Epistle from Timothy
IT WAS a real pleasure to receive from the author, Timothy Dudley-Smith, a copy of his book A House of Praise (OUP), part three of a collection of, and commentary on, his hymns. Widely regarded as the doyen of modern hymn-writers, and his words are sung day by day by Christian congregations of every tradition and on every continent.
We have been friends for 60 years, since the day he rang me to ask whether I would like to succeed him as editor of the Christian monthly Crusade. You wouldn’t use that title today, but, in 1959, it was a bright new project in Christian publishing. Why, it even had cartoons! It took me all of 20 seconds to say “Yes,” and the next day I handed in my resignation as a teacher. Working life had changed for ever.
Timothy joined the Church Pastoral Aid Society, where he established a flourishing line in popular books and pamphlets. Over the years, the hymn-writing became the sort of hobby that would not stop growing. In the 1980s and ’90s, when he was an area bishop in the Norwich diocese, his output of hymns continued unabated. There cannot be many people in any English-speaking congregation who have not sung “Tell out, my soul”, or “Lord, for the years”.
His phone call sent my life in a new direction. Eleven years later, I had another unexpected phone call, this time from the BBC, inviting me to take up a “short-term, full-time” contract as a producer in religious broadcasting. The “short” became “long” — in fact, right through to the BBC’s retirement age (a mere 60).
Timothy and I have kept in touch over the years. Both of us have been widowed for some years through the deaths of our beloved wives; and both of us have found a home for our old age by our daughters.
EVERY time we sing that awful ditty “Happy birthday” in church, I am reminded that one is looming dangerously near for me.
When I was about nine, I was taken to see a relative who had reached the then very rare age of 90. My brother and I were ushered into the room to see an extremely old woman hunched in a chair, her hands shaking and her eyes watering. She had no idea who we were. As we left the room, I determined never to be 90. But, mortality permitting, it is only a few weeks away.
Among my friends are many — including Timothy — who are already in their nineties. I constantly read of people my age climbing mountains and running marathons. Whatever happened to three score years and ten?
I enjoy my bonus years in the departure lounge, but am painfully aware that most of us have lost loved ones who never had that privilege. In any case, length of days is less important, surely, than quality of life.
WORDS have been the tools of my trade for my whole working life: teacher, journalist, broadcaster, and parish priest. Words were the material of each working day. I’ve tried to keep up with current idioms. I find some of our contemporary usage, however, slightly baffling.
The words “challenge” and “challenging” are not, of course, new, but their use has changed. There are no longer problems or difficulties, but “challenges”. The idea has spread from the world of social work and education into ordinary speech. “Do you find old age challenging?” someone asked me. I paused, and then said “No,” because I’m not fighting anything.
Problems have to be solved and difficulties have to be overcome, but “challenges” are all about me — the individual. The pupil who burned down the school bike sheds is a challenge, but to whom? Teachers, support staff, parents? But, by implication, not himself.
Or take the phrase “going forward”, which has pretty well replaced “in the future”. This started in the world of business, but is now in common use. “In the future” implies doubt — we can’t control it, so feel exposed. “Going forward” is bold and positive: we are in charge, however desperate things may look.
Words are too precious to be used like this — or am I just a fussy old English teacher? Probably, yes.
THE casual ways with which we begin and end our conversations might be seen merely as decorative frills, but I suspect that they tell us a great deal about the way in which our language and society have changed over the years. Fifty years ago, we asked “How are you?” to which the standard reply was “Very well, thanks.” As we left, we said “Goodbye”, which means “God be with you.”
Today when we meet, most people say “Hi”, and, when we part, the ubiquitous “Take care” is used. The response to “How are you?” is now generally “Good,” which doesn’t answer the question (which is about health, not morality).
But more revealing are the words on parting. Whether we realise it or not, there is all the difference in the world between “Goodbye” and “Take care.” It is the difference between “May you be kept and helped,” and “Look after yourself.” In short, it’s all up to you.
Canon David Winter is a retired English teacher, journalist, broadcaster, and parish priest in the Oxford diocese.