Diary: David Winter

01 December 2017


Pilgrim’s progress

EVERY day, I survey the obituaries in The Times, and occasionally they record the death of someone I once knew or worked with. In October, a whole-page obituary (that’s really five-star treatment) recorded the passing of Jack Good, whom the subhead described as a “producer who revolutionised television by creating pop-oriented programmes”.

Some may remember his Six-Five Special on the BBC, and Oh Boy! on ITV, which were, at the time, truly ground-breaking.

I first met Jack more than 70 years ago, when we were both in the sixth form of a north-London grammar school. From school in those days it was National Service for boys, and then, perhaps, university (in his case, Oxford). We lost contact, though of course I followed his early career with interest and envy, until he went off to the United States to do it all just as brilliantly there.

Then I heard nothing of him, until one day, about 12 years ago, I had a phone call. He was living in Oxfordshire, where he had bought a farmhouse, had discovered that I lived quite near, and suggested that we might meet. We did, and I spent a fascinating day hearing about his life after he abruptly gave up his stellar career in the world of pop, judging it all to be “dross”. His marriage had ended, owing “to my drinking habits”, he explained.

For some years, he lived virtually as a hermit in a desert region of New Mexico, eventually embracing the Christian faith as a Roman Catholic. When I met him, he was painting a striking mural for a church: he was the sort of person who was good at everything (except sport). On bad days, he felt that he had wasted his life on trivia and helped to corrupt the world’s youth; on better days, he said, he recognised the exuberance and release that rock and roll brought to many young people.


It may be that, in 100 years, he will be remembered for that mural rather than Oh Boy! I reckon he would be pleased to think so.


Obeying the asterisk

IN OUR parish church we use Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised: it offers a simple solution to the problem of over-long hymns — simply leave out the starred verses. You announce the hymn, “omitting the verses marked with an asterisk”, and all is simple. In fact, as any congregation will confirm, it is often far from simple.

On a recent occasion, our associate priest, who was presiding, made such an announcement, which required the congregation to omit verse two. In the event, some of us did, and the others did not, which meant that the next verse was an example of holy discord. Fearing that this might persist right through the hymn, the Rector decided to intervene. His voice rose clearly above the hubbub: “We are now on verse five,” he asserted confidently. But we weren’t.

Those who had obeyed instructions were on verse four, and the miscreants who had not were ploughing through verse three. The group near me stopped to discuss what we should do, but, by the time we had decided, the choir was at the last verse (five): correctly, of course.

A much respected one-time chairman of the Evangelical Alliance, Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Smith, used to warn the staff that “Order plus counter-order equals disorder.” In this case, however, it simply equalled hilarity; so the next five minutes were spent in an inappropriately frivolous atmosphere, I’m afraid.


Linguistic grumbles

THERE are two words that I find increasingly irritating. The first is found from time to time in the Church Times, I’m sorry to say. It is an adjective endlessly employed by churchgoers of a conservative disposition to describe churches that use guitars or drums in worship, and where the congregation actually appear to be enjoying themselves. They are inevitably dubbed “happy-clappy”, and thus dismissed.

I remember, as a choirboy, working out that “Plaudite gentes”, at the top of Psalm 47, was the Latin of its opening words: “Clap your hands together, all you people.” That, and Psalm 150, surely make it plain that, 3000 years ago, the worship in the Temple was noisy, exuberant, and, yes, “happy-clappy”. Hardly a surrender to modern vulgarity, then. “Happy-clappy” is not my preferred worship option, but, if forced to choose, I prefer it to “deploring-boring”.

The second word that is beginning to get on my nerves is “Brexit”. How on earth did the most significant social and constitutional issue of our generation get stuck with this ridiculous label? Leaving the EU may or may not be a good thing, but it’s hard to take seriously something that makes it sound like a breakfast cereal that keeps you regular.


Pride before a fall?

IF I seem to be in a more querulous mood than usual in this diary, put it down to the fact that, a couple of weeks ago, I fell down the altar steps at church, emptying the contents of the ciborium across the sanctuary.

Amazingly, I was unhurt, apart from a slight graze on my hand, and, with the aid of the lay cup-bearers, was able to complete the distribution and the service. It did, however, make me question whether the time had come to cease testing the obstacle course that is the traditional church sanctuary (nave altars are relatively danger-free).

Mind you, it is a clever if risky way of winning the sympathy vote. Who is going to criticise the sermon of an elderly preacher who has just been within inches of braining himself on a solid pillar? “Lovely sermon, Vicar. Are you all right?”


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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