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David Winter

17 April 2015

ISTOCK

Whitehall farce

OH, JOYOUS Eastertide, with a General Election to follow! In Westminster and among the political journalists, the adrenalin has risen, but in my heart there is little but desperate hope that the next few weeks will flash by, and then we can get back to being a civilised, rational society on 8 May.

My despair is not because I take politics lightly, but because I actually care about them. I even belong to a political party, but between now and polling day all their emails will be deleted on arrival as certainly as I shall studiously avoid every single party-political broadcast.

There is something about our election campaigns which is utterly depressing: the childishness, the playground insults, the portentous manifestos, the ludicrous promises of so many billions on this and that in response to yesterday's headlines, the guarantees, "ring-fencing", and pledges.

TV appearances transform hitherto respectable politicians into cartoon characters - some Desperate Dan, some the Big Bad Wolf, some the Pied Piper of Hamelin. What should be a serious democratic exercise is turned into a Whitehall farce. Still, it's only a one-act farce. Eastertide will roll into Pentecost, and the election campaign will be just a weird distraction from reality. 

Behind closed doors

FOR some reason - possibly because the Charity Commissioners have been looking at their charitable status - The Times has decided recently to highlight the activities of the Exclusive Brethren (Media, 27 March). I would guess that hardly anyone had heard of them before: it is a tiny sect of about 25,000 members who see themselves as the only true inheritors of the vision of J. N. Darby. He was an Anglican clergyman who, nearly 200 years ago, sought to restore the principles and practice of the first century to the Church of his day.

His followers became known as the Plymouth Brethren; but, needless to say, the movement soon split into various conflicting factions, largely over disputes about the millennium. One of the factions - the true hard-liners - eventually became known as the Exclusives, operating a harsh regime of separation from everything they deemed "worldly", and scrupulously declining to be "unequally yoked" to unbelievers. The "yoke" included sharing meals, or even a cup of tea with the rest of us. 

Open and shut case

I FIRST encountered them more than 50 years ago, when I married into a family of "Open" Brethren. They were enthusiastically interdenominational, and happily welcomed this convinced Anglican into their midst. I encountered among their ranks, however, a few refugees from the Exclusives (the movement, small as it is, has a remarkable aptitude for division). The trouble was that they had joined an "open" church, but had no understanding of what the word "open" actually meant.

When they discovered that an Elder's daughter was planning to marry an Anglican (and, indeed, was to be confirmed), I was several times subjected to rigorous, critical cross-examination. Was I aware (for instance) that the word "communion" did not occur in the New Testament?

My attempted exposition of the meaning of the word koinonia was met with the accusation that I was using worldly knowledge (i.e. Greek) to oppose the truth. Even I was left speechless, however - a rare occurrence - when they assured me that we were wrong to use the Lord's Prayer because it related to a "different dispensation".

One of the greatest biblical scholars of the Open Brethren, Professor F. F. Bruce, once observed that you could divide Christians into two groups, whatever other labels they had: open and closed. Closed Christians are concerned to judge the world; open Christians to redeem it. It seems to me a profound truth. 

Wild at heart

I PREACHED at the thanksgiving service for Hester McLintock, the wonderful centenarian of Cold Ash parish (Diary, 20 February). A rampant wildlife area was her peculiar legacy to the churchyard. When, 20 years ago, she first proposed it to the PCC, there were many doubters. Nevertheless, her persistence won permission for a small area to be roped off and put under her supervision.

Strangely, as we noted from the adjoining vicarage windows, this area appeared to expand miraculously, the churchyard presenting a more and more unshaven look to visitors. There were a few complaints, until out of the blue the church won a national award for preserving rural flora and fauna. Still, today, Hester's patch stands rugged, scruffy, and bursting with nature's simplest gifts, all meticulously labelled.

On the edge

THE Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, is now well into his second stint as Acting Bishop of the vast diocese of Oxford. In a recent ad clerum, he made a telling point. In the Church of England, whatever our ecclesiastical structures may say, the periphery (the parish) is, in fact, the centre.

I had barely finished cheering when I reached a later paragraph, where I learnt that Oxford needs a new diocesan headquarters. Accommodating all those advisers, enablers, co-ordinators, directors, administrators, boards, and societies demands a whole new building. And so, once again, the centre trumps the periphery.

School for scandal

A FRIEND was visiting her five-year-old grandchild on a recent weekend. "What did you do at Sunday school today?" she asked. The little girl said that they had had a story about a man up a tree who had been very naughty, but Jesus helped him.

"What had he done that was so naughty?" granny enquired.

"He stole taxis," came the reply. 

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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