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Diary: David Winter

03 May 2019


Action man at rest

RON’s funeral took place in Holy Week. I first met him when he turned up at our church. He told me that it was his first voluntary visit to a church for 70 years. He was about my age, and lived on his own.

He took to church. He liked the music, the friendship, and the feeling of belonging. Slowly, too, he warmed to the “message”. After a few months he asked whether he could be confirmed, and our curate, Marion, asked me to prepare him.

My usual practice is to invite candidates to give me a brief summary of their life history and of their journey of faith. When Ron told his life story, I realised that one lesson would not be long enough. Bombed out in the Blitz as a child, his family moved from London to Windsor, where his mother got a job at Eton College, in the laundry. She happened to mention that her son Ron, then eight, had a nice voice; after an audition, he found himself in the choir — and a pupil at the world’s most famous public school.

At 16, he joined the RAF as an apprentice, became a pilot, and was shot down during the troubles in South-East Asia. When he eventually left the RAF (the most cherished part of his life), he became consecutively an AA man, a police officer, and a funeral director’s assistant. He enjoyed all his jobs, and acquired an endless log of funny stories. But his private life was not happy — largely, he told me, through his own fault. Now he was an action man with no action, and a friendly man with no friends.

Happily, the gospel medicine worked. He belonged and felt valued, and forgiven. A few weeks before his death, he told me that he knew that, whatever happened, God would be with him. And now he is with God.


Apostolic copy editors

A RARE bonus of failing eyesight is the discovery that my writing need not be a private enterprise. My own experience has made me appreciate the role of St Paul’s amanuenses — the people who accurately committed his words to writing. It’s well known that Paul’s eyesight was a bit like mine (see what large letters I write), and what we have to read comes to us from the pens of editors. His were called Tertius and Silas. Mine is called Tanya.

What I have learned is that, when a second person is involved, writing changes. I imagine Paul furiously dictating his letter to Galatia. “Jerusalem is the mother of us all?” the editor queries. “Not for me,” Tertius says. “I’ve never even been to Jerusalem.” There is a pause before Paul says, “Would it help if we put ‘heavenly’ in front of Jerusalem?” Yes, it would.

Or when Paul is ending one of his letters with a list of greetings to people. Silas says: “There will be shock if you don’t include Claudia.” “Oh, yes,” Paul agrees, and in she goes.

Of course, when writing for publication there is, at the production end of the process, a professional editor. But the other person in the room is part of the creative process — at least for this dodgy-eyed veteran. As I suspect it was, long ago, for the apostle.


Crossed lines

IT MAY be the after-effects of Lent, but I’ve heard more complaints about lines in hymns recently. A young mother provoked one outburst by complaining about the line in a carol: “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” In that case, she argued, he wasn’t fully human — and isn’t that a heresy? Babies cry: full stop.

I added fuel to the fire by referring to another line from that same (much-loved, if mawkish) carol, that calls on Jesus to “look down from the sky”, pointing out that it wouldn’t be long before seven-year-olds learned that this is nonsense.

Someone else didn’t like “elect from every nation”, and several found “mystic sweet communion” an elusive idea. Famous hymn-writers were not exempt from criticism. What, someone asked, is “a higher gift than grace”? I’m sure Cardinal Newman would have had a reply, as would Charles Wesley to another question: who or what was the “first-born Seraph” who plumbed the depths?

Even my favourite got a complaint, one man alleging that the line “God in us abolish factions” sounded like a Guardian editorial. This complaint coincided with a week when our entire governance was rendered impotent by “faction”. I did, however, get wide support for my own proposed worst line in the hymn book: “Make that and the action fine” — which was written by one of the finest English poets.

Enough of this nit-picking. We complain only because we cherish the hymns we sing. And, as the saying goes, “Even Homer sometimes nods.”


How do you feel?

I REMEMBER, at a meeting perhaps 30 years ago, a BBC executive remarking that, when he heard very bad news at 7 a.m., he would wait in the hope that Thought For The Day would tell him how to “feel” about it.

On that Monday morning before Easter, when the news broke of the terrible fire at Notre-Dame, I decided to follow his example. I learned that the speaker on Thought For The Day was my fellow diarist Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly.

From my own experience, I knew what sort of a Sunday night she would have had. The planned script had to be abandoned, and a new message presented. Today, after all, is a news programme. Consultation with the editor would follow, but the priority is simple: to say something that puts particular events in a spiritual perspective. What does such an event tell us about our world, our values, and our God?

With three million others, I waited, and listened — and it worked. When the talk ended, I said “Thank you” out loud. Now I knew how to feel about it.


Canon David Winter is a retired priest in the diocese of Oxford.

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