Keeping Halloween in Church

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The church that I attend in Cambridge, St Clements in Bridge Street, is having a service on Halloween (7.30 pm), and I have had the opportunity to help shape what we do.

There are really three things to be done in this All Saints season. One is a commemoration of the departed. As I said in my last blog, belief in departed spirits has been increasing, and I think that commemoration of the departed has become increasingly important for many people. There is also the celebration of the Saints, which I think is best taken as a celebration of Christians we have known, or whose stories we have heard, and who have inspired us. Rowan Williams’ recent book, Luminaries, is good reading for All-Saints-tide.

But what to do about Halloween itself? One option is to flip right over, and to say the world is celebrating darkness, but let us celebrate light. But, to my mind, too much Christian thinking tends to split light from darkness, good from evil, when I think they are often two sides of the same thing. In the service we have devised for St Clement’s we will use the affirmation which I think may come from Desmond Tutu, but I know through the Wild Goose Worship Group, “Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death”.

The passage from scripture that speaks most effectively to Halloween is St Paul in Ephesians who acknowledges “spiritual wickedness in high places”, but responds robustly in terms of the need to wear the “whole armour of God”. St Patrick’s Breastplate is another useful ancient text that has come down to us. It seems that prayer used to be much more about protection than it is now. I regret that we have lost the practice of invoking the power of God to protect us from against evil and adversity. I find that prayers of protection make a lot of sense to people who are troubled, even if they have no church connections.

But we also wanted something for our service that evoked the rather spooky mood of Halloween, the sense that there are dark things abroad that we don’t fully understand. In the end, we found that in T S Eliot’s play, The Family Reunion. The choruses there are a great evocation of a dark world breaking in on us, one that we don’t understand, and over which we have no control. 

There are great lines such as:

“We do not like the maze in the garden, 

because it to closely resembles the maze in the brain. 

We do not like what happens when we are awake, 

because it too closely resembles what happens when we are asleep”.

The last chorus ends with: 

“What is happening outside of the circle? 

And what is the meaning of happening? … 

And what is being done to us? 

And what are we, and what are we doing? 

There is no conceivable answer. 

To each and all of these questions, 

We have suffered far more than a personal loss

We have lost our way in the dark.”

I think the sequence of Eliot’s Family Reunion and St Paul in Ephesians 6 together make a powerful way of marking Halloween.