ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS

THE BISHOP OF MYRA

Such is the vegetative state that envelopes the average clergy brain on the morning of the day off that I don’t suppose I would have noticed it. Fortunately, Simeon, my eldest, while performing his daily task of emptying the wood ash from the grate and laying the new day’s fire, did. (As traditionalists this, we feel, is the nearest we can now get to affording young boys the spiritually edifying task of going up chimneys).

There, pristine, unscorched and unbesmutted lay an envelope bearing a heavy red wax seal and the legend +XMAS/CORP/INT...EX UNO PLURIBLES>

With some trepidation I lifted it out, broke the seal and removed a single sheet of parchment which began simply.... "My Dear Father..." (This is a not unfamiliar beginning for letters from arch anglo-catholics pettifogging about some minor liturgical omission or indeed serial epistolary lunatics who wish to convince you that the Pope, the Duke of Kent and the Chief Rabbi were co-conspirators in the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.)

My fear was quite unfounded but my astonishment knew no bounds. Here, in his own fragile italicized hand, was a personal invitation to interview the most significant figure in the spiritual life of the Western world. It was not, as one of my editorial colleagues unkindly guessed, the Princess of Wales but no less than Father Christmas himself. R.S.V.P.

The family gathered round the table, their responses touchstones of their current spirituality. The youngest, Alice, in that borderland between credulous and credendum; Patrick at 11, evincing a religious scepticism bordering on an art form and Simeon adopting an unusually avuncular co-operation in what he clearly reckoned to be an elaborate parental ruse, and yet.....

A careful reply was composed and, that evening, as the first main updraught of the new lit hearth billowed into the darkening northern sky, was posted up the chimney.

After a fraught twenty four hours of manic mental activity - from the severely practical (would New Directions budget run to a trip to the Arctic Circle and did biros work in sub-zero temperatures?) to the profoundly philosophical (had the entire family been the victim of ergot poisoning and the concomitant hallucinations courtesy of a past sell by date packet of Fruit and Fibre?)

I need not have worried. By return, in a second class envelope with blurred to obliterated postmark, arrived a date, a time and a rail warrant for the Cornish Riviera sleeper - destination, The Gate of St Blasius.

Puzzled but obedient I found myself, on a late November evening, as the clock struck midnight, pulling out of Waterloo station on the long haul westward to the land of my fathers and the country of my childhood.

Fortified by two remarkably fresh Great Western Railway sandwiches, a packet of Doritos, a piece of fruit cake and several cups of coffee I retired to my cabin to plan for the morrow.

Being someone who could sleep for England I had never been awake when Father Christmas had called at my house. The last time I could remember ever seeing him was in 1954 in Kingston High Street. I was sitting in my grandparents' Ford Popular waiting for him to take off in his sleigh from the balcony of Bentall's and light up the night sky with his charging reindeer. After half an hour my grandfather lost patience, drove home and prevented me from seeing that wonderful sight. Grown-ups, I remember thinking, have little sense of what is really important.

The rocking of the train became a sleigh and we flew over places in my world unvisited for many years and saw them both as child and stranger... and then the morning call, tea, orange juice, ablutions and on to the frost-crisp platform in the sharp light of a coastal dawn. A small gnomic stranger, a waiting car (an elderly Vauxhall bearing the equally gnomic decal “Per Astra Ad Ardorem”) and off to a destination high above the river valley which must remain secret.... except to say that it is not far from your childhood home.

A roaring fire, a mug of hot tea and the comfort of a well worn armchair and, looking a little leaner and older, the familiar figure of Father Christmas.

What, I asked him, was he doing in Cornwall?

“I spend much of the summer around the Med. and returning to old haunts in Asia Minor; then I pop up here to acclimatize for the traditional run over the Arctic Circle night sky. If you can endure the winter weather on this granite outcrop you can endure anything.

Besides, Cornwall is where most myths and legends come when they retire and I meet quite a few old friends. It would probably be sensible to be a bit further up country but there’s already a surfeit of retired bishops in Salisbury Diocese.”

Do you notice much difference between northern European Protestants and southern Catholics?

“Oh yes. The Protestants are good people and disciplined but a bit dour and puritanical. The Catholics tend to be more chaotic and celebratory. What a church if each one's virtues could transform the other's faults.”

(This, I thought, was clearly why he had chosen New Directions for this exclusive interview, so I asked.)

Was it our pledge to “serve evangelicals and catholics in renewing the church in the historic faith” that made you choose New Directions?

“No, actually. My agent originally contacted Hallo! but they were booked until mid 1997. Besides as he pointed out, an appearance in Hallo! is usually the short road to divorce . The wife and I have been together for 1600 years and it seemed an unnecessary risk”

(This was a fascinating revelation - Mother Christmas! What implications would this have for a traditionalist understanding of Saint Nicholas Day?)

Does this mean you approve of the change to Mother Christmas in modernist festival theology?

“Certainly not and neither does Mother. The last thing she wants to see is women dressed up in my clothing administering the gifts. Of course we’ve been through all this in the 4th century. (There is a broad grin). Why do you think I became the first flying bishop?”

(I decided to move onto less controversial ground.)

You are known both as Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Which is correct?

“When I’m with evangelicals I can’t use the affectionate title, Father Christmas, because they object to the Father and the mass, which would lead to some unhappy confusion. So Santa Claus is fine; but it is really Saint Nicholas.”

Do children ever confuse Saint Nick with Old Nick?

“I hope not. My name comes from the Greek, Nike (not to be confused with overpriced plimsolls) and Laos - so it means “Victory People” And that, you know is precisely what we are: the people of Christ's victory. Old Nick comes from Nix or Nickel, a German demon of theft from which American coinage gets its name."

What about the extraordinary multiplication of Santas? Is any of them at the big fairs and stores really you ?

“This is all most unfortunate. I do two runs - one on December 6th - my festival day - mainly in Scandinavia and the main one on Christmas Eve itself, so that my gifts are a reminder of the greatest gift ever given to man.

Of course that is not to deny the bilocation of saints. It is possible for me to be in two places at once and, you will appreciate as a parish priest, how this is often the least people expect of you.

But the multiplication of Santas is a huge mistake. We didn’t patent the name and before you could say the Athanasian Creed the whole thing had been privatised.

Of course children aren’t fooled. Your Mum pays fifty bob to sit you on an old man’s knee for thirty seconds - you tell him you want a train set and he gives you a threepenny malfunctioning plastic parachutist. It doesn’t take Einstein to spot the fraud.”

Do you get many opportunities to have children sit on your knee?

“This is rather embarrassing. As you will realise nowadays to work with children you need to fill in a form. When it said “Any Convictions?” I wrote YES - CHRISTIAN. This has led to me being banned by many local authorities - its almost like old times!”

Can I ask you what happened to Black Peter?

(Black Peter was the regular companion of St Nicholas and his task was to remind children of their sins before St Nicholas arrival.)

“Well, of course, we ran into trouble with the Race Relations Board about the equation of darkness and sin but managed to ride that one out by arguing a positive ethnic employment policy. The real problem is that people don’t want to hear about sin anymore. Confession to most people today is something you do in a newspaper for money.”

(I wondered how Santa and his helpers had survived the great demythologization campaigns of the German theologians) l

“We’re fine! Of course Bultmann’s having a very hard time of it. He keeps thinking he’s hallucinating. When he arrived St Peter put a notice on the pearly gates: CLOSED DUE TO DEMYTHOLOGIZATION...Great sense of humour.

Anyway they’ve told Rudolph (Bultmann): “Either you come through the Pearly Gates or its the ultimate punishment. We break all the rules and send you back..... as a liberal theologian”.

But what about all the gnomes and dwarves and fairies. We’ve heard very little of them lately. Why?

“Quite simple. The modern employment return forms are incomprehensible - categories like “horizontally challenged”, “transgendered”, “ethnicity quotienting”. I just file them with my clergy self assessment form in the environmentally friendly recycling skip.”

We talked about one Rudolph just now. What’s happened to the most famous Rudolph - the red nosed reindeer?

“Well after that most embarrassing publicity, Rudolph has completely reformed and been in sobriety for many years now. In fact he is a founder member of Antlers Anonymous. He is, in every sense, back on the wagon!”

Have you noticed many changes in the last fifty years in the homes you visit in Britain?

“Not half. Getting down the chimney was hard work but most places now expect you to appear, as if by capillary action, through the central heating pipes.

Most people are vastly better off and, far from being satisfied, their list of wants have become monumental. Children used to hang a stocking - then it became a pillowcase - now, in some houses, its a duvet cover. I’ve always been a stocking man myself.

And also people are less courteous and generous. Very few houses leave the traditional glass of sherry for me and carrot for the reindeer any more.”

(I discover that Croft Original is a most welcome on the spot tipple or, as a takeaway for later, a bottle of Newcastle Brown helps ballast the fast emptying sleigh and goes down well with the lads at the grotto afterwards.)

How would you describe your churchmanship?

“Catholic - because it is worldwide; Evangelical - because it points to the free gift of God’s love; and Liberal - in its generosity.”

(This all sounded a bit too C. of E. - all things to all men - so I put the screws on.)

And your doctrine? Wasn’t it you who got so angry with the great heretic Arius that you punched him on the nose and knocked him out?

(There is a brief moment where Santa tries to look dutifully sorry for this but is quite unable to sustain it.)

“Yes. That’s true. Shouldn’t have done it maybe but... you see heresy is a lie, it divides the church, it weakens the proclamation of the gospel - it costs lives. And all because some fashion-conscious upstart thinks he knows better than Jesus.”

(There is fire in the old man’s eyes and then he relaxes and chuckles)

“You remember Athanasius recorded Arius' death ...... “he disintegrated in a public lavatory”. Athanasius enjoyed writing that up. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.”

(It suddenly occurred to me I hadn’t even asked him how he came to be a priest, never mind Bishop of Myra).

What was a fourth century ABM selection conference like? What questions were you asked?

“Oh the usual. Can you say the Nicene Creed without crossing your fingers? Can you stand up to persecution? Can you grow a beard? It produced some remarkable priests.

(I had noticed that in all this time - we were on to the pre-lunch Croft's - he had not once said “Ho, Ho, Ho!”)

Why not?

“I don’t say that. It’s an acronym I use to remind us of Jesus! He Overcame Hell and Opened Heaven!

What about the final O?

“O that’s there for whatever you want to say next in response to God’s greatness. O Praise, O Worship, O Glory; I always like to leave a spare O for evangelical friends to help them make their songs scan."

And finally, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas - what would you like for Christmas?

“To retire - because everyone had accepted the greatest free gift of all - Jesus Christ as Lord.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

Left with the generous gift of one glorious and quite superfluous O, the Editorial Board of New Directions joins Bishop Nicholas and the other Flying Bishops in wishing you all

A Very Happy Christmas.

O Come let us adore Him!

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