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19 September 2014


I FIND encounters over coffee after church strangely enlightening. Two weeks ago, a senior lady approached me. "You've written a book on Revelation," she said; "so you ought to be able to tell me. What does 666 mean?"

"The Beast," I replied. "Satan. The antichrist."

Her reaction to my reply surprised me. Her face lit up with a gloriously satisfied smile. "Oh good," she said. "My neighbour's just bought an old car, and its number is 666. I can't stand the man. I shall have a laugh to myself every time I see it."

She wandered off with her coffee, muttering "The Beast, Satan, the antichrist . . ." as though she feared she might forget.


I HAVE been covering services fairly regularly in a church dedicated (as so many are) to St Mary the Virgin. I was down to preside at the patronal festival on 17 August, and learnt that this included blessing the adjoining Ladywell. That was, I suppose, a tad outside my comfort zone, but it sounded fun.

Come the hour, we gathered outside the church in bright sunshine to follow the thurifer on the 200-yard walk across the churchyard to the well. The little service went smoothly, ending with what I thought was a rather elegant paean of praise to the Almighty for the precious gift of water, poured so graciously upon us from above.

As I spoke, a dark cloud that had crept up unnoticed above the thick trees burst upon us. We were deluged with the gifts of the heavens as we broke ranks and fled in a motley mob for the shelter of the church. My alb took 36 hours in the airing cupboard to dry out.


MANY of us are familiar with "chuggers" - charity muggers - who waylay you in the high street or on your doorstep, and try to persuade you to set up a direct debit for a charity. I have recently had several brushes with them, including a doorstep encounter (the Red Cross), and one with a young woman outside Waitrose (a children's cancer charity). She told me that many people had offered her money, but she was not allowed to accept it. Her brief was direct debits.

I noted her Welsh accent (she was far from home), and asked how many people had signed up that day. "Not one," she said - and this was tea-time. I'm a bit of a softie, and there was some Celtic kinship involved; so I filled in the bank details, and got a big hug as a reward.


THE chuggers have also taken to the phones. What disappoints me, perhaps unreasonably, is that respected Christian charities and mission societies have also begun to employ them.

I was cold-called by a man who urged me to take out a monthly direct debit for a well-known Anglican mission. I pointed out that I had supported the society for more than 50 years, recently by an annual gift through the Charities Aid Foundation. I thought that this would satisfy him, but it didn't. He still urged me to take out a direct debit, even if it were for less than my annual donation.

That aroused my suspicions, later confirmed, that he was not working for the mission, but for a fund-raising firm that charges a fee in return for recruiting new direct debits. He was not interested in the cause for which I have prayed for two-thirds of a lifetime, but in making another entry on his score-sheet.

Prompted by the Holy Spirit, or by compassion, or arm-twisted by a chugger? What would Hudson Taylor have made of it?


SIXTY-FOUR years ago, I enrolled as an undergraduate at King's College, London, the first in my family to enjoy a university education. In a fortnight's time, my granddaughter does exactly the same thing and to read the same subject, English.

I am sure that much has changed, but the chapel is still at the heart of the college, and the Thames still flows past, now overlooked by the comfortable Students' Union bar. At third-hand, I can share the mixture of expectation, excitement, and apprehension. The biggest difference, I suppose, is that I got a princely grant of £90 a term. She, on the other hand, gets a massive student loan. Lucky girl.


THE death of James Alexander Gordon, who had read the football results on BBC Radio's Sports Report for more than 40 years, was front-page news last month. Once again, the obituary pages revealed the ever-smiling face of an old colleague and friend. He was always full of wonderful stories of the joys and perils of his trade.

He told me once of a night when he was reading the midnight news. Sitting in the newsreader's little studio, he began to get anxious when the bulletin had not arrived, with barely a minute to go. At last, the door burst open and a sub came in, waving the script.

"Quick, give it to me," James shouted.

"Now then," the sub said, "ask me nicely." (He had, it seemed, been at the refreshments.)

For a moment, they grappled for the precious pages. James got them, and sat down to start reading just as the red light came on - at which the sub pulled out a lighter and set fire to the bottom of the script. James picked up the newsreaders' statutory glass of water, and extinguished the flames, but could not save the weather forecast at the bottom.

When he got to it, he just said: "Tomorrow's weather's going to be much like today's," and, happily, it was.


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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