At every Christmas since 1956, a nativity scene has been on display in Streatham Common, south London.
The crib was the idea of Albert Steiert and John Taylor, both members of a local catholic church, who were concerned that the true meaning of Christmas was being overlooked. John built the first crib and Albert painted it.
But in 1985, Lambeth Council’s Amenity Sub-committee decided that the crib would no longer be allowed to be placed on the Common because of concerns about offending people of other faiths.
The decision drew hostile headlines in the national press such as ‘Away With The Manger’ and ‘No Room On The Common’. The media used the incident as another example of Lambeth Council’s then “looney left” image.
However, in response to the council, John Taylor got in touch with local Hindu and Muslim leaders and asked them for their views. They said they had no objection at all to the crib.
When faced with the overwhelming support of both other faiths and other Christian denominations, Lambeth Council reversed their decision and the crib was restored.
2022 is the 66th year that the crib has been part of the local festive scenery. Despite the busy location there has been very little vandalism, apart from a rogue brick thrown a few years ago which was quickly repaired.
In some circles there is something of an obsession with stories about ‘Christmas being cancelled’. It often goes along with a perspective that the Christian faith as being increasingly marginalised and persecuted.
But actually, the story of Streatham Common crib does not fit with this narrative. Yes, there was a silly and ill-informed decision made by a council committee 37 years ago. But this was successfully challenged by local people who proved the authorities’ assumptions wrong.
The controversy was just a short-term blip in a far longer story where the council have facilitated the crib being part of the public display.
Of course, there are far more significant matters related to the issue of how local authorities work with churches and faith groups.
Over the last 4 years, I have worked as an Adviser on how local councils work with faith groups to address rough sleeping. My role exists because in every town and city in the UK, faith groups are significant in the efforts to help people affected by homelessness.
During this time, I have found that the vast majority of council staff are both pragmatic and positive about working with people of faith.
There are common tensions between faith groups and local authorities (see here for more). But often, disputes are more due to communication and personality issues rather than deliberate marginalisation or ‘faith-phobia’.
To the contrary, almost every day I hear admiration and appreciation from local authorities for the energy and commitment of churches and Christian organisations. And this is often directed towards groups who are most upfront and passionate about their convictions.
The response to the pandemic has increased mutual appreciation. Covid has been terrible, but it has been good for partnerships and collaboration.
Also, many people today have less ‘baggage’ with church than in previous generations. There is less familiarity and less contempt. I find many colleagues are genuinely open to knowing what Christians think.
So what are the lessons from the story of the Streatham Common crib?
Firstly, there are times when Christians need to stand up against opposition. And this is best done with evidence which challenges unfair and inaccurate assumptions.
But secondly, we must also remember that a public witness to Christian faith is often warmly welcomed and supported by those outside the Church.
Often the limiting factors to the public witness of faith are more connected to our own reticence and lack of confidence rather than an oppressive external forces. Let’s not exaggerate persecutions which increase fear and limit our sense of what is possible.