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Diary: Canon David Winter

20 April 2018


Sound of silence

I WAS intrigued by a poem of his which Philip Gross quoted in an article on words and silence in The Author, the magazine of the Society of Authors. It is called “In the Quaker Meeting”: “On the radio (and this is not invention) silence had to be spoken for by the tick of a clock. . .” (A Bright Acoustic, Bloodaxe 2017).

I enjoyed the poem, and I can vouch for the fact that it is not “invention”, because I believe that I am the true and original source of the facts on which it is based.

Back in the 1980s, we faced a problem when we attempted to broadcast a live Quaker meeting. The problem was silence. After a few minutes of it, the BBC radio transmitters would shut down, on the assumption that something was seriously wrong. The eventual solution was to add a ticking clock to the occasional reflection or reading, as the participants were “prompted”.

I related this story in these columns long ago, and now, through who knows what devious channels, it becomes a poem. As so often, it takes the poet’s imagination to reveal a deeper truth — even silence needs a “heartbeat” to come to us. The divine “still small voice”?

Tight situation

IT IS not that long since Maundy Thursday; so most churchgoers probably still have vivid memories of shedding shoes and socks to re-enact the foot-washing at the Last Supper. For many Anglicans, it is a relatively new part of the Holy Week ceremonies.

My first experience of it was 25 years ago, on a boat in the South China Seas en route to a retreat at an island convent. Today, we all know the drill. At the signal, it’s shoes and socks off while the appointed foot-washers approach with their bowls of warm water.

But it is not always that simple. One priest told me of an unusual complication: as she came to a young woman expecting to have her foot washed, the priest noticed that she was wearing tights. This was pointed out, but the young woman argued, reasonably, that she could not pos­­sibly remove her tights in public. Point taken.

With Solomonic wisdom, the priest then suggested that, if the foot of the tights were washed, then beyond doubt her foot would also be. The suggestion was gladly accepted, thus adding a distinctly modern flavour to the traditional command: “As your tights have been washed, so wash one another’s tights.”

Keep it simple

I HAVE mentioned before in this column the remarkable Bob Weighton, one of the oldest men in Britain and an active supporter of the Anna Chaplains project for older people (Feature, 23 June 2017), which began in the town where he lives, Alton, in Hampshire. He reached his 110th birthday on 29 March — the same day as the oldest man in Scotland, Alf Smith. Mind you, there are eight older women in the UK, the oldest being 113.

Mr Weighton was filmed by BBC South enjoying a noisy party with a large group of children. Inevitably the interviewer asked the obvious question: to what did he attribute his longevity?

Over the years, I’ve heard all the usual answers to this question, from a daily glass of malt whisky to saying the Lord’s Prayer before bed every night, or giving up Marmite. Mr Weighton’s answer, delivered with a straight face, was both simple and incontrovertibly true: “Not dying.”

Ado about nothing

HOLY WEEK, as Andrew Brown pointed out in his column (Press, 6 April), frequently provides a couple of dodgy news stories that imply that distinguished Christian leaders have cast doubt on fundamental beliefs of the faith. This year’s alleged culprits were the Archbishop of Wales and Pope Francis, no less.

I read the press stories, noting that their reported views would hardly have seemed radical to contemporary theologians, Protestant or Roman Catholic. Indeed, where the Pope’s views on hell are concerned, an old friend from BBC days told me that, when he was under instruction as a Roman Catholic convert 60 years ago, his Dominican instructors assured him that, while he was required to believe in the existence of hell, he was not required to believe that anyone actually went there.

Holding the line

I AM reliving my early days as a schoolteacher through the experiences of my granddaughter, now in the final term of her first year in a north London comprehensive school. Every time I hear on the news of another stabbing or shooting in the area — and they have been painfully frequent this year — I think of the thin line of civilisation maintained by people like her, and the awful possibility of its giving way completely.

My final teaching post, in a short, five-year career, was a few miles north of hers, in Tottenham, but the social landscape has changed even more than the physical one in the intervening decades. She teaches in a world utterly distorted by what we call the “social media”’, a harmless sounding name for a melting-pot of gossip, fake news, opinion, and insult which dominates the lives of millions of children.

Teaching was pretty difficult 60 years ago. I can’t imagine what it would have been like had there been such a platform for threats and ridicule stirring the already tense waters of adolescence.

Today’s young people are not monsters — my grand­daughter says that most of them are “lovely kids” — but they are exposed to monstrous external pressures. Social workers, police, and especially teachers should be constantly in our prayers, together with their precious charges.

Refunds at the font

I HEARD the other day of a parish­ioner who had fallen out with her vicar over proposed changes to the church, including the unthinkable installation of a lavatory. Nothing, sadly, unfamiliar about that.

In her letter of complaint and resignation from the congregation, however, she also included a demand that the church should repay money that she had given to it. In the event, the church decided to do so, which was both gracious and exceptional.

It seemed to me, however, to establish a dangerous precedent. “Vicar, I really didn’t like the hymns last Sunday morning. I wish to reclaim the £2.50 I put in the collection.”

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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