Diary: David Winter

02 January 2015

ISTOCK

Question time

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?).

Religious conundrums

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 find out.

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.

Peaceful warriors

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 nuclear attack.

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.

Poetic imperfections

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 and crowns.

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 BBC.

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