Sunday, 21 August 2016

Some thoughts on eternity, in answer to a kindly Sister

Your thoughts raise echoes in the sounding chamber of my own empty head! I use the phrase - nicked from a memorial tablet in Ely Cathedral (just on the right, as you go into the Lady Chapel) - "exchanged time for eternity". And in some of our conversation, especially to do with Jung, and collective consciousness, and praying for the dead, I think Helen Columba and I explored that a little together.

Every moment is eternal. All that will be always has been. We glimpse - as you say - the eternal fleetingly now, because more than that would overwhelm us. It's like a kind of map - the geography lies under, but from the surface, we can't always see it. And the space is as eternal as the moment. We locate ourselves in the eternal geography of time.

I've never found the words to say these things well, and they have eluded me yet again, but maybe there's some glimmer in there.

I do wish people didn't have to die, but sometimes you look at them and you know it is right. Another thing Helen Columba said to me - often, when I was whinging about some wasted disastrous part of my life! - "nothing is lost". And this is why.

Maybe God is like a kind of roadsweeper, tidying up the dust and ashes of our broken lives, but instead of consigning them to landfill, taking them home and weaving them back into the glorious tapestry of life for which we were always meant?

Or, I might be bonkers!


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2016

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Transfiguration - a snapshot of light from 6 years ago

Some thoughts on the Feast of the Transfiguration
9th August 2010

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-8

“This is my beloved son, in whom I take delight”

In the Orthodox churches, the Transfiguration is one of the great feasts of the year. Bafflingly, our Anglican reformers left this utterly Biblical occasion out of the Book of Common Prayer, until it was put right in the rejected Prayerbook of 1928.

On Friday morning I went down to Fairacres to celebrate the feast with the Sisters of the Love of God. I was sitting in the visitors’ chapel, and a priest I have known for many years was the celebrant. It was bright, and sunny, and all was well with the world … until my mobile ‘phone rang. After years of telling people at weddings and funerals to turn their ‘phones off - lest it seems in the first case as if someone has thought of a “just cause or impediment”, and in the second as if the dear departed has thought of a loophole and wants to appeal – I was finally hoist by my own petard. But worse, much worse, was the ringtone that His Lordship has put on the telephone, and which I can’t shift. It says “pick up, bitch, pick up, bitch”. Fairacres chapel has the most amazing acoustic, and I was most amazingly embarrassed. I ran for the door at a most unusual speed, and wouldn’t have returned if I hadn’t left my hat behind. A very naughty friend said that the suave thing to do would have been to hand the ‘phone to the nearest Sister and say “I think it’s for you”.

But I’m very glad I did return. Something happened at The Peace, which transfigured my experience, and, I’m sure, that of many others there. They say of the saints, and of the dying, and even the dead, that sometimes they are transfigured. The great Russian mystic, Saint Seraphim, is perhaps the most famous. They say he often glowed with the mystic light of God, in the same way that Jesus did in our story in the Gospels. More prosaically, when my godfather died, and it was a hard dying, nobly borne, his wife said “he looked so peaceful, you couldn’t wish him back”. She was lost without him, and that was a sacrificial thing to say. Without knowing it, she’d hit on what transfiguration is all about – peace.

Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. Fear corrupts us, but love casts it out. And when love is allowed in, peace prevails. Love, of course, is hard work. When we look to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, peace has been made by hard work, by self-sacrifice, by forcing ourselves to see the face of God in our former enemy, by committing ourselves to the welfare of our brothers and sisters now, rather than harking on about the injustices of the past.

We find it in our own lives, too. In domesticity, with partners, or children, we can choose to fight a battle, or choose to let things go. We can let peace in. My mother always says that with children it is far better to distract than to confront. They’re behaving badly – of course they are, that’s what children are for – but face them head-on and they will transfer their anger to you, and peace becomes impossible. Of course, some instances need to be addressed directly, but most don’t, and the awful task of the parent is to tell the difference. The wonder is not that so many get it wrong, but that so many get it right. And the parent is the midwife of the child’s transfiguration to adulthood.

And every so often we do get it right. We sit on the sofa with a lovingly-made meal (or even at the table if we have space for such luxuries), and “dinner’s at seven, and God’s in his heaven, and everything’s right with the world”, as Joyce Grenfell joyfully sung.

And that is peace. And it transfigures us.

There is a better prayer than this, but what I can remember is “God, give us your peace, in the world, in our nation, in our homes and families, and in our hearts, now, and always. Amen.”

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

A Homily for the Curé d'Ars, patron saint of parish priests

A Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, Oxford
4th August 2010, 9 a.m.

Feast Day of Saint John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars

Imagine my delight after pondering how to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late-lamented Queen Mother, as well as the 96th anniversary of the even-more-lamented outbreak of the Great War, to discover, on consulting my e-mails at 5.30 this morning that you were keeping the feast of the Cure d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests.

I’d heard of him, read quotations either by or about him, but never really paid any attention. I was a know-nothing. So, of course, to the Incomparable Betsy, the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christ Church, quite the best reference work in the world. And so, I had a thought.

Maybe you too have had the experience, at a time of spiritual fervour, of wishing you could become a saint? To convert multitudes by the brilliance of your preaching, the humility of your life, the wisdom of your spiritual advice, the gentleness with which you deal with the poor, the sick, and the dying? Fortunately, it wears off, and you spend the rest of your life wondering where it has gone. Reading Saint John Vianney’s story makes me realise why. He was said to have seen up to 20,000 people a year. That’s 55 a day. I get exhausted when someone comes to the front door with a questionnaire. He spent 16-18 hours a day listening to people in the confessional – and he must have been good, because the multitudes kept coming. I spent five hours taking dictation from horse dressage show judges on Sunday, and by the end was fit for the knacker’s yard myself. Maybe I don’t really want to be a saint after all – it’s too much like hard work.

Saint John was of course a Roman Catholic. You know he can’t have been an Anglican because if he was, he’d probably have been married, and an irate wife would have dragged him out of the confessional to go shopping. And I wonder if communities, friends, partners, families, children, are all given to us by God to save us from becoming saints? Of course, in all those relationships we can, and do, exercise our sainthood in different, more low-key ways.

And do parish clergy need a patron saint? Do they know “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity”? All of us here know that they do. I think it might be the loneliest job in the world. You can’t talk to the laity for fear of gossip, you can’t talk to the archdeacon and the bishop for fear of kyboshing your next job. You have to love everyone, but also challenge and innovate, and everyone hates change apart from THEIR change. You must be “all things to all people”, and be seen as a hypocrite. So, the parish clergy need the prayers of Saint John Vianney, and if he could deal with 20,000 a year in this world, imagine what he is achieving in the next! But they also need our prayers, our ears, our help, our love.

Let us close with a prayer:

Gracious God, guard and guide the guardians of your flock; give them humble and noble hearts, fortitude, compassion, inspiration, and love; and inspire all of us to be good friends to them in times of joy and times of trouble, so that in the fullness of time, we may all be celebrated as saints in your eternal kingdom. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2010

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Lisa's Quiz - blank

1. Do you like blue cheese?
2. Have you ever smoked?
3. Do you own a gun?
4. What is your favorite flavour?
5. Do you get nervous before Doctor visits?
6. What do you think of hot dogs?
7. Favorite Movie(s)?
8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning?
9. Do you do push ups? .
10. What’s your favorite piece of jewelry?
11. Favorite hobby?
12. Do you have A.D.D.?
13. What’s the one thing you dislike about yourself?
14. What is your middle name?
15. Name three thoughts at this moment.
16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink?
17. Current worry?
18. Current annoyance ?
19. Favorite place to be?
20. How do you spend New years eve?
21. Where would you like to go?
22. Name three people who would complete this?
23. Do you own slippers?
24. What color shirt are you wearing right now?
25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets?
26. Can you whistle?
27. What are your favorite colors?
28. Would you be a pirate?
29. What songs do you sing in the shower?
30. Favorite girls name?
31. Favorite boys name?
32. What’s in your pocket right now?
33. Last thing that made you laugh?
34. Best toy as a child?
35. Worst injury you ever had?
36. Where would you love to live?
37. How many TV’s do you have?
38. Who is your loudest friend?
39. How many dogs do you have?
40. Does someone trust you?
41. What book are you reading at the moment?
42. What’s your favourite candy?
43. What’s your favourite sports team?
44. Favorite month?

Lisa's Quiz - answers

1. Do you like blue cheese?
Yes
2. Have you ever smoked?
Tried, made me wheeze
3. Do you own a gun?
No
4. What is your favorite flavour?
Asparagus
5. Do you get nervous before Doctor visits?
Only if I haven't worked out what's wrong
6. What do you think of hot dogs?
OK if I make them
7. Favorite Movie(s)?
The Godfather, Parting Glances, Remains of the Day
8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning?
Tea, but I usually have coffee
9. Do you do push ups?
Whatever for?
10. What’s your favorite piece of jewelry?
My wedding ring
11. Favorite hobby?
Digging up the dead (genealogy)
12. Do you have A.D.D.?
Did you hear that noise outside?
13. What’s the one thing you dislike about yourself?
I fret most about the least important things
14. What is your middle name?
I was deliberately not given one by a father who hated his
15. Name three thoughts at this moment.
How am I going to sort out this invoice for the naughty people who used the room at work far later than they said? Where am I going to put my enormous cock? Will the ratatouille keep?
16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink?
Wine, coffee, water
17. Current worry?
Getting my husband home, for good
18. Current annoyance ?
Idiots (Home Office, Council Tax Office, you name it)
19. Favorite place to be?
Home
20. How do you spend New years eve?
On my own
21. Where would you like to go?
Back to Jerusalem
22. Name three people who would complete this?
Liz, Robert, Sharon
23. Do you own slippers?
Good reminder!
24. What color shirt are you wearing right now?
Purple
25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets?
Never tried it
26. Can you whistle?
Not for money
27. What are your favorite colors?
Blue
28. Would you be a pirate?
For the travel by water
29. What songs do you sing in the shower?
I don't, I shout at the radio
30. Favorite girls name?
Marie, Elizabeth, Rosa
31. Favorite boys name?
Matthew, Paul, Joscelino
32. What’s in your pocket right now?
Wallet, purse, camera, mobile, handkerchief, work keys
33. Last thing that made you laugh?
My boss being wound up about my using incense at mid-day prayers while she was away (which I didn't!)
34. Best toy as a child?
Lego
35. Worst injury you ever had?
Countless ankle sprains
36. Where would you love to live?
In a house of my own
37. How many TV’s do you have?
Two
38. Who is your loudest friend?
Cat Minor
39. How many dogs do you have?
None - yet
40. Does someone trust you?
Everyone trusts me. HAHAHA
41. What book are you reading at the moment?
"Is there a science of God?" by Austin Farrer
42. What’s your favourite candy?
I liked the mint chocolates I was given for my birthday (by Mr Wind-Up, No. 33)
43. What’s your favourite sports team?
Sport is an instrument of Satan
44. Favorite month?
April, when I met the love of my life.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Surprised by Nuns - Some Epiphanies

There had been a death in the family. "Perhaps I ought to leave?" The funeral was scheduled for right in the middle of my stay. "Oh no, this is what it's all about for us, death isn't the end, it's the beginning we've been looking for". So I stayed, and attended the funeral, although I wasn't bold enough to join the procession round the garden at the end, before the coffin is loaded into the hearse for burial at Rose Hill cemetery - a place which later became part of my daily walks, and I often read the names on the memorial stones in the two community plots there.

That was back in March 1989, my introduction to the Religious life, whilst on retreat with the Sisters of the Love of God, at Fairacres, Oxford. The sister departed was Sister Jocelyn Mary, who was mentioned on Friday morning at the requiem mass for Sister Isabel, of Jesus Glorified, who was under Jocelyn Mary's tutelege as novice mistress, back in 1960 when she made her vows to the community and to God.

When they die, after a decent interval, the Sisters' names are carved in stone on the wall in the cloister, just outside the vestry where visiting clergy robe before going in to chapel to celebrate holy communion with them. I've often had a few minutes to pause and be reminded of familiar names - particularly from articles in the Fairacres Chronicle and the many Fairacres Press publications - and sometimes familiar faces, on the rare occasions in this largely silent community that there have been introductions. Counting from Sister Jocelyn Mary, Sister Isabel will be the thirty-third name I have known over these last twenty-seven years. Rather fewer new names have arrived in that time.

I've only attended those two funerals. The first, because I was invited and encouraged to do so, because it would give a flavour of the community's life and faith and hope in the resurrection. The second, because I owed Sister Isabel a debt of gratitude. She had a bright, sharp, clever face, with a strong sense of underlying impish wit, and you felt, seeing her across the chapel, or the refectory at lunch, that she would be rather fun to know, and that she would know interesting things. The address at her funeral, from Sister Rosemary, who was Reverend Mother at the time I was admitted to the Fellowship of the Love of God some years ago, made it abundantly clear that this impression was true - not only the humour, which was at times a tonic for the community, but she also won acclaim for translating poetry from Romanian. In total, I had had two conversations with her.

The first was one summer evening, shortly after we were married in 2007, when a kind friend had invited us to house-sit for him, and I was out walking his dog, and met Sister Isabel, walking her stick (she later graduated to rather high-powered and nippy electric chairs, which she manoeuvred with aplomb), in the unmistakeable Fairacres garb, of brown habit and black veil. We got chatting, and she remembered my name, and knew my story, and said "then you must come and celebrate for us", and one way or another before long I was standing at the altar in their chapel, and have been doing so about once a month ever since. It was a lifeline for a priest without a parish, nor the possibility of having one, trying to work out what vocation might now be for. And, in the miasma of depression and bereavement that follows the loss of a ministry and subsequent unemployment, it was envigorating to be able to do again what I'd been doing for years, and doing well, and which had become part of me - celebrating the sacrament.

The second was briefer, little more than an encounter. Another sister, Mary Magdalene, whose name is now inscribed on that, wall shared her birthday with me. It was 2010. I was 44, and she was 98. It's possible that she was already the longest-lived sister ever - she went on to be 101 - and there was coffee and cake after the service, and I was invited. I had a soft spot for Sister Mary Magdalene because the way she smiled and listened, and laughed, during my little homilies made me think (vain fellow that I am) that she was "fan club material". So, I went over to thank her for being one of the few people who could make me feel young, and for being so encouraging during my sermons, and Sister Isabel giggled and said "she's deaf as a post, can't hear a word you're saying - never could!" So what I had taken for "fan club" was really kindness. And that can only be the better gift.

That's why I went to the service last Friday, togged rather implausibly in a black cassock (covering the more casual gear I'd be wearing for my Friday afternoon job, pushing a man in a wheelchair) and a big wooden holding cross that I was given by Sister Christine when she was prioress, and organising the diaries, and I was in search of a cross, and she had a box of also-rans that they'd considered as new kit for the community. I sat next to Father Hugh, who was once dean of Jerusalem, later vicar of S. Mary Magdalen's in the city centre here, and has retired to a house right next to the convent, most of which, including converting a cellar into a library, he has refurbished with his own hands. For light relief, he writes learned works about the Orthodox liturgy. And next to him was Father David, formerly a warden of the community, and before that headmaster of Soho School, which used to be within the purlieu of one of the charities of which I was a trustee whilst at the neighbouring parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields; I knew two of his successors in that post, and he was a great help to me in a troubled time, recommending spiritual exercises of breathing which have developed into my daily therapeutic walking, which keep the Black Dog at bay.

The intercessions were led by Sister Margaret Theresa, who was prioress when at Sister Isabel's encouragement I returned to Fairacres, and who put in a good word for me with the local undertakers in the hope that I would be able at least to make a little money in straitened times by taking funerals (which I did, and I recognised Julian, one of the undertakers' men, as they were preparing the hearse after the service).

And this time, I did go out with the procession, urged to join by Sister Avis Mary, the present prioress, and say a last blessing, and a brief hello to Sister Tessa, who these days lives mainly in the infirmary, but who led a retreat for the Fellowship some years ago, at Chester and told me about William Vanstone whose books I had much admired, and she had known, and she said he was a most cheerful man, when from his books you might think him a little melancholy. And then I had to slip away to my other life.

From the occasion, I took away a profound sense of belonging, and connectedness, to the place, and to the community, living and departed; there had been a death in the family, and this time, I was a member of that family. And also words from Sister Rosemary's address, that were either Sister Isabel's, or attributed by her to the great Father Gilbert, warden of the community at about the time she arrived, and remembered with great fondness by an older generation of sisters: "the cross is the epiphany of Christ". I can't claim fully to understand it, but epiphanies are about revelation of the truth. It has reminded me of something Sister Helen Columba (the sister to whom I was first assigned after writing them a barmy letter, at the urging of a stranger I had met on a train coming back from Edinburgh in 1988, and who also these days lives mainly in the infirmary and seldom leaves it) said about the cross as "a place of tension, where heaven and earth, God and us, eternity and time, are held".

One other thought I am left with is that whilst the best people perform acts of kindness unthinkingly, and for their own sake, they still merit our thanks, and perhaps before there is a next time it would be better to express them whilst they are still alive.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Jubilee Month, July 2016

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Evangelical Christians - I Was Wrong

Evangelical Christians – I Was Wrong

There have been a lot of journey stories in the public discussion and debate about the churches and gay relationships in the last couple of years. This is mine.

Like most English people I was Christened. I wasn’t quite a baby – nearly 14 months, and already walking and talking enough to argue – but it was a family rite of passage. My grandmothers were one Italian, and one Irish, Catholic. But I never saw or heard of them going to church. My parents taught me what are fairly basic “Christian” morals – don’t cheat, steal, kill, murder, be horrid to people, or put your elbows on the table. They also had a deep sense of justice – that everyone should be treated fairly. This didn’t run to gay people. My father thought that religion was for weak people who wouldn’t know otherwise how to behave themselves. They had the usual lower class prejudices against gay people. If we couldn’t conform, or hold it in, then we ought really to be killed. This was the 1970s, a decade after the passing of the “Sexual Offences Act” which decriminalised gay men.

So I grew up fairly sure that I wasn’t a Christian, and hoping very much, despite the increasingly obvious evidence, that I wasn’t gay. And then I went to University. Before I went, having studied lots of Reformation history in the sixth form, we’d been challenged to read the New Testament as background reading to a deeper understanding of the arguments of those times. That was a life-changer. I read it – in the Authorized Version, which I’d never recommend to anyone now – and was fascinated by it. I didn’t understand it all by any means, but I knew it was important, and above all, I was drawn, attracted, by the figure of Jesus. Though it wasn’t anything to do with the subjects I had been accepted to study, I spend a lot of my gap year learning theology, and deciding that although there weren’t a lot of answers, the questions were much the most important one could ask. I went to evensong in the village church one night to try it out. This was not a success.

When you arrived at Oxford in those days – maybe still – you are bombarded with invitations from religious outfits. There was the college chapel (in my case that happened also to be the cathedral of the diocese), the neighbouring evangelical churches, St Aldates and St Ebbes, the Christian Union, the Catholic Chaplaincy, the University Church, Pusey House, and for all I can remember, thirty years later, the URC, Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists (for whom I now work). I accepted them all. Best of all, I made friends with two people who were regular and natural church-goers, one a Catholic, the other a low-church Anglican. I was presented with a picture of religious observance being normal, natural, and right. And there was nothing weak about it. I threw in my lot with the college chapel (it was nearest) and with the Christian Union. The CU reps – Karen and Robert (both tremendously attractive people) suggested that believing the Gospel was not enough, I had to do something about it. By March the 1st I was confirmed in the cathedral. I’m not sure that’s quite what Karen and Robert were after, but they were supportive all the same.

It had been an easy journey so far. But other things were stirring. I was drawn to this God who was love, and where there was God, there was love. Because I really wanted a bit of love. Incarnate love. And that would be with another man, and I reckoned that would be OK with God, despite everything I’d learnt as a child. At the same time, in fact from the day of my confirmation, I started wondering whether I ought to become a priest. I explored changing course to theology at the time – from PPE, a direction unheard of since the War, one of my tutors told me – and I mentioned it to my CU friends. Karen said “aren’t you worried that if you study theology you might lose your faith?” “If I do, it’s because I don’t think it’s rational to believe in it any more, so that’s OK”. That was the wrong answer.

That’s when I started to understand the evangelical-catholic split in the Church of England which I had just very publicly joined. This was 30 years ago, and at that time members of Christian Unions who had any position of responsibility, especially for teaching, had to sign up to a code which was essentially Fundamentalist. Not only did they have to believe six impossible things about Scripture before breakfast, but things like the “penal substitution theory of the atonement” which isn’t even in Scripture at all. They didn’t like women, either. The head CU rep was always a boy. So, even before I fell in love with another man, I was drifting away from a world which I knew would be unfriendly to me at best, rejecting at worst. Eventually I was removed from Bible Studies classes (because I’d taken Scripture more literally than the convenor – it was about money, and she was very rich) and after remedial classes with one of their heavyweights (a man who was of enormous and respected scholarship in the day-to-day life of the college) I was set adrift.

So that’s how I left it, with evangelicalism. Nice people, crap theology, can’t take an argument, and not really very keen on love.

The annoying thing about being young is that you are young. And you don’t know it. And for most of thirty years, despite having from time to time met and talked to and even been given advice by much more enlightened evangelical Christians, my own mind was set there. My reality was something they could never see. And it was vital to my existence that I gave them no credence, lest they chew away at the little of the image and likeness of the God who is love that I had learnt to discover in myself.

I was eventually ordained, despite being totally open about my sexuality, and later, moved from one job to another with the full knowledge of the authorities. That should have given me much more confidence than it did – but the authorities never acknowledged that they were ordaining and appointing gay men (and later women). When I came across evangelical Christians at deanery and ecumenical gatherings we’d talk about this and that, but I never trusted you with the truth about myself which I’d given to the bishops.

That’s my sin of omission. I never gave you the chance to relate to me, a relatively popular and successful (do those words mean anything in the Kingdom?) curate, and a gay man with a worked-out theology of why who I am is OK with God. You might have disagreed, but I didn’t even give you the chance to think it through. I didn’t trust you. I should have taken the risk.

Worse, as now we are finding out each day (but many of us could see all along), evangelical congregations teem with gay men and women who long for acceptance, and love, ideally from someone they love too, but ultimately, from God, their maker and redeemer. Those people, my brothers and sisters in the faith, as well as in the LGBT world, were on the receiving end of a far harsher ministry than the ministry of hypocrisy and “let’s pretend we didn’t hear that” that we High Church Anglicans received. Nor could they even get to know those of us who’d got to the place of acceptance, the God-given place, the place of OK with God.

Once I asked a wise man why it is that evangelicals argue – as indeed did Parliamentarians in the same-sex marriage debate – that if gay people are allowed covenanted love - it will undermine marriage? He replied “because in their world, when someone comes out as gay, they are usually married, have children, the marriage breaks. It isn’t the being gay that broke the marriage, it’s the making of a marriage out of the wrong materials. But it’s hard to tell them that”.

My evangelical sister and brother Christians are making great strides towards equality, justice, and openness to the Spirit. After three decades of hostility, anxiety, even fear, I look forward to the day when I can go to Holy Communion with you openly and in peace, as sons and daughters of the same good God, made in his image and likeness, who delights in his creation. And maybe you will find it in your hearts to forgive me the craven days when I didn’t tell my truth, which would have been speaking out for yours.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2016