Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Homily for S. Swithun's Day

A Sermon for Holy Communion
on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
being also the
Feast of Saint Swithun (translated)
& Patronal Festival for the Parish of Compton Beauchamp

14th of July, 2013, 10.30 a.m.

Readings: James 5:7-18 & Matthew 5:43-48

Soggy Saints & Sinners, Whatever the Whether

“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”

No prizes for guessing why the invitation to preach at your Patronal Festival on this eve of Saint Swithun’s Day made my ancient and clogged brain dredge up this half-remembered nugget from childhood. I looked it up, and saw that it is attributed to a Charles Synge Christopher, Lord Bowen, a lawyer and a judge in the reign of Queen Victoria, who was caricatured by the famous cartoonist “Spy” as “Judicial Politeness”.

Saint Swithun is a shady Saxon saint from the shady Saxon dark ages, a contemporary of the great King Alfred, and to be quite frank we know little about him. We know very little about anyone from that long ago, and what we do know is quite possibly not true, and almost certainly not what they would have liked us to remember. Stories are tricky that way. Think of the family stories you grew up with, from a passing generation, your grandparents’ perhaps, or even great-grandparents. Your family was probably much nicer than mine, but our family stories tend more often to be about bad behaviour than good. I remember my grandfather talking about his father returning from a couple of weeks away working – he was a fisherman in Kent (from time to time) and spinning a couple of gold sovereigns across the table, his wages. Unfortunately, the other part of that story was that this was one of the few occasions he actually brought his wages home, preferring usually to call in to another port and drink the money, leaving my great-grandmother to knock at the door of the workhouse, with her nine children, which was where my grandfather was born. Even about the great King Alfred, we chiefly remember that he got told off for letting the cakes burn.

Being a saint, of course, Saint Swithun’s stories are nicer, and doubtless you have heard them all, although the little I have been able to research conflict about both fact and interpretation. They can’t even agree about the rain. Did he want to be buried outdoors because he liked the rain, and wanted it to fall on him, just as it fell on everyone else? Or did he send forty days of rain in displeasure at his body being dug up and moved indoors? And of course, the revisionists and demythologisers have been at it, and there’s even a scientific explanation for the legend that the weather on Saint Swithun’s feast will hold good for forty days. Apparently it all depends on whether (ha!) England sides with Europe or America. ‘Twas ever thus.

But for a feast day, legends and dubious old stories are not enough, we must have Good News too, because all are agreed that Saint Swithun was a man of God, a builder of churches, a defender of the poor, and such faith finds its bedrock in the Gospel of Jesus. Today’s readings are chosen because they are about rain, in honour of the best Saint Swithun legend, but both are also about living together in community, which is something any parish and its congregation needs to know something about. Saint James tells us to be patient with one another, not to blame, and to pray for those in need – he tells us that the prayer of a good person is “powerful”. And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us that we’ve achieved nothing very much if we are nice to our friends – any foolish Pharisee can do that – but if we can be kind to our enemies, then we have come close to the kingdom of heaven.

Ideally, of course, we shouldn’t have enemies at all, and underlying both passages is the hope that by patience, and prayer, and forgiveness, this will actually happen, that enmities will dissolve by the discipline of love, that our compassion will overcome our self-centredness, which is the heart of sin. Treating everyone fairly, and as equals, is at the heart of that compassion. Whether about material resources, or about opportunities in life, we are to expect much, as God does, of those to whom much is given, and to seek ways, in God’s Name, to make amends to those to whom too little has been given. Regardless of whether they are the just or the unjust, and whether we like them or not.

A tall order, perhaps, but I found a nice little quotation attributed to Charles Synge Christopher, Lord Bowen. He was to make a speech on behalf of the judiciary to Queen Victoria (the one who wasn’t amused – that’s all we remember about her, and it’s not even true). He had planned to say: "conscious as we are of our shortcomings," but was told this was too humble, so he changed it to “conscious as we are of one another's shortcomings”. Maybe that would be a good place to start – where we are conscious of one another’s shortcomings, let us forgive them, and let us strive in time to notice only our own.

For now, let us give thanks for the day, for shady Saxons, kings who can’t cook, and queens who aren’t amused, for the rain that raineth on the just and the unjust, and for Saint Swithun, who looks as if he just might be minded to give us a little sunshine this year. Amen.

Richard Haggis
July 2013

Sunday, 8 April 2018


A little game:

1. Your favourite home

Anywhere with HL

2. Your favourite home to visit

It's between Mother, and Mother-in-Law, and they are not to fight.

3. The biggest room you were ever in

St Peter's Baslica in Rome

4. The smallest room you were ever in

I want to say the lift going up to the top of the Empire State Building, but really, my great-grannie's outside loo

5. The best view you ever saw (from indoors)

The Vatican from the flat we were looking after in 2002

6. The most peaceful space you were ever in

St Andrew's Church of Scotland chapel in Tiberias, in Galilee

7. The most majestic space you ever knew

The chancel of Lincoln Cathedral, with its wonky vaulting

8. Your favourite space, in your own home, now

The corner of the sofa where I sit to watch films, and the cats sit on me

9. The most beautiful room you know

The Upper Library at Christ Church, Oxford

10. The space you most felt you belonged

At Southwold, Suffolk, looking out over the North Sea

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Eyes to See


“I’ve booked you in to the optician in St Peter’s centre”.
“What? I can see, there’s nothing wrong with my eyes”.
“You keep getting headaches, you bring the book too close for comfort, there’s obviously a problem, and your parents aren’t going to do anything about it”.
“So why do you have to?”
“Because I care”.

We were walking, which didn’t come naturally to Fred, and St Peter’s is quite a trek from Caxton.
“Why do we have to go there?”
“Because it’s where I go, and because we don’t know anyone there”.
“My Dad comes from there”.
“Yes, but he lives in London now, so that’s not a problem”.
“How do you know that?”
“I listen”.

When we were safely over the big roundabout, and out of Caxton, walking along the ring road to St Peter’s, Fred took my hand. He smiled at me. I scowled. He laughed.
“Am I going to be all right?”
“The worst is you might need glasses, that’s all. I hated it when it first happened to me, but I got used to them”.
“Cool glasses?”
“Yes, if you need them, as cool as you like”. He perked up, a spring in his step, still holding my hand.

“This place is SO scuzzy! If Caxton had a shopping centre, this would be it”. Fred was bizarrely a snob. He rarely went shopping – his mother might think otherwise lately, but that’s what he claimed to be doing when he was spending Saturdays with me – and when he did, it was to the city centre, and on the bus. We reached the opticians.

“You’re my nephew, OK? Your parents are out of the country, so your mother’s asked me to bring you”.
“Dutch uncle!”
“Whatever. Just remember. And when the optician asks you stuff, tell the truth, there are no right answers, so don’t guess, just say what you see, or how it feels, OK?”
“Yeah, I lie about you being my uncle, and I tell the truth about having headaches when I read – did I get that right?”
“Yes, and please don’t be difficult, I’m only trying to help!” He was picking up on my anxiety, and enjoying it, but maybe with a little anxiety of his own about the test. “Just sayin’”, he said, with a grin, as we went in.

“He needs corrective glasses. It’s not severe, but he’s done pretty well to get by this long without help. If you’re ready, it’s now a question of frames, and we can get the prescription made up for a week’s time”.
“So, I get to choose?”
“Yes, but take some advice from the staff”.
He did, and I gave my opinions too, but I couldn’t help feeling I was getting it wrong. I was choosing for how I wanted him to look, not how he wanted to be. In the end, I gave in,
“Look, I’m rubbish at this, why don’t you call Camilla and see if she’ll help us choose?”
“She’s busy shagging Piers today!”
“Not all day, surely? Just call her and see if she’ll come over. Piers can drive her here”.
“I’m not sure she’ll go for that”.
“Offer her the flat for the afternoon.”
“Seriously???” “Yes, why not? We’ll take ages walking back – I’ll take you for lunch, and they can have their fun in comfort”.

The bribe worked. Camilla was there within twenty minutes, having left her lunk of a boyfriend parking the car, and she set to work with enthusiasm, dismissing several frames I rather liked out of hand. I left them to it, and got chatting about prices, and what assistance there might be on the NHS – not so easy for a mere “uncle” to arrange. Then there were squeals and laughter, and grunts of approval. As I looked at them I saw Camilla checking the price tag. She showed Fred, who shook his head, and she put them back on the shelf. I walked over.
“Looked like you found a good one there?”
“Oh, they’re cute, but not quite right”.
“These?” I picked them off the shelf. I restrained the urge to wince. “If it’s only the price against them, we’re having them”.
“But Giles, they’re far too much”. Contrary to some people’s expectations, Fred took no pleasure in spending my money.
“It’s your birthday soon, consider it a present, and when we get your NHS number, there’ll be money off, so it’s much more affordable. Are you sure they’re the ones?” They both nodded. “Then let’s order them”.

Camilla went off to find Piers and spend an afternoon in my - our? - bed, and after signing my life away, Fred and I left the shop, and started wandering down some backstreets and alleyways to a pub on the way home I’d seen for years and never been in. There was a garden. We’d have lunch and a drink or two. Then keep walking, and with any luck the lovers would have finished by the time we got back.

“How do you feel about wearing specs?”
“Make me look like a geek”. “I’m sorry, I thought you liked them.” “No, that’s good! I’ll look clever! I always wanted to look clever. Thank you”, and he hugged and kissed me in the street. It was a quiet place but even so …. “and stop looking round!” he giggled into my mouth. We walked along. Holding hands.
Then we got to the Quarry Arms. I doubt very much the quarry in Necklington ever merited a coat of arms, nor anyone associated with it, but it was quite serviceable, and the day was warm and cheerful enough to eat and drink in the garden. We found a table, and I got Fred to sit with his back to most of the garden. That was subconscious, I think. Then I went in for drinks and a menu. He’d asked for a G & T, but obviously he knew nothing of pub measures, so I ordered him a treble. I had wine. When I came out, he was fiddling with the NHS form.

“I’m sorry, Giles, I don’t know these numbers”. “Maybe you can call in to your GP – you do have one? – and find out?” “Yes, I think I do. Haven’t been for years. What happens if they send something to home?” “Shit, I hadn’t thought of that. Look, OK, give it a miss. The glasses are worth having.” “Are you sure?” “For you to look like a geek? Worth every penny!” “Fuck off”. “Do I look like a geek?” “Erm …” “Am I too old?” “Yeah, kinda”. “Hey ho. What are you eating?” “A burger”. “It won’t be as good as mine”. “You haven’t made me yours … yet”.

As he was eating, and I was drinking (and stealing the occasional chip from his plate), I noticed that we were being noticed by a man at another table in the opposite corner of the garden. Thirties, probably, bearded, good head of dark brown hair, well-made, probably tall – but he was sitting down, so impossible to say for sure. It seemed to be Fred he was looking at. Well, who wouldn’t? And then he started to come over.

“Don’t look now Fred, but I think there’s someone here who knows you”. Too late, he looked, and at a few places it was “Hi, Fred, didn’t expect to see you here”. “Never been before, Sir – we’ve just been getting my eyes tested and I’m having glasses”. “”Wow, great”. “Yeah, they’re so cute that the girls – and the boys – won’t be looking at you any more!”. He wasn’t sure what to say to that (nor was I), so he held out a hand to me – I’d stood up at the attached bench of the table – and said “I’m Ian – not Sir – Fred’s biology teacher”. Then Fred said awkwardly, “sorry, I should have said, this is Giles, he’s my uncle”. We shook hands.

“Hi Giles! I didn’t know Fred needed specs, it’s good you noticed.” “Reading was making him tired, but he’s not one of nature’s scholars.” “Oh, he’s pretty good in class, and grows me stuff in season for the science lab, he knows his onions, as it were – or tomatoes!” “I’ll leave you to it, good to see you, Fred, and … Uncle Giles – see you on … Monday, I think, Fred!”.

“He knows, doesn’t he?” “Yes”. “We better go”. “No, no rush, finish your food, it’s all OK. He’s a nice guy, he won’t hurt us”. “You’re weird, you worry and you don’t worry”. “I’ve never done this before, sorry, I don’t mean to be confusing”. “I’m done now, I want to go home”.

And so we left. Sir Ian watched us leave.

We walked for ten minutes, his hands twitching. He stopped and took me in his arms. “Are we OK? Is this OK? I don’t know where I am”. “We’ll be fine, let’s just go home”.
The youth club had left before we got there. Fred let Camilla know in advance. I went to the kitchen for a proper G & T and Fred went into the bedroom “fucking hell, Giles, they’ve had an orgy!” “Oh no, please don’t tell me. Do I have to change the sheets?” “And the curtains!”; he cackled with laughter, “Joking!”. By the time I’d made the drinks he emerged, saying “done it”. “What?” “Changed the sheets. I think the curtains will live. O Giles, you are a picture!”. We snuggled on the sofa.

“Are we OK, really?” “If you are, then I am, so we are, and it’s all OK”. “Promise?” “I can’t promise anything”. He looked sadly into his drink. Then, “but one day?” “Oh yes, one day everything will be OK. We just have to get there.”

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Mothering Sunday Memory

Invited to preach for Mothering Sunday at S. Edward, King & Martyr, in Cambridge, maybe 1999. I quoted something of Francis Bacon, the artist of those tortured and upsetting canvases that tell the story of the 20the century - asked what he would have been, if he couldn't be an artist, he said "a mother".

Not sure if anyone listened. In the porch, one of the wardens, a man of rather military bearing, said "bravo, padré, made a change from the hairy-legged lesbians the vicar usually gets in".

Oh dear.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Living Water ~ if you ask

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 5th of March, 2018, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Exodus 17:1-7 ~ the Israelites whinge at Rephidim
John 4:5-42 ~ the Samaritan Woman at the Well

Living Water ~ if you ask

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Both our readings today are about water, and water’s been making itself all too apparent lately. It’s only when it does, when there’s too much of it, or too little, that we stop taking it for granted. My eyes were opened to this one time when I was a curate in Romford. It was a vision shared by the parish mystic – every church should have one. She was called Grace, and never was a soul more truly named. Her mystical experiences seem to have begun after she was widowed, quite late in life, and when I knew her she was in her late 80s. She went on to be 100. She shared her visions not to pull rank, or display spiritual depth or athleticism, but to cheer us up – principally the clergy, and usually in the church porch after Sunday service. One of her most memorable was a vision of a whicker basket, on her knees, full of water, and the fresh, pure, smell of it rising up. “So”, she’d say in the church porch, “that was the water of life, dear. Wasn’t that lovely?” And she’d amble off on her way home.

The story of the woman at the well is about the water of life and, being S. John’s Gospel, it’s also about everything else. The older I get, the more I hear and read the Scriptures, the more unfamiliar they become, and things that were always there emerge. It struck me anew how funny the narrative is, almost like a dialogue in panto. The Scriptures are more comical than I ever used to realise. Out of the banter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus emerges a hitherto unspoken need – a need for a prophet, a need for the Messiah. And Jesus replies “I AM” in that way he always has when S. John wants to tell us we’ve got to a good bit.

The need of the Israelites at Rephidim is more immediately practical – the Samaritan woman already had a well-full of water, all she needed was to collect it in her bucket, but the Israelites have no such thing. As so often in their long journey through the desert – and the Wilderness of Sin (and how marvellous is that, a joke that only works in English, lurking in the Hebrew all those centuries for us to find it!) – they whinge and become querulous, and frankly accuse Moses of a rip-off, bringing them out into the desert to die of thirst, and Moses despairs of them. Sometimes it seems Moses really doesn’t like them very much. He re-names the place Massah and Meribah, after the testing, quarrelsome, people who have demanded water from the rock.

And the thing is, they got it. Everyone in these stories gets what they want. The Samaritan woman doesn’t even realise what it is until she gets chatting to Jesus, then she rushes off and tells her friends, who come out to see and hear for themselves. But what of Jesus? His friends come back from town and tell him he must need something to eat – how Jewish is that? – but he’d asked for a drink, and as the story unfolds, he doesn’t get one. But – and for this sharp observation I am indebted to Dean Martyn Percy of Christ Church, in a sermon for Unity Week at Headington Quarry a couple of years ago – notice that when the woman rushes off to town to tell everyone she’s met the Messiah, she leaves her bucket behind. So Jesus can help himself to his drink after all.

The Good News of the Living Water is that God will give us what we want – all we have to do is ask. And keep an eye open for a bucket.


Richard Haggis
March 2018

Friday, 8 December 2017

Cam called me about the accident. If that's what it was. I came straightaway. My parents got quite dramatic about it, wanting to drive me there, but I said I'd walk. So I did. Twenty minutes.

Fred looked pretty bad. Sam said he was OK, I guess because her Dad was poorly, maybe she knew this stuff. My heart was breaking. I knew he loved someone else. Then she told me that Giles was in the hospital too. The damage that evil man had done in one night .... And I had to go to see Giles - well, you do, don't you? But I only wanted to see Fred.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Yesterday I sat on a sofa with a 90-year-old man who'd just lost his wife - we were about to attend her funeral. He held my hand, and talked about things from long ago, repeatedly, because his dementia doesn't let him live in the present. Maybe it spares him what it would feel like to know you are alone again after 53 years of marriage.