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01 January 2016


In the wet midwinter


HEARING the TV presenter Andrew Alexander singing “In the bleak midwinter” on the BBC’s Big Sing in late December — and doing it with great sensitivity, as befits a son of the vicarage — persuaded me that this most exquisite of English carols is now an identifiable sound of Christmas.

A few notes are enough to create a little frisson of expectancy. Never mind that Christina Rossetti managed to combine in one short poem the most persuasive theology and the most ludicrous meteorology. This is the Christian story presented in all its paradoxical beauty: a God who cannot be contained by heaven taking human form in a helpless baby.

As for “snow had fallen, snow on snow” — well, that is poetic licence. The last time I was in Bethlehem, the temperature was more than 100° in old money, and I don’t imagine the “little town” has had more than a few flakes of the frozen stuff in decades.

Every time I hear it, however, my mind goes back (as minds are wont to do) to a moment of exquisite embarrassment. My wife and I had invited three professional musicians to the carol service at our church in north London — probably more than 40 years ago. One of the carols was “In the bleak midwinter”. I idly wondered which of the two tunes we should have: Darke (the popular one), or Holst (the musical one).

The choir stood, and a note was sounded. It was to be a cappella. Good. Except that we were to be treated to an amazing sound: not Darke or Holst, but both at once. The north side set out on Darke, and the south side on Holst. Neither was inclined to give in, and the gruesome result ground its way through earth as hard as iron and the Bethlehem snowstorm.

By then, one of our party (a bass player) was crouched in the pew covering his ears, while tears of uninhibited mirth rolled down his cheeks. By the second verse, the organist, alerted to the situation, crashed in, and order was restored.

Sadly, after all these years, I cannot remember which tune he compelled them to sing.


No expense spared


EXPENSES — by which I mean payments made to people to cover what they have had to spend in order to do their work — are a permanent source of trouble. We have had MPs, football barons, even a vicar or two, apparently massaging the figures to their own profit

The latest complaint is about the Speaker of the House of Lords, who, stories in the papers say, has claimed many hundreds of pounds for cars to take her to various important events. The one that seems to have raised the greatest indignation was a car to take her and a guest to Covent Garden for the opera. Including waiting four hours to take them back again, the bill was, it is alleged, £230.

If you read the story carefully, you could glean that the “guest” was in fact chairman of the Council of the Federation of Russia. Was the Speaker expected to take him out into Parliament Square and whistle for a taxi? And, in any case, £230 seems to me a modest sum for improving our relations, however slightly, with an important European power.

Be that as it may, my years of signing broadcasters’ expenses claims have alerted me to the perils both of being a claimant and also of authorising the claim. Some of my staff were highly creative not only in the studio, but also in filling in what the BBC called a “T and D” form. Taxis featured frequently, accompanied by the essential qualification “constraints of time”. So did meals and drinks, of course, and obligatory overnight stays in expensive hotels (“Only available accommodation”).

One ITV executive told me of a film crew who submitted a claim for a first-class flight to Manchester on which there was no first class. Their leader explained that this was in line with a union agreement, and they had simply worked out what the first-class fare would have been if there had been one.

All of this experience has made me slow to condemn clergy and lay ministers who claim a few pounds for travel expenses (and sometimes don’t get them). I have found parish treasurers sympathetic, though sometimes restricted by what they see as the “rules”. The only rule about expenses is honesty, I think.


Troubles over chasubles


THE interesting article by Edward Dowler about vestments (Comment, 18/25 December) called to mind all the squabbles in the old Church Assembly back in the 1960s about canon law. Trying to order what clergy should wear in church was rather like herding cats. Suddenly, what had simply been a matter of cultural or doctrinal preference became a tribal badge.

My lot, for the record, were very anxious that it was all part of a subtle Romeward drift. The other lot felt that long Catholic practice was being challenged by a bunch of liturgical backwoodsmen.

In the event, as this was the Church of England, it did not make much difference: people simply went on doing what they had always done, and slowly came to accept that all of this was a secondary issue in a world of need and despair.


Bending the rules


FOR myself, I draw the line at wearing a chasuble (although I have, under constraint, occasionally done so). This is not for any coherent theological or liturgical conviction, but because my dear late wife once observed wisely, having seen me in one of the team’s “one size fits all” specimens, that short men look ridiculous in chasubles. One glance in the vestry mirror confirmed her judgement.

I did abandon my objections, however, on a visit to a wickedly cold village church last winter. When asked by the churchwarden whether I wore a chasuble, I replied, “Not usually. But today, yes, please; and two if you’ve got them.”


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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