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21 February 2014


Voice from the past

I HAVE been doing a series of lunchtime lectures in Winchester recently. They call them "Space in the City", and, over the years - at any rate, until this year - they have had a distinguished speaker on a specific topic. I am not really into "lectures", but I have been doing some talks on my current subject, which is the small matter of being old, and how all of us, whatever our age, deal with issues related to it.

A gratifyingly large audience has made its way through gales, storms, and downpours to support the venture - many of them, though by no means all, with a more than academic interest in the subject.

After the first "lecture" I got an email from a woman who began (as many do) "You won't remember me, but . . .". She went on to remark that I seemed as enthusiastic about expounding the Bible now as I was in unfolding the wonder of Shakespeare 55 years ago, when she wasin my A-level English group at a school in Tottenham.

"If I shut my eyes," she said, "you sound exactly the same." I took it as a compliment, although I was not sure about the closed eyes bit.

Comprehensively good

LATER in the series, I was to meet her husband, a student at the same school, now an MEP and prominent in local government. I was never in favour of selection at 11-plus, but I must concede that the old grammar schools did give many young people from "ordinary" backgrounds, like me, a chance to pursue career opportunities undreamed of by my father's generation.

I'm just glad that many young people today, like my own grand-children, are being given - whatever some of the papers say - an equally good but more widely available education in so many excellent state comprehensive schools up and down the land.

The way he tells them

I WAS asked to talk to our men's breakfast - coffee, bacon butties, and toast - on the subject of humour in the Bible. Heaven knows why I accepted, but at least it provoked me to look again at bits of the Bible that make me laugh, such as Balaam's ass, or the serpent in the Garden of Eden, both of which, a learned rabbi once assured me, were always regarded by Jews as comic characters (even if the events turned out to be tragic).

I also looked at the way Jesus used irony with devastating effect; what wouldn't I give for a video of him teaching, to see when a wicked grin creased the divine features.

I ended, as you can at a men's breakfast after they have finished eating, with Paul's very rude joke at the expense of the Judaisers who were pestering the Galatians to be circumcised. I remarked that even today a preacher would be taking a huge risk to tell a joke like that from the pulpit, or even over coffee afterwards.

You can find it (if you wish to) in Galatians 5.12, but I have yet to find a translation that seems to me to capture the sheer crudity of Paul's language. The NRSV offers a piece of pure Bowdler: "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!" Oh, come on!

A walk in the park

I RECORDED an interview for Songs of Praise on one of the coldest and windiest days of the year so far. The bulk of the interview was done in a nice, warm studio, but the producer needs some linking and establishing shots - the sort where you see the interviewee strollingby a river, playing the organ, or climbing a bell-tower. Perhaps in deference to my age, all they asked me to do was walk around a park next to the National Army Museum in Chelsea.

As a general rule, about 25-30 seconds of this filming would be used in the programme, but those few seconds took one of the coldest hours I have ever spent to translate into satisfactory film. Maybe I don't walk very well, especially when I can barely feel my feet. Everybody was friendly and helpful, but it reminded me forcibly why, having worked in both media, I much prefer radio production.

Always praising

ANYWAY, it was finally done, and I could then thaw out and be interviewed by Pam Rhodes, whom I had not met for several years. She is, of course, currently the longest-running presenter of Songs of Praise, which has been on the air for almost 50 years. We spoke of Geoffrey Wheeler, whose death had just been reported, and of the palmy days when Songs had a regular spot and an audience of seven million.

It is, remarkably, still there, holding its godly head high among the hundreds of television channels a person might choose from on a Sunday afternoon, and still one of the most widely watched religious programmes in the world: it has regular screenings in many English-speaking lands.

Pam, meanwhile, has carved herself a back-up career as a writer of light-hearted but literate novels about church life. If you've never sampled the Dunbridge Chronicles (Lion Hudson), then you won't know what you are missing: heart-throb curates, passion in the pews, romance in the choir, and robust leadership from the rector, Margaret.

"Light and amusing", the Irish Catholic said, "but dealing with serious issues of faith, friendship and family". Just like St Paul, really.

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


Wed 25 May @ 09:49
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