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13 April 2017


A precious baby

I RECENTLY read in a west London newspaper the testimony of a man whose life was literally transformed through the influence of a parish-church youth group and especially one of its leaders. His life, until his late teens, was a long story of deprivation, neglect, and despair. He spent much of his childhood in care and slipped completely off the educational radar.

At the club, however, he encountered genuine love and understanding. An unexpected but vivid personal experience of God brought him to faith, and his new-found contacts led to a renewed lifestyle, regular work, and a secure home.

His name is Tony Inwood, and, through a mutual friend, I have met him and heard his story for myself. He has become a popular writer of performance poetry (A Day at the Zoo: Diverse verse).

There’s been a great deal of very bad publicity lately about physical and sexual abuse in Christian youth work. We would, however, be throwing a very precious baby away along with some extremely murky bath-water if churches were to abandon their ministry to young people.

For many of us over the years, Sunday school, church youth groups, and Christian holidays were vital elements in our journeys of faith. These were, in my experience, always mixed events (ah, the flirting at those summer camps!), and involved young people from all kinds of social, educational, and cultural backgrounds. They were led by men and women, and, in all my experience of them, I can’t remember the vaguest hint of abuse.

What I do remember, along with the hill-climbing, mixed hockey, and noisy sing-songs, were the talks. One series of Bible studies on the Epistle of St James, given by a young curate, Geoffrey Shaw, who was much later Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, was for me genuinely life-changing. Suddenly, the interpretation and application of the Bible became exciting and relevant. What a gift to take back to north London!


Feeling younger

MOVING swiftly through the generations, the BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy project (pastoral care for older people), which I have already applauded in these columns, achieved a notable first a few weeks ago. A sponsored walk to support the cause was set on its way by Bob Weighton, the oldest living Englishman. He celebrated his 109th birthday on 29 March.

Bob was once a missionary in Taiwan, though he is an engineer by profession (and can still explain the second law of thermodynamics). Recently, he has become a keen supporter of this ministry to older people, which had its origins in Alton, Hampshire, where he lives, but is now expanding nationwide.

When the staff at the Waitrose store where he does his shopping each week, discovered that he was the oldest man in the country, they offered him his weekly shop for free. “In that case”, he said, “I’ll have some Stollen cake.” Doubtless it will go down well at the supper group he hosts in his home each week.

People like Bob serve to remind us that living past 90, or even 100, years is no longer a rarity. Interestingly, I find that as people get older, they become less bothered about their expectation of years and more bothered about quality of life. Helping the steadily growing number of people (like me) who are well into surplus where longevity is concerned to live purposeful and active lives, without loneliness and boredom, seems an admirable ministry (and one to which old people themselves can contribute). For myself, I don’t particularly wish to live to 109, but I must say just thinking about Bob Weighton makes me feel 20 years younger.


Hymnodical Marmite

THERE seems to me little doubt that the most contentious hymn in Anglican churches today is Graham Kendrick’s “Shine, Jesus, shine”. It is the Marmite of hymnody. Our rector’s wife has told her teenage daughters that if, one day, they were to choose it for her funeral service she would come back to haunt them. On the other hand, it’s a great favourite with a large part of our congregation, judging by the volume of noise, the body-language, and hand-clapping that accompanies its rendition.

I’ve known the hymn since it first appeared, and would argue that, like all of Kendrick’s work, it is literate theologically and thoughtful poetically. It is a skilful expression of the rather triumphalist Kingdom theology of the early days of the charismatic movement. Nothing wrong with that — most of our great hymns reflect the particular spiritual insights of their day.

The trouble, I think, is neither the words nor the tune, but its performance. Organ, keyboard, or band makes no difference: it is always rendered at a breathless, indeed breakneck, speed. “Lord, I come to your awesome presence, from the shadows into your radiance” sits uncomfortably with jigging bodies and waving hands. This is a prayer to Jesus, not a football chant.

Recently, I heard it sung on the radio in a radically different way: very slowly, lyrically, molto lento. It was transformed: a moving call to respond to the light and presence of Jesus. Honestly, it’s worth a try!


Collective nonsense

CHURCHGOERS are used to complicated collects, but the one that appeared in our parish pew sheet on the Third Sunday of Lent was more than usually baffling, even though it was one of the revised, simpler texts. “Eternal God, give us insight to discern your will for us, to give us what harms us, and to seek the perfection we are promised in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I read it before the service and simply wondered how the eagle eyes of our excellent team in the parish office had let such gobbledygook get printed. I thought it would cause some laughs over coffee afterwards, but nobody mentioned it. I decided that there could be three possible reasons for that. One, people don’t read the pew-sheet (but they definitely do). Two, out of restraint, to save the feelings of those who let the error through (but ours is a church where legs are mercilessly pulled). Or three, no one ever expects a collect to make sense. I’m afraid I favour number three.


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

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