FOR the first time in my life, as far as I can remember, I did not get to church at Christmas. Having fallen twice on the treacherous roads and pavements around my home, I decided that it would have to be carols from King’s College, Cambridge, and the midnight mass on television this year. But I made it to our family festivities on Christmas Day, which was in every sense heartwarming.
The weather meant that I did rather more reading than usual — and not just “duty” reading. A friend and one-time BBC colleague, now a midwife, gave me a wonderful book for Christmas, Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth (Phoenix, 2008). It is the true story of a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s, although contemporary readers may well feel that it sounds more like the London of Charles Dickens.
Poverty, appalling housing, and prostitution were rife in streets still bearing the marks of the Blitz. But there was also a social solidarity and a neighbourliness that largely disappeared when the slums were replaced with more sanitary, but less convivial, tower blocks.
Ms Worth began her midwifery career with a community of nursing nuns, members of an Anglo-Catholic order. She was not particularly religious herself, but part of the charm of her story is the slow unfolding of respect for the commitment, faith, and courage of the Sisters.
At the end of one traumatic chapter (and believe me, the story is often traumatic), she writes that that night she began to read the Gospels. We are not told the result.
Strangers on a train
ONE person in Call the Midwife who emerges triumphantly from the scenes of dark despair is the renowned Fr Joe Williamson, a parish priest who ran a lifesaving shelter for girls who had been entrapped into prostitution. (Ms Worth tells the story of one of them, Mary — a harrowing tale of what we would now call “sexual grooming”.)
Reading about Fr Williamson, and seeing his picture, reminded me of a strange encounter on a train in Kent some 50 years ago. Sitting opposite me was a becassocked priest with whom I got into conversation. He talked animatedly about his work in the slums of east London, particularly in seeking to rescue victims of the sex trade. “Oh,” I remarked, “a bit like Fr Joe.” The priest roared with laughter. “I am Fr Joe!” he said.
Faculty for murder
MY REFERENCE to the veteran crime novelist P. D. James in my last Diary (12 November 2010) evoked a reminiscence from the Revd John Grover, a retired priest now living in Scotland. He stays regularly with a Dutch Franciscan community, and happened to be with them while reading James’s Death in Holy Orders. He explained that he needed to get back to his room to discover whether the Archdeacon had been murdered.
One of the friars enquired: “Do Archdeacons often get murdered in the Church of England?”, to which he replied, without thinking, “Not often enough.”
I CAN remember long ago, in our Evangelical parish in north London, singing a hymn that included this invitation: “All your anxiety, all your care Bring to the Mercy Seat, leave them there.”
I had no idea what it meant, but another of my Big Freeze books provided the answer. The Mercy Seat Revisited, by Nigel Bovey (Shield Books, 2010), traces the use of the title from biblical times — the top of the Ark of the Covenant — through church history to the present day.
Its modern usage, mostly in revivalist circles, mission halls, and most notably the Salvation Army, has to do with what my clerical daughter calls “clinching the deal”. This is the point at which a “seeker”, or a hitherto acquiescent worshipper, makes a life-changing commitment to Christ.
Modern Anglicanism tends to use things such as Alpha courses (conversion with cuisine, as one might say), or adult baptism, for the purpose. But “mercy seat” does have a ring to it, doesn’t it?
Angels in high-vis.
WHEN the engine of our car suddenly cut out, we were left stuck in the slow lane of the A34 arterial road. We sat there, feeling incredibly vulnerable as traffic sped by. I rang the RAC, but, as I was doing so, a van pulled up behind us, lights flashing. Out of it climbed two burly men in fluorescent jackets.
They promptly took charge, giving me clear instructions for steering the car on to the steep grass verge and then, unbelievably, pushing us up off the road. The sign on their vehicle showed that they were from the Highways Agency, which I had never heard of before. But for us, at that moment, they were truly angels.
Very soon, the RAC arrived as well. Within minutes, the petrol pipe that had come adrift was reconnected, and we were on our way, although not before the patrolman had found a treat for our dog, which had watched proceedings from behind a safety barrier.
Every now and then Providence smiles. It is not deserved, but it is very nice when it happens.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.