In the first of a series of festive interviews, Jonathan Bell talks with Reverend John Dickinson about Christmas in 2012....
CARNMONEY Presbyterian Church is one of the borough’s most popular churches. It has a young, vibrant and dynamic membership and one of the biggest congregations in the borough with over 1,100 families registered and a massive youth movement.
Ordained in 1980, Reverend John Dickinson has been the church’s minister for the past 11 years following stints at Seaview, Killyleagh and Bloomfield.
And for the 58 year old, the festive period represents an opportunity to re-tell the Christmas story to a new audience.
“It’s an exciting and challenging time,” said John.
“For me Christmas is getting better and better; it is more exciting for me now than it has ever been and I really think there is no better time to be alive than today.
“We have been looking at all the things we are going to be doing to look at how we make the story relevant this year, but what amazes me is that there are a lot of people out there who do not know the original story of the incarnation of our Lord.
“It is an every day story. This is dirty Christmas about a child born to an unmarried teenage mum in a stable in highly inappropriate circumstances in a village way outside of important places of Israel at the time.
“It could hardly be more real. There are many themes running through the story that are common to our generation and there are many ways to connect it with people, many of whom do not really know the story in its proper form. Giving the whole period a real freshness and a challenge.
“Christmas offers that opportunity to introduce the story to a new audience and gives me the opportunity to tell people that Christianity and the church has something to offer.
“Our society is becoming much more secular and less religious and ironically that makes the story easier to tell, because people do not know it.”
He added: “Christmas takes us back to basics, the birth of Jesus takes us right back to the start and is very important for Christians.
“And it gives us the chance to welcome new people. At Christmas there are a lot of people repeating our messages. It might not mean the same as what it means to the likes of toy companies or a card manufacturer, but there is a crowded market place out there and at least at Christmas we have the opportunity to have our voices heard.
“William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury said ‘the church is the only institution set up for those that do not belong to it’, and that is our aim here in Carnmoney. We are not solely here to pat ourselves and those that believe on the back, but to welcome new people and demonstrate to them the joys of believing.”
For John, a father of four and grandfather to two, Christmas has a familiar feel to it.
He continued: “My father was a minister and I grew up in a manse and with a brother and brother-in-law in the ministry it could hardly be said I had a usual upbringing.
“So Christmas in the church is always what I have known, whereas for other people it would be about family time, for me its about the church, but I do get the opportunity to spend time with the family.
“Christmas in Carnmoney is special. Our size helps. Being so big we have a lot of talented and gifted people who can really contribute to making Christmas so much more special.
“We also have a very motivated and enthusiastic group of leaders and volunteers who contribute throughout the year to make it all possible - I could not do it without them and it is a real privilege to work alongside them.
“At Carnmoney there is many highlights over Christmas. On the 23rd we have the annual Christmas Carol service and we have invited along members of the community, who may not be part of the church, to take part.
“We have great relations with the nearby primary school and they come along and take part.
“In the past three years we set up Christians Against Poverty, a debt advice centre, and we will be handing out hampers to their clients and we are presenting gifts to some of the local business in the area just as a thank you to them for the service they have provided throughout the year.
“One of the main things we will be doing is producing a huge piece of artwork for the church which will be unveiled on the carol service. We are hoping to get as many people involved in producing their own piece of the artwork to tell the Christmas story and because the church is so big the artwork has to be big to make an impact. But it also gives us the opportunity to get everyone involved so that they can point to the part of the work that they helped create.
“Last year we did a similar thing only we asked people to bring along different coloured jam jars and put candles in them and it was a real success for us, it was different class.
“In the past it may have been about what the church can do for its members, today it is more about what the church can do for its community.”
He added: “For me, the thing I love about the whole festive period is the Christmas Eve service. We only started it a couple of years ago. We have each year at 11.15pm and it is very special for me, the atmosphere and the anticipation really makes it fell like Christmas, more so than the Christmas Day service, and I can place myself in the Christmas story much easier.
“Others would probably disagree but we do get a good crowd and for me, Christmas Eve is the real highlight.”