This is the 16th year of this Glasgow Churches Together (GCT) service which began at the request of the then Lord Provost to reflect our city’s twinning with Bethlehem and to give us all an opportunity to pray for peace in the troubled Holy Land. The service has developed over the years, surviving rain and snow, and involving many different groups.
This year it could be described as a “sell-out”, as we ran out of leaflets (and 300 had been printed), and had to delay the start until more chairs could be brought in at the back to accommodate the numbers. Even then, there were still some people standing at the back or sitting on the edge of tables. The atmosphere of the service, when it started, was wonderfully warm, as everyone joined in the carols and prayers.
Musical support was provided by piper Willie Park (piping bravely outside the City Chambers before the service as well as leading in the civic and church representatives at its start), members of the St. Mungo Singers, the Rutherglen Salvation Army Band, our faithful instrumentalists (I won’t say “committed” just in case we get cheeky comments!), the youngsters from the Southside Fiddlers and students from Trinity High School choir.
Deputy Lord Provost Gerry Leonard represented the Lord Provost and the City Council and he welcomed everyone to a service which he was looking forward to as a celebration which provided pleasure and joy each year as well as giving an opportunity to catch up with friends. However, he reminded us, for some Christmas can be a stressful and lonely time, and he asked those present to spare a thought for those less fortunate.
He went on to express the pride of the city in its ecumenical record and in the work of GCT. At a time when we are experiencing foodbanks and austerity, and the headlines seem dominated by violence and , the churches are showing compassion both at home and abroad. When we think of Aleppo in Syria, we recognise how fortunate we are. Glasgow is proud to welcome refugees including many from Syria.
The Deputy Lord Provost concluded by expressing his thanks to GCT and to all those who had worked to organise the service.
This year in addition to the communal carols, led by the St.Mungo Singers, we had two lovely pieces from the Trinity High School Choir under their conductor Carissa Swan. One was a Bob Dufford setting of the words from Isaiah “Like a Shepherd He Feeds his Flock” and the other a quite unusual piece perhaps for a carol service, “Mothers and Fathers Always Believe” from the film “The Preacher’s Wife” (a remake in case you didn’t know of the classic film “The Bishop’s Wife”).
We also had some lovely music from the Southside Fiddlers. In past years, the children have played for us after the service as people enjoyed refreshments, but this year they played during the service. Their first piece was an Irish piece called “The Snowy Path” and later in the service they played a selection of carols. It was inspiring to watch these young children play without sheet music and without any conductor. They also played after the service, giving us some lively music to enjoy as we chatted.
The reflection this year was given by Rev. Andrew Baker of the Methodist Church. He immediately caught people’s attention by asking if we remembered Top of the Pops – even worse, did we remember the Tony Orlando hit in 1973 – thankfully he didn’t ask for a show of hands.
The song in question was “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” and the character in the song was looking for a sign. In the same way, we look for signs – signs that God still loves us. Rev. Andrew invited us to imagine a number of scenes: Scene 1 – the kingdom of Judah 2800 years ago. The scripture reading that had been proclaimed earlier in the service (Isaiah 7:10-14) showed us the King of Judah having a bit of a “wobble” and being invited to trust God and ask for a sign, but he chose to make a political alliance instead and it turned out badly.
Moving forward to Scene 2: Nazareth 2000 years ago and Joseph was having a “wobble” at Mary’s pregnancy but he was given a sign and he has the courage to accept it, even as Mary herself had courage to accept the signs despite Egypt and Calvary.
Scene 3 covered the history of the world since then, where many people have taken courage from signs and been inspired for example to make peace across religious and other divides. Rev. Andrew introduced a personal note here when he referred to his sister’s courage in facing up to serious illness.
Our last scene, he said, is the City Chambers today and those present at the service. We have heard the angels sing and have perhaps sensed the presence of Emmanuel. For a Christmas momen,t have we caught the wonder of Emmanuel – God with us – and been given the courage to be peacemakers in our city and in our homes and further afield, to be Christmas men and women who choose courage? A challenging question.
As always at the service, we had intercessions, interspersed this year by the singing of the lovely Taizé chant “Wait for the Lord”. We prayed for the city of Glasgow and its citizens, those who provide our public services, the work of our faith communities. There was a sombre moment of silence when we remembered those who had lost their lives in the Queen Street tragedy two years previously, and instrumentalist John Allen played a haunting whistle piece as we remembered.
There were also prayers for our twinned town of Bethlehem and for people everywhere who were experiencing violence, war or oppression, and for migrants and refugees. The intercessions finished with the singing of the Lord’s Prayer before a collection was taken for the Lord Provost’s fund.
The service ended with a blessing from the church representatives and the singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to cheer everyone as they made their way into the adjoining rooms to enjoy refreshements and listen again to the young fiddlers.