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Diary: David Winter

08 March 2019


Late substitution

“WHAT is the procedure for changing a godparent?” That was the question a vicar was asked. It is, in fact, unanswerable, because there is no such “procedure”. Godparents make their vows at a child’s baptism, and you cannot re-run that.

The situation was explained, but the questioner was not satisfied. She wanted to replace one of her godparents — chosen long ago by her parents — with a more suitable one. In the end, she accepted that the only possible solution was to invite a suitable candidate who could fulfil the position in the way she sought to be an honorary godparent.

As one who was once described by a clergy friend as “the worst god-parent he had ever come across”, I am reluctant to offer any advice on the subject, but I remember well a young woman in my congregation telling me of her experience in her first year at university.

She was the first from her family ever to read for a degree, and she got into a top university. But, from the start, she found it all overwhelming and isolating. Her reaction was to be awkward, breaking the silly rules and conventions. Eventually, she went too far, and was told that she must leave.

She felt that she couldn’t tell her parents — they had sacrificed much to get her there. So she phoned her godmother, a contemporary of her parents, who said that she would come to the college the next morning, where they had a long and rewarding conversation. Her godmother then arranged a meeting with the Principal of the college, and they spent an hour with him, discussing every aspect of the student’s situation. Eventually, he agreed to rescind the expulsion, to the young woman’s tearful relief.

She and her godmother then enjoyed a meal together, during which she learned that she had been prayed for every day since her baptism. I know the wand of the fairy godmother in pantomimes sometimes works miracles, but so, it seems, do the faithful prayers of a good godmother.


Surprised by joy

A FORMER senior colleague and friend at the BBC who had a great influence on my career and my thinking died recently. There will be a memorial service for Monica Sims at St James’s, Paddington, later this month. She was Controller of Radio 4 in the 1980s, and, during that time, I was Head of Religious Programmes on BBC Radio. We got on well, mainly because I was eager to learn the secrets of successful communication, and she was a good teacher. She was a woman of gentle faith, but strong convictions: a good mix for me.

She believed that the secret of Radio 4 was the appeal of serendipity. In its rich mix of story, drama, documentary, religion, music, and opinion, she saw a working model of Serendip: a fabled land in Asian mythology, in which unexpected and unexplained joy and happiness were constantly breaking out.

I recall an American TV station making a documentary about this strange — possibly unique — radio station that did not do “programming” but actually made programmes, and left its listeners to find for themselves the meaning and the joy.


Bread on the waters

WHEN I left the BBC for parish ministry, I found to my surprise that the same principle applied. Conversation at the door or over coffee afterwards showed that words that I had spoken in the service were seldom what people received. A phrase in a hymn or the liturgy, sunlight streaming through the east window as we sang “Christ be my light” — these were the “eureka” moments.

We can’t — and mustn’t — try to organise or plan them, but we can learn, as many Radio 4 listeners do, to welcome them. Most of the blessing in church lies not in the speaking, but the experience. And, while we cannot plan it, we can be sensitive to it. That moment of joyful revelation may be life-changing.

My own most notable moment of serendipity took place 70 years ago, during National Service in the RAF. Although I was not at the time very devout, I joined the chaplain’s choir because I liked singing. We were rehearsing the Agnus Dei, and the chaplain was helping us with the Latin text. In passing, he remarked that the verb “tollis” (“take away”) implied bearing a burden — in this case, our sin and failure.

His illumination of that one word struck a chord with me, and became important in my eventual journey to an adult faith. He was not trying to convert me, and I wasn’t looking for religious insight. It was a throwaway remark, but it landed in my subconscious and lodged there: my spiritual serendipity.


Fish on Fridays

“WHY do British people eat fish on Friday?” my taxi-driver friend Ahmed asked. He had been the owner of a fish and chip shop, and was baffled about why the normal footfall doubled or even trebled on Fridays. He was intrigued to learn of its religious origins.

In medieval times, or possibly earlier, it became the practice of Christians to abstain from meat on Fridays — the day of the crucifixion of Jesus. At some point, the custom became church law. Faced with a meatless Friday, many people took the permitted alternative of eating fish; so, fish on Fridays became the norm.

Oddly, the custom persisted, not just among the faithful, but in the general population — and it still does. Most schools, for instance, have fish on Fridays. And it is true that fish-and-chip shops do a roaring trade on Fridays.

Ahmed was impressed, but worried. “Surely,” he said, “fasting is meant to include self-denial? What self-denial is there in choosing a lovely piece of fried cod with chips and mushy peas?” I agreed, but pointed out that, 500 years ago, fish was not a culinary delicacy, but poor people’s food, obtained free of charge from lake, river, or pond. The millions of people tucking into their fish and chips in school dining rooms and works canteens should be grateful to their observant ancestors for their weekly treat.

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

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