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Diary: David Winter

21 September 2018


Enjoying the twilight

IT IS probably the penalty for writing a book entitled At the End of the Day: Enjoying life in the departure lounge. I’ve been in the departure lounge quite happily for many years, and was diagnosed at the eye clinic as having “mild early onset macular degeneration”. But suddenly, this summer, someone started switching the lights out. No longer “mild early onset”, it’s now the full works.

I’ve bought a large-print Bible — it is too heavy to carry far, but it sits nicely above my computer. As “degeneration” means exactly what it says, I now know which of the four twilight handicaps I shall experience. There is mobility (wonky knees, dodgy hips), hearing, memory, and eyesight. Of course, we don’t get to choose, and there’s no rule to say you’ll only get one.

I now feel I’ve joined the club properly. Members compare symptoms, treatment, effects, a genuine sharing of the pot-holes in the road of the geriatrics. We don’t call them “challenges”, in the modern idiom, because we’re not expecting to defeat them. Most of us would, I think, settle for an honourable draw, like a lengthy Test match. We know we can’t win, but we can play the game.

Mess, noise, silence

I IMAGINE that most of us, now, are familiar with Messy Church: a splendid kind of organised disorder that children and families can enjoy while at the same time experiencing worship, prayer, and faith in Jesus.

I have now learned of other church adjectives. You can have Silent Church (no one talks to you) or Smelly Church (the air is heavy with dust and the odour of decaying books). Then there’s Draughty Church (wherever you sit there’s a minor gale blowing down your neck), Touchy-Feely Church (not a handshake at the Peace, but a kiss and a hug), and Noisy Church.

Ours, I think, falls in this last category — plus a bit of Touchy-Feely. It’s not unusual for the minister leading the service to battle with a hubbub of conversation before he or she can announce the first hymn and the choir can start their procession.

We also let it apply to children too old for crêche and too young for the Children’s Activity (we used to call it Sunday school), who have a degree of freedom in church. This arrangement is tactfully described each week in our pew sheets: “Children are welcome at our church. Please help them to worship God in their own way.” Mind you, visiting preachers need to be warned that their sermons may be accompanied by gymnastic displays on the chancel steps.

Ask the vicar

ONE of the schools that regularly use our church for end-of-term events came up with a different suggestion this year: if the children worked out the questions they had about the church, would the Vicar be willing to answer them? Of course, our Rector, Mark, was only too happy, and expected the usual ones about the windows, font, altar, and so on.

In fact, the first two questions were not about the building, but about the Christian religion. The first was: “What rules do Christians have to keep?” The second was: “Do Christians have to go to church?” Noting the intrusive “have to” phrase, he surprised the children by giving the answers “None,” and “No.” He went on to explain that Christianity was not a religion of rules, but of relationship — with God, and with one another. Probably wisely, he didn’t quote St Augustine: “Love God, and do what you like,” although that is the heart of the matter.

It’s not surprising, in our secular age, that children — like everyone else — judge “religion” by externals: burkas, Kant, and sacred cows. But I was taught long ago about “the inwardness of true religion”, and I still recognise it.

Sabbath day’s journey

WHEN I think about rules (which isn’t often), I recall an incident reported to me years ago by a friend — an archdeacon, no less. He was travelling across the Midlands in an Intercity train on a Saturday. Opposite him sat a man who was clearly, by his dress and headgear, an observant Jew.

They got into conversation, and, eventually, my friend asked the question that had been intriguing him all the journey: How is it that you are travelling more than three miles on the sabbath? The man agreed that it was not permitted — on land.

“But we are on land,” my friend pointed out, as the train thundered on.

“You might be travelling on land,” was the response, “but I” (standing up and revealing a hot-water bottle) “am travelling on water, which is permitted.”

I have shared that story with a number of Jewish friends. All of them admired his ingenuity. “Rules must not be broken,” one told me, “but they can be got around.”

Avoiding Murphy’s Law

AS HAS been observed in the columns of this paper, funerals are changing fast (Features, 27 October 2017, Comment, 23 February). Indeed, the very word is to be avoided at all costs — even if a church service is involved. They are ‘”Celebrations of the life of . . .”: a sort of This Was Their Life presentation. Guests are routinely asked to wear bright clothes, and certainly not funereal black. This, as many clergy know, requires the funeral liturgy to be turned into a kind of multi-media event, with recorded sound tracks and even video clips.

Those tempted in this direction, however, should heed the first law of broadcasting (”Keep it simple”) — and the first warning. It’s known as Murphy’s Law, and simply says that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. You can hear it demonstrated on the Today programme most mornings.

A friend taking a funeral in a crematorium in Oxfordshire told me of a spectacular example of the risks involved in trying to spice up a solemn occasion. After sundry soundtracks, the hard-working family member on the technical side pushed the button for what the congregation were told would be illustrations of Grandpa’s many and varied interests. And there they were — you know the sort of thing: fishing, golf, growing roses. But then, suddenly, a shock: the screen was momentarily filled with a picture of a young woman, in what one can only be described as a provocative pose.

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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