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07 November 2014


Making assumptions

IN MY last diary column (19 September), I referred to presiding at the patronal festival of a nearby St Mary's church on 17 August, which evoked a letter questioning the choice of date. The writer thought this was to do with the Assumption.

Well, one likes to get these things right; so I consulted my Lectionary and Calendar of Services and Prayers for the Church of England, and confirmed that 17 August was the nearest Sunday to the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Then last week the ecclesiastical polymaths of "Out of the Question" got involved. I seem to have scratched an itch that I didn't know existed. For something like 1000 years, as they point out, 15 August has been associated by our fellow-Christians of the Roman obedience with a belief (since 1950 defined as a dogma) - the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - that the post-Reformation C of E has never formally accepted.

It was only with the advent of Common Worship that 15 August was restored for Anglicans as a feast of the Mother of our Lord - not the Assumption, but a Church of England kind of recognition of her place in the story of our salvation, and as an example of humble obedience to the will of God.

Well, I suppose that's progress. If we have to disagree, we might as well do it on the same day. 

Good news lost

TALKING of medieval traditions, I hope you survived Hallowe'en. If you have shares in a supermarket, you may well be laughing, because manifestly this strange festival is growing in popularity. No self-respecting five-year-old is going to a Hallowe'en party without at least one scary mask. Broomsticks, witch's hats, black cloaks, and skeletons are de rigueur on this occasion. So, of course, is the terrifying ritual of "trick or treat", which should be called robbery with menaces in a civilised society.

I know it is supposed to be harmless fun, but the fun has completely swallowed up the feast; so the one occasion in the year when people formerly thought seriously about death and heaven has simply become a matter of pumpkins, devils, ghouls, ghosts, and skeletons.

At the same time, there is taking place a conspicuous reduction in the number of funerals taken by Christian ministers. Many people now prefer to use secular "celebrants", who will provide a prayer and hymn-free occasion that celebrates the life of the deceased but carefully avoids any reference to death or the hereafter, apart from jokes about "up there".

Surely death is both a great mystery and a great adventure, not a subject to be avoided at all costs, even in church. An essential part of the Good News is that there is death and resurrection - "the hope of glory to come". We do not have to claim to know more about the details than human understanding can comprehend, but if we sell out on this it seems to me that we have sold out on everything. 

Remember me?

I HAVE spent the past couple of months doing what authors have to do nowadays: plugging my latest book, At the End of the Day. No matter how famous the writer - film star, TV personality, even cabinet minister - getting out there, talking about it, and signing copies for people is as important as actually writing it.

I am not a celebrity, not even a little one, but I know the rules of the game, and have cheerfully used Network Rail to traverse the southern half of England to talk about At the End of the Day and sign copies. In the process, inevitably some people will introduce themselves with the words, "You won't remember me, but . . .".

Occasionally they are wrong, but when I am faced (at Wells) with someone I taught in school nearly 60 years ago, or a woman (at Chichester) who was a member of the same youth group in a north London parish even longer ago, it is not surprising that they are unrecognised - although not unwelcome, of course.

I remember, when I was living in Oxford some years ago, Hillary Clinton was in the Borders bookshop - sadly, no longer there - signing copies of her autobiography. Following the accepted procedure, she asked purchasers their names so as to personalise the inscription. She was busy signing, head down, and asked the next person in the queue "Name?"

"Chelsea", the voice replied, and she looked up to see her daughter, then a student at Oxford, laughing at her.

In this sign, conquer

THE level crossing at our local station has frequently been closed on weekends: they are laboriously preparing to electrify the line. Usually, these closures are announced on bright-yellow road signs in unmistakable if rather curt English. Last week, however, to my great delight, the sign read "Ffordd ar Gau Yma", followed by "Dydd Sul Hydref 19".

I was not sure what those of my fellow citizens of this West Berkshire town who are unfamiliar with the language of heaven would have made of it, though underneath it did, rather apologetically, announce "Road Closed Here Sunday October 19".

I asked the man in the ticket office why, a good 80 miles from the border, we had our road sign in Welsh and English. He professed himself baffled by its appearance, putting it down to "confusion in central stores".

I suspect that Merlin has been about his magical work. After all, 3000 years ago all the inhabitants of the area would have understood it perfectly, while being completely baffled by the strange mixture of Nordic and Germanic words beneath it.

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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