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17 April 2014


Language of money

TWO quiet days will provide much of the substance of this diary. The most recent was at Bryndolau, in Carmarthenshire, which combines a splendid B&B (Kite's Nest Cottage), stunning views of the green hills, and a programme of occasional retreats, quiet days, and painting weekends.

Because I am temperamentally unsuited to silent meals, lunch on such occasions, led by me, is optionally conversational (those who prefer to maintain silence are provided for).

On this occasion, it meant that I heard some good stories - many related with the kind of dramatic eloquence for which Welsh preachers and politicians were once renowned.

One woman had an Australian relative who was visiting Wales for the first time. After flying into Heathrow, he hired a car, and drove along the M4 towards Wales. She had told him that he would know when he got there by the road signs in Welsh; so he looked out for them as he approached the Severn Bridge.

"Yes," he told them when he arrived, "you were quite right. There it was, above the lanes you followed to make your payment: 'manned coinbins'. Tell me, how do you pronounce that?"

Slightly baffled, his hosts pointed out that he had missed the Welsh sign on the next channel: "Binniau arian", or "money bins" in English.

Poetry project

I ALSO talked to Doug Constable, an English clergyman who retired to Wales eight years ago. In that period, he has mastered the ancient language of the land to the extent that he regularly presides at the eucharist in Welsh (cymun bendigaid) in his parish church.

He is an accomplished musician, and his current project is setting some of the poems of Dylan Thomas to music as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the poet's birth. His setting of the lovely poem "This bread I break" has already been performed in Wales.

Doug is local to Bryndolau - in country terms, just down the road - and a close friend of its owners, David and Ros Steel. David swapped bookselling and the Home Counties for their "place in the country", where they keep a few sheep and provide a place of pastoral care and love for men and women, too.

A farmer, and a walker

THE other quiet day was at Ivy House retreat centre in Warminster, which is, sadly, to be closed shortly. Apparently, it is not financially viable. Proceeds from the sale, we were told, will be used for "mission".

During the day, a woman told me a remarkable story. She was walking her dog along a narrow countrylane when a tractor, complete with driver, burst through the hedge above and landed on her. The dog was uninjured, but she was rushed by air ambulance to A&E, and then into intensive care. She had multiple serious injuries, but a longish spell in hospital meant that she made a good recovery.

She got to know the hospital chaplain, and one day he told her that he had just come from another ward, where he had been talking to the farmer who was driving the tractor that nearly killed her. He was now in hospital with a stress condition brought on by the trauma of that event, and especially his feeling of guilt. He had started the tractor when the engine was in gear, and it simply leapt forward through the hedge.

The woman was upset at this, and asked the chaplain to tell the farmer, whom she knew, that what had happened was entirely accidental, that she had no bad feelings about him, and that she wished him a speedy recovery.

When she left hospital, she went to church as usual the following Sunday, and was surprised to find the farmer there. He had never been a churchgoer, but a few months later she attended his confirmation. Not for the first time, I was reminded that bad things can have good consequences.

Mission Impenetrable

I AM not entirely sure what "mission" means in current church-speak, but I suspect that that story is a pretty good instance of it. Definitions are notoriously hard, especially when a word has been appropriated by corporate image-makers and public-relations gurus.

Every tin-pot company has its ridiculous "mission statement": the pension broker's "Your security is our business" is matched by the pet insurers' "Caring for your Best Friend". As the advertisements in the Church Times demonstrate, many dioceses, and even parishes, have also come up with some tricksy phrase to encapsulate the mysterium tremendum.

In case you have missed them, here are a few examples for serious contemplation: "Transforming com-munity, radiating Christ"; "Faithful, confident, joyful"; "Changing lives, changing churches, changing communities". The diocese of Truro is so modest about its mission statement that I needed a magnifying glass to read it: "Discovering God's kingdom, growing the Church".

All of this is harmless enough. Indeed, as statements of intent, full of hope rather than descriptive, they could be an incentive to action.

A church that says that it is "faithful, confident and joyful" had better make sure that it never looks unreliable, wobbly, and grumpy. I doubt whether a "mission statement" has ever brought a lost sheep into the Kingdom, but it may sometimes remind those of us who are within the system what the Church is really for.

I did raise an eyebrow, however, when I was told that the appointment of a fifth archdeacon was part of the diocese of Oxford's mission strategy. A fifth archdeacon? Satan, tremble.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.

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