open their doors. I echo his sentiments about the churches tackling the issue of loneliness. This Christmas, it is important that we remember not only our family and friends, but the people who do not have families and friends. It could be the biggest gift to someone to invite them round for dinner or simply to pop over and make sure that they are not alone. When churches started opening up after covid, regular churchgoers recognised that some faces had not returned. After one mass, our parish priest said that if we recognised that people had not been to church, and if we were passing their door on the way home or to the shops, we should knock on it, check whether they were still okay and find out why they had not come back to church. It is important that we recognise that loneliness still exists for some people.

Finally, Dame Maria, the other reality is that this Christmas will be a hard time for some people. More families will not be able to put food on the table. Nearly 140,000 children will wake up with nowhere to call home. The one wish on my list for the Minister this Christmas is that he thinks about those children in temporary accommodation. I hope that, in 2024, the Government will address that issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for his sincere and faithful speech. It was a moving speech, if I may say so. It was very personal and spoke to the universality of the Christmas story and the route to help and rescue, and it was echoed in the very moving speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).

You may wonder why I am replying to this debate, Dame Maria. I am the Government’s Minister for Faith, and it is a pleasure to take part. One or two colleagues commiserated with me on having to respond to a debate on the last day of term. Initially, I had some sympathy with that proposition, but it has been a privilege to hear the debate and it is an honour to respond to it.

Observant Members will notice that I have neither officials nor a typed speech with me, although one was offered. I wanted to speak from the heart in response to what I presumed would be the heartfelt speeches that we have heard. I particularly echo the words of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that, as Christians, we cannot sleep easy in our beds knowing that fellow Christians are persecuted around the world merely for exercising their right to worship in the way they see fit. Reference has been made to the dispiriting and terrifying situation unfolding in the middle east, and our thoughts and prayers must surely be for a rapidly peaceful solution to that horrible state of affairs.

Many colleagues have mentioned what many students of scripture refer to as the “golden rule”, which is referenced in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12. That is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Surely that is the central message of our Christian faith, and it is a message for all of us, including those who take part in social media. It is the whole of the Christian message, set out in just a few short words. What better time to demonstrate that and make it manifest than during the Christmas season?

I echo the thanks that others have given to organisations such as the Lions Clubs International Foundation, the Salvation Army and the Rotary Foundation; they are an army of unthanked, unpaid and unnoticed community volunteers, both within church settings and without, who will do—and are doing—so much to support, help and engage with our communities. They engage with those who are feeling lonely, those who are feeling depressed and those who are feeling that they are outside the community boundaries; they do so much good, and they are the very manifestation of what it is to be a Christian.

Would the hon. Lady forgive me?

As we approach the shortest day of the year, our churches throw open their doors to illuminate our communities with that bright Christmas light, illuminating our way in the dark. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the Darlington Town Mission and a raft of other local places of worship and voluntary groups. From the Front Bench, I thank them all for the work that they do, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing them to my attention.

If I may, my one sharp note is to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is now absent. He made his party political point and fled. Maybe he had also been warned, in a dream, that it was wise to do so, because his scriptural knowledge leaves a little to be desired. One could create an argument that the holy family were refugees fleeing into Egypt, but the hon. Member said that he wondered how the three wise men would have found them. Well, Joseph was, of course, returning to his home town; he had every right to be in Bethlehem and was returning for the census. Maybe a resolution for the hon. Member for Glasgow East would be, first, to learn a little bit more about parliamentary etiquette and stay to listen to the whole debate, and secondly, to have a little flick through the Bible during the Christmas recess so that he can get his facts right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke movingly about his faith and about the church groups in his constituency. He was right to remind us—this is the salient point that stuck out in his speech—of the danger of Members of Parliament judging constituents’ competitions. I well recall the fallout when, in a moment of high prissiness, I excluded a fruit bread from a cake competition. His advice not to judge is wise advice indeed.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley in what I thought was a very moving speech, in which he spoke about how he found the Christian message and about the huge turnaround that it delivered for him. I think that the House should be grateful to him for speaking about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington is to again be warmly congratulated on his inter-faith work; I know that many colleagues do such work in their constituencies. Is there not a tendency for each religious group to claim some moral superiority and something a little bit different that sets them apart? As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) mentioned, anybody who engages in inter-faith discussions can only come away enriched and encouraged by the commonality of view that those other faiths seem to have, at their fundamental hearts—that key message of doing unto others as one would have done unto oneself.

I was also grateful to the hon. Member for Darlington for reminding us of the challenges, and the campaigns to remove the impediments of what it is to be gay and a person of faith. He spoke movingly and with great sincerity. It always strikes me that we should remind ourselves, as many hon. Members have in their speeches this morning, that we are mere mortals in this great global story of ours and should never presume, although of course too many do, that we are able to claim with absolute clarity that we know what is in God’s mind. All that is in God’s mind is love and we would do well to remember that.

Many people have spoken about family traditions that help augment and make the Christian story of Christmas special. I might be abusing my position— I don’t know—but I will take full advantage and discuss two in the Hoare family. First, we have to watch “Elf”. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that anything with Jimmy Stewart in is always worth watching, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but there are other films. “Elf” should be recommended. My daughters get very annoyed with me—we have watched it so often that I find myself reading out huge chunks of the script. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is nodding at that.

My daughters tested me. They challenged me to see whether I could read into the record

“You sit on a throne of lies.”

Well, there we are. I have just done so. My quid pro quo is that yet again Daddy will make everyone sit down and listen to him recite in his most proper native Welsh tone that great epistle to Christmas, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas. If Members have not read it, I commend it to them.

I also like to provide one little new fact about Christmas, which the House might find of use to repeat in quiet moments or to dispel temper and angst around the Christmas lunch table. Somebody mentioned the Puritans and the banning of Christmas. The tradition of Christmas stockings can be read in full in the Christmas bumper edition of Country Life; other periodicals are, I am told, available. The tradition derives from a poor father who had three daughters—I know the feeling as the father of three daughters—who could not create the dowry for their weddings and was worried that they would be sold into servitude or whatever. Anyway, St Nicholas threw three bags of golden coins down the chimney. They landed in the toes of the stockings of the three girls, and there is our history: a 17th-century Dutch tradition of Christmas stockings. We still put oranges and tangerines in the feet of stockings in remembrance of that.

The problem with an off-the-cuff speech penned in response to what people have said is that undoubtedly I have missed some of the points made, for which I apologise. It also means I have no grand peroration. All I can do is thank those who have taken part and wish everybody a peaceful and joyful Christmas.

I thank everyone for turning up today. A few people have tried to make this debate a little difficult for me, but in the spirit of Christmas I will rise above it and forgive them for their little digs. One thing that we have heard a few times is:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I would have them tell me the truth. If we do that in this place, we will do well. I read a quote the other day that said:

“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”

I will not be a politician who does that. I will be a politician who tells the truth. I hope that we can all take that into the new year and be fantastic representatives for this great nation. I wish everyone a very merry Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Christmas, Christianity and communities.