OCOMEALL YE FAITHFUL; Forget Those Who Say Religion's Irrelevant. Spirituality Is Making a Comeback -- and Thank Heaven for That, Says Repentant Sinner JONATHAN AITKEN

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MY FIRST Christmas event this year was on December 1, at a packed St Michael's Church, in London's Chester Square.

After exquisite singing by an amateur choir, the former head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt brought tears to many eyes by reading out a letter from a young soldier in Afghanistan to 'the Geezer upstairs'.

Then I went north of the border to the Church of the Nazarene in Perth, whose carol service filled a record-breaking 3,600 ticketed places at 2pm, 4pm and 7pm sessions, even in the bad weather. When I last spoke in that church four years ago, its carol service attracted a crowd of about 350.

The traditional message of O Come All Ye Faithful is being heeded to a remarkable degree. Cathedrals and big city churches are reporting a huge leap in attendances. Westminster and Oxford cathedrals, which specialise in beautiful choral music, have doubled their number of services to cope with popular demand.

Does this have a deeper spiritual significance? Some observers suggest the swing back to traditional Christmas celebrations is an antidote to the poison of political correctness that would have Christmas replaced by a Winterval or some such other non-Christian nonsense.

Nostalgia Others believe we are entering a phase of greater pious nostalgia as shown by Selfridges' announcement that their sales of religious Christmas cards have soared by 30 per cent.

I think the new mood goes deeper. The truth, although atheists won't like to hear it, is that there is growing evidence that Faith may be making a comeback. This is not a rush to religion. It is a more subtle trend often outside the footprint of traditional churchgoing. As the old power structures of arrogant materialism and political authority crumble, there are unmistakable signs of rising spiritual interest. Maybe this is because so many former landmarks of reliability (such as banks) have become part of tomorrow's problem.

As the coming decade will be the age of anxiety, it's natural that many people should have begun their own processes of questioning today's failing certainties.

What is being discarded is the aggressive secularism and militant materialism of theme-and-my-bonus mindset. The search is on for deeper meanings, better values and that 'need for something more' which seeks a spiritual dimension to life.

To assess the reality of such searchings this Christmas, here is a personal portrait of events, conversations, faith-based good works and signs of spiritual optimism which I have encountered just in the past few weeks. I understand this territory because, since coming out of prison almost ten years ago, I have been searching for and finding stronger spiritual foundations.

At first, bucketfuls of cynicism were poured over my Christian journey. Privately, I was more sympathetic towards those cynics than I let on. For my early weeks as a mature theology student threw up many selfdoubts about 'getting religion' and 'foxhole conversions'.

But after a painful process of stumbling, doubting and even wondering whether I had lost my marbles, the seeds of faith slowly took root in me, just as they seem to be growing today in many other searchers. So from that same path, here are some snapshots which provide evidence in support of the trend towards greater spirituality.

In November, I took part in a debate at the Oxford Union where a packed chamber of 19 to 22-year-olds argued over the resolution 'Britain should return to Christian values'.

After a passionate four-hour debate, students voted 245 to 235 in favour of values based on Jesus' teachings.

But do not be fooled into thinking that this spiritual energy at Oxford and several other universities is an elitist phenomenon.

At the other end of the social scale, there is a renewal, unequalled since Victorian times, of activity by faith-based action groups within deprived communities. …