INVITED to give three Advent lectures at a church in the
neighbouring Newbury team, in a foolish rush of traditionalist zeal
I determined to avoid any notion of a "run-up to Christmas", and
opted to tackle three of the season's Four Last Things: death,
judgement, and heaven. I did slip hell in, too, but unannounced.
Someone should have warned me. It was not that nobody came, but
that they all came eager with unanswerable questions.
Some were put to me in the main session. Others - on the whole,
the really dodgy ones - came afterwards. "Will there be cats in
heaven?" was probably the easiest (although I doubt if my answer
gave great comfort); but I also gained an insight into modern
feelings about judgement (not a popular idea, really), death
(random, unfair, and to be put off as long as possible), and heaven
(if it's not "up there", where is it?).
THE good thing about it was the way in which people wanted to
wrestle with some of the most testing questions of the faith. What
about the finally impenitent? How could a God of love exclude
anyone from heaven? What about infant deaths? If "no one comes to
the Father except through me," what about the billions of people in
human history who have never heard of Jesus?
On the last evening, one woman wisely remarked to me that she
had always assumed that the Bible and the Creeds were given on a
"need-to-know" basis. Beyond that, we would simply have to wait to
I think if ever I am invited to do it again, I shall avoid the
Four Last Things and settle instead for the Three Next Ones:
Christmas, New Year, and Pancake Day.
Land of my Fathers
I HAD a unique experience at the end of November. For the first
time in my life (and doubtless the last), I joined a party of
friends to visit the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, to see Wales
play a rugby international. I had heard with my ears what it was
like, but the half had not been told.
The day was a kaleidoscope of noise and colour: the packed train
to Cardiff from Reading (I lost my cap in the scrum when getting
on), the singing crowds in the streets and the cafés, the sheer
exuberance of the occasion, and (fellow football fans please note)
the total absence of anything vicious or aggressive. These were
laughing crowds, out to enjoy themselves; and, my word, did they,
when Wales finally managed to beat South Africa.
It was not, true, a very good match in terms of classic rugby.
There were no tries, or much of a threat of one, just penalties and
constant blasts on the referee's whistle. But nothing seemed to
diminish the exuberance of the huge crowd. Inevitably, "Bread of
heaven" rose from the stands. And as for the singing of the
national anthem before kick-off - it was, well, heavenly. Then the
wonderfully exuberant South African anthem was heard in silence,
and enthusiastically applauded.
Not for the first time, I reflected that sport seems to have
replaced, for many people, the drama and excitement of religious
worship. Crowds help, of course. And good tunes.
JUST across the River Kennet and the railway line from my home
is Greenham Common. Now a wonderful expanse of open countryside
much beloved of dog-walkers, it was once home to the American
V-Bombers, ready to wreak instant reprisal in the event of a
The site also became home to a group known as the Greenham
Common women, ardent opponents of nuclear weapons, who set up camp
outside its gates. With the end of the Cold War, the bombers
departed, but the women stayed on. Their tents were a familiar
landmark, even if children could not understand why a group of
women were protesting outside a business park. Eventually, the last
of the women left, and, recently, a plaque was erected to mark
their long and determined protest.
The Greenham Common women are now part of history, although
Britain is still producing and refining nuclear weapons a few miles
away, at Aldermaston. I wish contemporary politicians and
journalists would think hard before casually talking up a new Cold
War. We've hardly defrosted the last one yet.
LONG ago, the late John Betjeman persuaded me in a BBC studio
that Fanny Alexander had been an outstandingly gifted poet, able to
express profound and complex ideas in simple but compelling words.
"Read verse two of 'Once in royal'", he told me. "Now try to
improve it by a single word. You can't. It's perfect."
So, year by year, I have heard it sung, and marvelled at its
lightness of touch and profound theology. The last verse ("Not in
that poor lowly stable") has always moved me profoundly. But then,
last year, I realised that it ends with the most banal of couplets.
"When like stars his children crowned All in white shall wait
around." For years, it had escaped me, lost somewhere in that
glorious soaring descant.
But really - "wait around"? That is the one thing that children
hate. I know "wait" can have other biblical meanings, but it is the
adverb that seals it: "around". No children I have ever known would
settle for "waiting around", even if they were wearing white robes
It reminds me of another ditty, which I learnt in my National
Service days. It consisted of nothing but the question "Why are we
waiting?" sung over and over again to the tune of "O come, all ye
faithful". Oh, Mrs Alexander! But, then, even Homer nods.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of
Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the