Diary: David Winter

10 March 2017

BBC/Jonathan Ford

Silent Witness

Silent Witness

Eight words of Latin
THE recent BBC drama series Silent Witness offered a gruesome mixture of corpses and forensic science — all in the cause of ultimate justice, of course. But it was introduced by strangely haunting music, Latin words sung by an alto voice. I tried to catch the words, but eventually turned to Google to find them. I was not alone in my interest. Thousands were on the same quest.

The music was from John Harle’s “Silencium Suite”, and the words were given as “Testator silens costestes e spiritu silencium angeli silens.” Armed with my rusty school Latin and a dictionary, I tried to work out what it meant. It sounded vaguely religious, and contained at least one word that was not in my dictionary. It left me frustrated.

Help was at hand. A friend, Derek Spears — a retired cleric and one-time University Challenge fin­alist, no less — offered to help. He eventually offered me a lengthy analysis of subjunctives, deponent verbs, passive voices, accusatives, imperatives, and all the other things that make Latin so complicated.

Out of it, he bravely offered sev­eral possible translations, the best of which seemed to be: “Silent witness, let the silence be called to witness from the spirit.” Thus the “silent witness” of the TV series could be identified as the wordless DNA from the silent laboratory.

Costestes” he thought was a misprint. “Angeli” confused him (wrong case), but it could be that the silent witness is the “angel”. Either way, it sounds better in Latin, even if incomprehensible.

I recall a letter I received 50 years ago, during the Vatican II debates, from a woman who said that she could believe the Creed in Latin, but could not in English.

 

Thousands of Wins
TWO weeks ago, our church was packed for Win’s funeral. I always had a soft spot for her, because my mother was a “Win” (Winifred), and there are not many of them around nowadays. This particular Win was the kind of person who is the beating heart of the Church at its best.

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Our associate priest, who had known her for half a lifetime, spelt out the jobs she had taken on in St Mary’s: everything from cleaning the lavatories to administering com­munion to the sick. But, in the end, it was not what she had done, but what she was that marked her out. Like many women of her age, she had had a tough life. As a child she had survived the Blitz in London. She lost two adult daugh­ters, and was twice widowed. What she had — and everyone recognised this — were the gifts of a radiant faith, and service with a smile.

She chose the hymns for her funeral. I can’t remember hearing “As the deer pants for the water” sung with such intensity of feeling, because this was Win: “You alone are the real joy-giver.” In my dotage, I love the Church of Eng­land dearly: not particularly its synods and structures, but for the hundreds of thousands of Wins, male and female, up and down the land who are its priceless adorn­ment.

I once read that “the true her­­meneutic of the gospel is a con­­gregation living by its principles.” By that reckoning, Win was a great evangelist, even though she never preached a sermon.

 

Know your audience
THE Bible Reading Fellowship has for some time been widely recog­nised for its work in pro­moting Messy Church: a project aimed at enabling young children to feel comfortable, welcome, and noisily involved in the life of the Church. More recently, it has turned its attention and resources to the other end of the Church’s age-range: for instance, Anna Chap­laincies for the spiritual needs of elderly people (Feature, 27 January).

Part of the project is the publica­tion of The Gift of Years, daily Bible readings aimed at older readers. No, they do not say every­thing twice in case readers had already forgotten what they had just read: they deal with concerns and questions that inevitably come with the twilight years.

The Gift of Years initiative was launched at Christ Church, Oxford, after a choral eucharist, with a re­­cep­tion in the deanery. Apart from the fact that there were not many older people there (I only made it because I was kindly given a lift: bitterly cold and dark January evenings are not favoured by my age group), it was a good occasion, at which we met the new editor, Eley McAinsh, a former colleague of mine at the BBC.

She is still a good way short of the Gift of Years age bracket, but any­one like her, who, for many years, worked for Radio 4, knows the market through and through.

 

No can do
WHILE we are on the subject, may I record my four great “Can’ts of the Aged”. Three are particularly relev­ant to church: can’t see, can’t hear, and can’t get there. The fourth is specific to my kitchen: can’t get it open.

When my next-door neighbour, a retired farmer with strong wrists, or Jane over the road, who’s good at reading minute directions on col­oured backgrounds (David, it says “Pull here”) are away, I am from time to time reduced to im­­­potent fury, stabbing wildly at an innocent pack of Co-op ham with a sharp knife in a vain attempt to open the packaging.

As for the childproof mechan­isms on my pot of tablets and my eye-drops, any child of four I know would have them open in ten sec­onds. My longest time so far is ten minutes. Reluctantly, I accept that “child­proof” means that if you can open it, it proves you are a child.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom for the aged. On the night of Storm Doris, I went with friends to a new play at the Oxford Playhouse, Silver Lining, about a group of elderly ladies trapped by floodwater on the first floor of a care home. As they watch the waters rise, they reminisce.

”I remember when choc­o­late was good for you,” one said.

Yes, and so do I: “One-and-a-half glasses of milk in every bar.”

 

Canon Winter is a retired cleric in Oxford diocese, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.

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