The Church of England is making a foray into the pop charts, releasing its first ever Christmas single, a new version of that glorious carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘. It is composed by Rebecca Dale and performed by an ensemble from St Martin-in-the-Fields, London (who know how to do these things). It is part of the church’s theme for Advent this year, #AtTheHeartOfChristmas, which offers “an invitation to everyone to discover – or rediscover – the good news of God’s saving love as revealed in the birth of Jesus. It is also a challenge to each of us to ponder in our hearts – as Mary did – what the extraordinary events of the first Christmas might mean for us now and in the years ahead”. All royalties from digital streams and downloads will be donated to charities that help homeless people.
It is certainly giving the media a bit of fun, with the Guardian‘s ‘Christmas No 1: LadBaby and Adele face competition from the church’; the Telegraph‘s ‘It’s Adele vs Archbishop as Church of England releases single in bid for Christmas number one’, and the Times‘ ‘Look out LadBaby, Church of England choir is coveting your Christmas number one’.
Rebecca Dale explains the song choice: “Although In the Bleak Midwinter is a poem which was written nearly 150 years ago, it has a timeless mystery and is wonderfully evocative of a journey from the wintery landscape to the stable and the heart of the nativity story.” And so it forms the soundtrack to the Church of England’s Christmas campaign, which highlights “tales of hardship overcome, generosity, faith, Christmas memories and hopes for the future from around the country”.
The Church of England has worked with Classic FM to develop the project. Alexander Armstrong, host of Classic FM’s weekday morning programme, will give the new carol its radio premiere on his show later this month. He is the Ambassador for the Cathedral Music Trust, and one of twelve contributors who offer special Christmas reflection #AtTheHeartOfChristmas: “The light, colour and warmth of Christmas stand out starkly against the dark midwinter palette and make our enjoyment so much more focused, especially when it comes to Christmas music,” he writes. “There is no other season whose music we devour so hungrily, nor any that carries so many happy associations for us from down the years. That is why it is so thrilling when we hear the first strain of Christmas music each year.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “Singing carols is a beloved Christmas tradition for so many – so we’re delighted to be sharing this new carol as the national Church of England’s first ever Christmas single. At Christmas, God becomes human. His heart beats. As a frail child in a cold manger, he takes his first breaths on this earth. We often dress this time of year up, adding all the trimmings. These things are wonderful, but they are not the heart of Christmas. The only thing that makes Christmas perfect is Jesus, who sees, loves and welcomes all. The message of this carol is that the only thing we need to give him and each other is our hearts – our very own selves. Wherever and whoever you are, you too are welcome and invited this Christmas, to worship the child, the God, whose heart beats for you.”
Some may scoff at the Church of England releasing a Christmas single, but the wonder is it’s taken them so long to grasp the potential. It was almost 40 years ago (believe it or not) when Cliff Richard’s ‘Little Town’ was ringing out of all the radio stations like a peal of church bells calling the faithful to worship. It was never No.1 ( rather like The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’, it feels like it might have), but thereafter Cliff became synonymous with log fires, mince pies, mulled wine and the warm glow of Christmassy feelings. The Devil no longer had all the good music: Cliff brought us devotional pop straight from the adoring shepherds and Wise Men, and the race to the Christmas No.1 had truly become the highlight of the pop calendar.
A stream of decidedly un-Christmassy power ballads by complete unknowns descended on the nation like a plague of frogs. Mulled wine and mince pies gave way to Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson, Alexandra Burke and Matt Cardle. These were packaged in plastic and churned out on a conveyer belt for mass consumption, all courtesy of the unholy trinity of Sony, Syco and Simon – the Father, Son and Profane Grinch of the postmodern pop machine.
Sir Cliff gave an interview a while ago about how the X-Factor has ‘killed’ everyone else’s chances for a Christmas No.1. A seemingly never-ending run at the top would probably have remained unbeaten had it not been for the audacious interjection of ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage against the Machine – a triumphant social media campaign initiated by the outraged (not only of Tunbridge Wells), in protest at what the X-Factorisation of pop music was doing to the great British Christmas No.1.
The Church of England’s Christmas single won’t out-X-Factor the the X-Factorisation of the Christmas No.1, but it is manifestly possible to ‘Rage against the Machine’, as Jon Morter did back in 2009, and beat the single which is pre-ordained by the recording labels (in convenient cahoots with the radio stations) to be the Christmas No.1. That is to say, if, next year, the Church of England wants a real chance at being the Christmas No.1, and feeding the poor (as Band Aid did), housing the homeless (as Rage did), and comforting those who are grieving over loved ones (as the Military Wives did), they need a social media and promotion strategy beyond Classic FM.
‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is released on all streaming platforms today, Wednesday 1st December. It can be pre-saved on multiple platforms. Will it reach No.1? No, of course not. But it is quite a beautiful setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, and (unlike Elton John, Ed Sheeran, Adele, Abba, LadBaby or Sir Cliff), it’s will give some homeless people a warm bed and put a Christmas dinner in their bellies. And instead of the Elton/Sheeran egregious festive offence against grammar “It’s Christmas time for you and I”, the world can be reminded:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.