Friday, 30 December 2011

Loving This Passing World ...

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Friday, 30th of December, 2011, 9 a.m.

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

Readings: I John 2:12-17 & Luke 2:36-40

Loving This Passing World

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

To say that you have a favourite New Testament scholar is tantamount to admitting that you don’t get out much, but mine is the late Father Raymond E. Brown. Stumped by today’s readings, I turned to the little of my library that lives with me and was delighted to chance on his “Introduction to the New Testament” for some light on the epistle reading. I was not disappointed. His gift was to ask questions about the texts which seek to discern the story behind them in such a way that surely even the most bull-headed, or even bone-headed, fundamentalist could only find fascinating. We may end up feeling we can be certain of less, but wondering more, about the mystery of God revealed in Christ.

What catches my ear about today’s epistle reading is “You must not love this passing world or anything that is in the world”. Taken literally, or perhaps really I mean obviously, this is pretty stark. What, really? Nothing? Is there nothing good in creation? Why ever would God have been born incarnate and died to save a passing world? And here’s the glimmer of light to which Father Raymond directs us (I must call him that, as “Father Brown” sounds like an amateur detective) – the writer knows that we have heard the Good News. Like anyone with a short space of time for talking or writing, he must be concise, and being concise means leaving things out, letting the audience of listeners or readers fill in the gaps. We know that God loved the world enough to send his son to it; we know that we are to love one another, because God loves us just as Jesus loved his disciples; we know that God took real human form, was seen on earth and went about among us. What is meant here is the mistake of loving what is passing, rather than what is lasting – the sensual body, the lustful eye, pride in possessions – these things are passing, but the love of God shown in Christ, in creation, and in one another, is not.

Father Raymond suggests that John the epistle-writer is drawing a picture of a church in schism, and those who have left are the ones who count the material world of such little worth that, perversely, they have ended up cherishing its trinkets more than those left behind, who are seeking to do the will of God in this fallen world. After all, if things have no real value, why not have lots of them? If the body has no significance, why not help yourself to other people’s? Teachings like John’s have been part of our culture for so long that it is difficult at first to see what on earth he is on about – aren’t these things obvious? But watch the television, particularly the sensuality of the adverts, or even of the hoardings advertising the otherwise innocent South Pacific in this fair city, read the news of the money-makers in the city, and we swiftly see that these lessons have been widely discarded. “Why bother about my brother’s welfare, when he’s going to be saved anyway? And now I shall help myself to a few more million quid before going down to the gym, and dazzling everyone with my amazing fitness – as I’ve no need to be good, I might as well be looked at”.

“Fit for life” the slogan goes, but which life? The life of the world that is coming to an end? Or the life that remains for ever, even after we must exchange time for eternity? You choose, says John; choose God’s life, as he chose ours. Amen.

Richard Haggis
December 2011

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Fussing About Words 2: "Love Child"

When I was staying with my parents there was an item in the Daily Mail about a supposed "love child" of the late Sir Jimmy Savile (and presumably there was a mother involved, too - here's the link if you care, and your computer doesn't automatically filter out the Daily Mail -

I'm 45. My parents have been married for 47 years, and at present my mother is my father's 24-hours-a-day nurse as he is laid low by cancer. At 65, that is no easy task, and it is borne without complaint, in fulfillment of vows made, and meant, many years ago.

My mother once told me "we have loved you since before you were even born". I mean no disrespect to the lady in question but, of the two of us, which is the "love child"?

Fussing About Words 1: Does Prince Philip Complain?

Fussing about words 1: did Prince Philip really "complain" about chest pains? I can imagine him observing that he was in discomfort, but I don't see him as a "complainer". Or do we just use that language because we speak of various indispositions as "complaints"?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Change is in the Air

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Wednesday, 21st of December, 2011, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford

Gospel - Luke 1:39-45

“Change Is In The Air”

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

Perhaps you know the feeling of a having a song in your head, quite unbidden, which won’t go away? It happened to me yesterday as I travelled back from Sussex after a week with my parents, after my father had received a diagnosis of cancer. I rarely listen to modern songs, I’m more of a Bach and Tallis sort of person, with the occasional burst of Cole Porter, and Flanders and Swan, but this song in my head was insistent, and it was insistently wrong. The words were “change is in the air”. The right words are “love is in the air”. But it seemed that even the wrong version might be right.

Looking at this morning’s reading, about the Visitation, it seemed that surely both Elizabeth and Mary could have joined in humming “change is in the air”. It made me wonder – and let’s be simple Bible Christians for a moment, and lay aside our theological wisdom and ingenious New Testament analysis – whether there were others too, in that week before the Incarnation, who were aware that “change is in the air”.

Were Joseph’s neighbours – doubtless preparing his dinner while Mary was away, as surely a man, then as now, couldn’t possibly look after himself – wondering “what’s got into him? The child can’t possibly be his, and he doesn’t seem to mind”. Did they know that change was in the air?

Or further away, in the fields around Nazareth, or Bethlehem – remember, we’re being simple Bible Christians here, and it doesn’t really matter which – was there a shepherd saying to his colleagues, as they tended their sheep, themselves anticipating the lambing of early Spring, “you know, something’s going to happen this year, there’s going to be a change”. And did his friends raise their eyebrows, and a wineskin, and mutter, “he’s off on one again”?

In Herod’s palace were the obsequious and frightened flunkeys looking at their ailing monarch, and wondering what would happen next? “Look at his sons, the lightweights, there’ll never be another Herod like this one”, pondering where their bread would be buttered in the future? Change, but no credible heir.

And most of all, the Magi, already on their saddled camels, and heading from the East, they knew that change was in the air – they’d seem it in the sky, the star, promising a change so momentous that they wanted to be there to see it; leaving behind the monotonous grind of conjuring for lives and deaths anticipated or willed, spells and potions for cuckolded husbands, and barren wives, or whatever it is that Magi do all day. Change was in the air, and even their camels could smell it. Doubtless everyone else could at least smell the camels.

“Change is in the air”. Most of us don’t like change, but God does. To God it is not “change and decay, in all around I see”, but “new every morning”. And every year God reminds us afresh of the newness of life that is all around us, and epitomised in the birth of Jesus, for, as John Donne put it “all Divinity is Love, or Wonder”.

“Change is in the air”. To mis-remember another popular saw: in Advent, God tells us to “wake up, and smell the camels”. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
December 2011

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Think Twice, For "He Who Dithers, Is Lost"!


Sunday, 13th of November, 2011

Think Twice, For, “He Who Dithers, Is Lost”!

This was a favourite saying of my first mother-in-law; well, mother-out-law, I suppose, in those barbaric days. She was of the opinion that if presented with a choice, we must make it swiftly, or lose the chance to choose at all. In one of the parishes I served there was a retired military man who had the same view – “always act as soon as you can – if you get it right, you’ve got it right straightaway, and if you’ve got it wrong, you have longer to put it right again afterwards”. Such temperaments and philosophies attract me; my own disposition is very much of the opposite kind, although it seems harsh to call it “dithering”.

Overheard, on the cycle path from Littlemore to the ringroad supermarket, two young ladies in conversation: “So, that’ll make him think twice next time, won’t it?” To think twice is the very opposite of being the dithering loser, it suggests a careful mulling over of the means available to bring something about, and the likely consequences of doing so. In the heat of the moment, you may want to belt your partner in the chops, but think twice, and you realise not only would it be both a crime and a sin (that’s lose-lose, as the Americans and other children would say), but would consume you with guilt, and not actually solve the problem at all, in the long-term at least. Think twice.

I remain torn between the two. When offered my first curacy in Romford my instinct was to say Yes straightaway. I later learnt that that is what the vicar was hoping I would do. But the brain said No, wait, consult, see what other people think. I consulted the wise, and they could put up no obstacle. Two days or so later, I accepted. When I was offered the chaplaincy post at Cambridge I tried the same thing. The wise said No. I was too flattered by the offer to listen. It was a mistake – notwithstanding that I made some good friends there, and heard many fascinating stories. The difference was that in Romford my future colleagues did want me there; in Cambridge, they were at best indifferent. When my sister came with me to look around the place, she said of the chapel “isn’t it cold?” She was spot on. And I knew it at the time; that isn’t hindsight. But I dithered, and was lost.

The favourite nun, who over the years has become a spiritual adviser and a friend, says the goal of discipleship is to draw the mind down into the heart (and how typical that the mind so often regards itself as the loftier party, rarely deigning to trot down the stairs to the heart’s quarters), so the two can act, and be, as one. Easier said than done, of course. The heart may have its reasons, but the mind may well think they are not very good ones. The mind may have its plans, but the heart may find them, well, heartless. Somehow an inner dialogue must begin which tries to draw together the best of ourselves, for the sake of ourselves, and a very selfish and navel-gazing exercise it can seem, too, except that without it, we can actually be selfish and navel-gazing, and make mistakes that simply make work for others as they have to pick up the pieces of our folly and neglect.

I dithered about writing this letter, until something rather unusual happened very late on Thursday night/Friday morning. I interfered. I very rarely do this in anyone else’s life, I am not a giver of advice (they only blame you when they haven’t listened properly, don’t follow it through, and everything goes pear-shaped), but my father’s health was causing me deep concern. In my presence the specialist in charge of his case had said if he got any worse, my parents were to contact him, and he would do all he could to speed up the process. He was getting worse, and I knew they would do nothing until the next appointment, but there was a weekend looming, and no time to lose. So, I got in touch by e-mail, and by return the timescale for his operation was reduced to “probably next week” rather than “maybe in two to three weeks”. This is a timescale that matters. Did I dither? Well, yes, for over two hours, in the dark small hours, with no one to consult, not even the wise, yes I did. We are still in the woods, but now we have a path. I do not regret it.

It is a truism and therefore unremarkable, hence I am remarking upon it, that it is easier to see solutions to other people’s problems than one’s own.

May all your ditherings lead to gain, not loss, your second thoughts be of gratitude, not regret. And, failing that, what the hell, there’s always tomorrow!

With love
Littlemore, Oxford
(December 2011, but written earlier)

Friday, 2 December 2011

Except the Lord build the House ...

A Homily for Holy Communion
at the Church of SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore
Thursday, 1st December, 2011, 7.30 p.m.

Readings: Psalm 127 & Matthew 7:21 & 24-27

Planning Permission

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

Perhaps you have known, as I have, what it is to invest foolishly in something that would never deliver a return. It might be a car, a house, a training course, a job, a relationship. We choose something that flatters us, or for which we are desperate, and we build castles in the air about the success, the security, the confidence, the love, we might enjoy if the investment pays off. And then it comes tumbling down. It was the wrong choice. The wrong thing, the wrong work, the wrong career, the wrong person, it could only be the wrong outcome.

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

Why do we make such obvious mistakes? Why, when we know that judgement is coming, the judgement of parents or children or friends or employers or architects, or doctors or bailiffs, do we still make these mistakes? Why does our vanity make us do stupid things for short-term gain, when it can only bring us long-term unhappiness?

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

Believing people tell us we must trust in God, and we think, quietly, and behind our clenched fists “yeah, right, since when did he pay the bills?”. But they are right. It’s a different kind of investment. We relinquish power in order to share in another authority. We allow love in, in order to be loved. We risk losing our sense of ourselves, in order to understand God’s sense for us.

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

We travel hopefully. We apply for planning permission, and build according to the plan. We seek our weary beds, and the Lord “giveth his beloved sleep”. Will we ever know what we have built? Will we ever know we have laboured at the Lord’s work?

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

No, we won’t know. Not in this life. Not for sure. But we know this – if we don’t even seek to build that house with the Lord, nothing lasting will get built at all.

Lord God, give us wisdom to build the right house, and your helping hand to build it right. Amen.

Richard Haggis, Littlemore, Oxford, December 2011

Monday, 28 November 2011

Let's see if this gets into the Guardian ...

Dear Editor,

Delighted though I was to see my letter in Monday's newspaper, imagine my dismay on seeing it without my usual title - defrocked by The Guardian, something even the Bishops haven't yet dared to do! If The Guardian is indeed the new proprietor of the Church of England, may I warn you that the money ran out ages ago. And they don't like gays. Or women. You've got your work cut out.

All the best,

(The Revd) Richard Haggis

Letter, The Guardian, 28.11.11

"The government seems to think it can get 16,000 homes built for £400m. That's £25,000 each. If houses cost £25,000, there wouldn't be a housing crisis. The target should be to reduce the cost of housing dramatically, because the market has got out of control. It will take a lot more than 16,000 new houses to do that. More planning, less tinkering.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford"

Interestingly, the Guardian seems to have de-frocked me, something the C of E hasn't yet got round to!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Saint Cecilia

Notes from a Homily for Holy Communion on
Tuesday, 22nd of November, 2011, 9 a.m.

Feast of Saint Cecilia

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

Luke 21:5-11

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

Those of you who have come to know me well might be forgiven for thinking me a touch contrary by nature. The line in the old hymn “perverse and foolish” might well have been written with me in mind. So, as someone who has only ever mastered four musical notes, only in one order, and now forgotten them all to the point that I wouldn’t recognise them in a police line-up, you can perhaps imagine that being invited to say a word on the Feast of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, was a most attractive challenge. Imagine further my dismay that you only keep the feast once every three years, forcing me to resort to reading the Gospel, which is a beastly thing to do to any preacher.

And as I read it, one phrase kept leaping out “ … everything will be destroyed”. It’s difficult enough to preach the Good News convincingly without booby-traps like that being laid on your path. “Everything will be destroyed”. But must it? We have the parable of the sower from Jesus, and how the seed must die to yield a greater harvest, and S. Paul’s longer discourse on the same theme, but must there be all this death and destruction?

Lately I have had cause to be thankful for your prayers for my father, who is home from hospital, and much restored. In the course of these anxious months we have come to exchange a four-lettered word. Not the one I never knew he knew until I was about seventeen (when he locked the car keys in the boot of the car before seven in the morning and we had to be in London by nine), but that other one, “love”, which is the heart of the Good News of God revealed in Christ. He didn’t need to be destroyed for that. Thank God.

In the last few days an interesting obituary appeared in the newspapers – I read them as proof that I am still alive, I suppose it’s a middle-aged thing – of a scientist called Normal Ramsey, who was 96, and who had designed the delivery systems that allowed the two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan in 1945. After the clamour of war, people have spoken and written of the dread silence that follows, and none more so than the silence that followed that awful deed. But must we destroy?

You may be familiar with the prayer, or perhaps it is a sort of meditation, of John Donne, about the place we are all headed for. He says it will be marked by “no noise, nor silence, but one equal music”. Perhaps I have cheatingly brought us back to Saint Cecilia after all. If she show us the way to understand the value, the strength, the beauty, of harmony, which is surely the essence of peace, and of which Christ is the Prince, maybe, just maybe, we could fashion a world in which there would no longer be a need for everything to be destroyed? If so, that would be Good News indeed. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
November 2011

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Nation of Beggars

"A bishop's duty is to speak out against the benefits cap
The Church of England has a moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice"

Dear Editor,

The Anglican bishops are right to speak out against any benefit-cutting strategy. However, the heart of the problem is not benefits, but a combination of low wages and hugely inflated accommodation costs. The market is haywire, so that even those with full-time work cannot afford to live without government handouts - housing benefit, child benefit, family tax credit, and the rest.

Successive governments have made us a nation of beggars. Will someone address this?

(The Revd) Richard Haggis
26 Bampton Close
01865 - 749520 / 07786 - 946296

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Proof of the pudding?

Parson Thomas Malthus was one of seven children, and himself the father of three. He was fascinated by population growth. How many descendants does he have now, I wonder?

"This is absolutely delightful and I'm going to come back and read more each time I need cheering up.

Anyone who includes copious alcohol and a laid-back attitude in the cooking/eating process has, in my humble opinion, moved way beyond the realms of mere clergy - Anglican or otherwise - and entered Sainthood."

Well, what more could anyone ask?!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Letter, The Independent, 07.11.11

On Remembrance Sunday in 1990, just as the first Gulf War was brewing up, I held back in the church hall as the others trooped out to the War Memorial, with the scouts, the British Legion and the rest. Eventually a lady of senior years and I were left behind.

I asked her why she hadn't joined them. She replied: "My father died in the Great War. Now they are planning another. They have remembered precisely nothing." I have not forgotten that.

The Rev Richard Haggis


Thursday, 3 November 2011

Daily Telegraph, 03.11.11

SIR – Dr Williams calls for a new tax on bankers, but there is no need for yet another tax: the United Kingdom's fiscal system is chaotic enough as it is. There is only one fair tax – income tax.

Money earned in this country should be taxed in this country. Whatever ends up in a person's pocket is surely fair game for the tax man. Salaries, bonuses, and payments-in-kind should be taxed alike: all are income.

If we start to single out particular professions for higher taxation we will tie ourselves in knots. What next? A tax on writers for wearing out library shelves?

Rev Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxfordshire

Friday, 21 October 2011

Weather Or Not

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Friday, 21st of October, 2011, 9 a.m.

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

Weather Or Not

Gospel: Luke 12:54-59

He also said to the multitudes, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? 57 "And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper."

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

Obviously, in Jesus’s time there was no Meterological Office, nor BBC. If there had been, an accurate weather forecast would have been an impossibility, and this Gospel reading would have such layers of irony that only the cleverest of commentators could unravel them – preferably whilst the rest of us sleep.

But let us take Luke’s Jesus at his word – if we can read the weather, why can we not read the important things God is telling us? In context, he means the mystery of God in Christ – Immanuel – God with Us – but given that we have all, sort of, got this, how are to read these words now? What weather might he mean?

To stick with Luke’s metaphor for a moment – yesterday my computer told me it was just one degree centigrade (celsius in the new money) outside. I wasn’t at all sure I believed it, but, its being the verge of winter, and having been ill myself, and fearful of asthma, I wrapped myself up like a Christmas turkey – thick, heavy, anorak, scarf, boots, two hats, the works! By the time I reached Cowley Centre I had almost melted. But what could I do? Throw my hats and scarf and coat away? I might need them again! And I certainly can’t afford to replace them.

Is it stretching the figure too far to say this is a little of what Jesus has in mind? Yes, we’re prepared for the Expected, but are we prepared to let go of that, when the Unexpected arrives? I rather think we are not – or else Cowley Centre would be strewn with unwanted clothes, and passers-by would raise an eyebrow, wondering what frolics had been going on.

Apply this to our life as disciples and the effect is chillingly challenging. We surround ourselves with the comfort of the Known. But Jesus, when he comes, will be the Unknown, as he was on the Road to Emmaus. And notice the latter part of the reading – its message is “settle up now, or it will get much worse for you”. Did you notice how it does not for a moment allow the possibility that we might be in the right?

Is the Good News that what we think we know isn’t worth knowing; what we think we expect isn’t worth waiting for? Is the Good News that we are wrong?

If so, let us settle out of court, and quickly, and in that transaction between the real and the ultimate, between earth and heaven, maybe our redemption lies. If so, so be it. But, God be with us on that road to the court, and stop us foolish hypocrites from ever getting there, and, following a yellow-signed diversion notice, instead may we accept the invitation to God’s own banquet. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
October 2011

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A monologue, which might be something else!


The narrator, Giles Burke, is 57. He is tall and trim, with the build that speaks of a life spent working with his hands and doing a lot of shovelling. He has fine features, which bespeak his genetic heritage. He is a zoo-keeper. And single.

“I was at the hospital this morning. Seeing my brother. Probably for the last time. They keep talking about recovery, but I don’t see it. I see a man who had turned yellow, then orange, now almost brown. Pancreatic cancer – same as our father. They say it’s mainly drunks, which makes it a bit unfair, as neither Father nor Fred had been drinkers. I’ve watched a lot of creatures die over the years, some of them human, and I don’t give Fred more than 36 hours. Sad to see him there, clinging on to something probably no longer worth having.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the man. Never did. He was a bully from childhood. He inherited that from our father. And tantrums from our mother. Priggishness he seems to have invented all for himself, which goes to show that it’s not all nurture. What little nurture there was.

It’s hard to know why I bothered to go there, really. Duty, I suppose. They always stay in touch, sometimes turn up here unannounced – I don’t do dinner parties – usually with some sort of family news which, generally, I instantly forget. Funerals, weddings, the occasional Christening, and on goes the suit, and we play happy families for the day. Or unhappy families. Delete as appropriate.

Grandpa got me those suits when I left home. Well, a little bit later. When I was 21. I’d been working for five years by then, and he thought I wouldn’t need much space to grow into, which turned out to be right. That’s nearly forty years ago. Morning dress for weddings and Christenings, black tie and white tie for dinners, dark for vague occasions. I told him I wouldn’t need them, but he said Grandma was insisting, so I did as I was told. I didn’t mind being told what to do by them. They all still fit. Rather proud of that. It helps that they haven’t had much wear and tear over the years.

The biggest pressure has been Christenings – Fred and Nathalie have had five, all daughters. And that’s the problem. I asked Fred once why they’d given up at five. He said “we’re just tired of it, it’s hard work – not that you’d know what it’s like to raise children”. I could have asked him what he knew about saving endangered species from extinction, but it wouldn’t have been worth it. Still, at least they put the work in – their girls are spick and span and educated and polite and the first three have been married off most profitably. I must confess, I’m not a religious person, but I did pray the last couple of times that they’d have a boy. No such luck.

My parents – well, my mother, my father was too spineless to have a plan about anything – chose the traditional route – she had the heir and the spare, and then got on with enjoying herself. I was the spare. My brother’s typically useless inability to have a son makes me the heir as well. As of tomorrow – probably by lunchtime – I shall have 26,000 acres of the Dorset countryside, a 70-room house, and a pointless title, to my name. I shall be number nine. I had very much hoped not to count at all.

It’s not that it was an unhappy childhood; just that I seemed to be rather irrelevant to it. Or at least, irrelevant to my parents, and a nuisance to Fred. My father lived in his own father’s shadow and didn’t really have a clue about anything. We even lived in a wing of the house, rather than hefting out to a house of our own. I can only see that as a mistake now, but at the time it was wonderful to spend time with my grandparents who were superb people. Grandma was big and blowsy, and hugged a lot, and was always in favour of just about anything you were doing, apart from bad words and getting too dirty. Grandpa loved the land. He really did. He didn’t just inherit his estate, he lived and walked it. Every morning he went out at six with his dogs and this slightly sleepy but keen grandson, and we’d see things. Foxes and badgers and rabbits and hares and deer, and all manner of birds. He told me all their names. And gradually we’d meet the estate workers, and he’d tell me their names too. He really knew it all. His own father was one of those chaps who is a distant cousin who inherits. I think he was a banker or something first. He just loved the money. Grandpa loved the land. And he made it pay, too. He used to go up to London for the Lords because he said it was his duty, but when they chucked him, and the rest of them, out, he said it was a relief. I don’t think he went to London again except for funerals. He thought memorial services were silly. “If they’ve already forgotten me, then they won’t want reminding, and if they haven’t, they won’t need reminding”.

My parents were very different. Father was nervy and anxious. You’d never think he could stomach the anxiety of the races, but he was off to the races every few days at least. He never seems to have won any money which makes me wonder if he was actually following the form on the course or the form of the fillies he was hob-nobbing with off the course. Very occasionally he would bring one home for dinner, and my grandparents would have to endure that very politely. Mother would not have endured it politely, but by that time in the evening she was usually too drunk to be on show. “I’m sorry to say Lady Bransome is unwell, and has retired early”, Grandma would say, to some fresh-faced young bimbette. And Father would ask the butler to make a guest room ready. He tended not to linger over the port on those nights.

Mother was one of three daughters. “We are the end of the line” she used to say when they were gathered together. There was no son, no male cousin, no one. Her father sold up and divided everything equally. She was the eldest, and resented that bitterly – “I should at least have got the house” - so they weren’t gathered together often. She was a very pretty woman, there’s no denying that, and handsome to her dying day, albeit with increasing artifice as the years passed. I imagine my father must have been handsome, although in the photographs he just looks gormless. From her point of view, leaping from a dying dynasty to a more upmarket one must have made a sort of sense – her father was an earl, my grandpa a marquess, a grade up. She was a terrible snob in a way that someone of her breeding ought not to have been. For a time, they were the glittering couple, invited to everything, then she settled down to being the brood mare, produced us, and had to stomach my grandparents for mealtimes every day. Grandma tried to be nice to everyone. Grandpa struggled with that. Mother was nearly always late down to breakfast, but oddly well-informed about the world if Grandpa was having a Lords day in London. She had a radio by her bed and I think she listened to the news. He liked it when she had a fight with him about the issues of the day, but she gave up too quickly for his sport. “Well, Freddy, I’m sure you’re right”, she’d say, “but now I must take my leave”, and she’d take her little dogs for a walk. Poms, I think. Irritating little creatures. Of course, it wasn’t the walk she was interested in. There were lots of young men working on the estate.

My parents were as bad as each other. Having done her duty providing the heir and the spare, Mother’s eye wandered elsewhere. Oh, there’s a limerick in there! One of the more dramatic incidents of my childhood occurred when I was about eight or nine and was collecting hedgehogs. I thought they were very nice, and I was establishing a little zoo in a couple of the second floor rooms of the house. Quiet rooms, which no one ever used any more. Then there was a cascading scream one summer afternoon. Mother was usually sotto voce, but my heavens, she could yell if she wanted. The bad words count was enough to send my Grandma for her smelling salts. And the persistent theme was my name. I rushed upstairs to find her half naked, with one of the stableboys, even more naked, in a state of shock and horror in the doorway of my trainee zoo. “They’re only hedgehogs” I said. “I don’t care what the **** they ****ing well are, get them out of my ****ing house”. And just as I started to scoop them up, and they moved along to another doorway, she said “and put our clothes outside this door – or have you got lions in here to amuse us?”

She was drunk, of course. She always was. She was really a very clever woman, but just bored by it all, and couldn’t find anything other than sex to amuse her, and drink to anaesthetise her. She thought her husband was an idiot, which was about right, and her sons tedious – that was Fred – or potty – that was me.

The worst days were when she wasn’t drunk enough. Father would come home from the races, and the rowing would start. She would usually behave at dinner, but after, it was awful. Screaming up and down the corridors, and yes, it was their wing of the house, but I’m sure my grandparents could hear every foul-mouthed tirade. Father’s response was to neck the brandy in return, and he couldn’t take his liquor at all. It actually used to make me shake. I can’t explain why. I don’t think I loved them, I don’t think they loved me. But I wanted to be somewhere else.

And that’s how I fell in with Uncle Ollie. He was my father’s brother, and he had rooms in the other wing. He saw me once, unable to move, listening and wanting not to hear, and he said “come along old chap, let’s get away from all this and leave them to it, just grown-ups being silly”. And moments later I was on his sofa drinking port. I loved port. I still do. Uncle Ollie was a bit of a hero for me. Very unlike Father, he was bold and colourful and outrageous. He didn’t mind making a fool of himself, wasn’t remotely prim, and Grandma indulged his occasional bad word over the dining table, with a look that was more a smile than a frown. He rode majestically. Father only rode because he thought it was expected of him, Uncle Ollie rode because he wanted to win. He was the first person I told when I decided I wouldn’t go fox-hunting any more. He said “Your choice old man, better to die with principles than regrets”.

He used to take me out riding early in the mornings, no foxes involved, and one morning he said “you’re a sweaty sausage, come and have a proper shower”. How he’d had a shower fitted into his apartments in that barbaric building, I never did find out, but there it was. And jolly good it was too. And then Uncle Ollie joined me in it. I wasn’t expecting that. And one thing led to another. Teenage boys are so bursting for attention I suppose they’ll take it anywhere. We were both late for breakfast that morning.

He was never violent or forceful, or even unkind. Quite the opposite. I knew it wasn’t really what I wanted, but, as he was fond of saying “any port in a storm” – usually whilst uncorking a bottle of port to seduce his entirely willing victim.

But it all had to end. I hated school, I hated my parents, I was sixteen and I realised I was free. I loved animals, and I had hatched a plan. I wasn’t going to tell them, but inadvertently, it was Grandma who let the cat out of the bag at luncheon one day that summer. “What are you going to study for your a-levels, Giles?” “I’m not going back to school, Grandma”. Shocked silence. Then Grandma said “So, are you doing “work-experience” or whatever they call it?” “Yes, I’m going to be a zoo-keeper, and there’s a good chance I’ll get a full-time job when the placement is over”. My parents’ faces by this time were a picture. Father was going puce with a rage he’d never learnt to express in front of his own father, and Mother was slowly emerging from an alcoholic stupor and realising that something odd was happening. Then Father said “don’t be so bloody silly, you’re going back to school, doing your A-levels and going to university like everyone else”. “No, Father, I’m not. I have the placement fixed at London Zoo, they are expecting me, and I am not going back to school ever”. “And where the bloody hell are you going to live?” I’ve got a bedsit. “Well, you won’t be able to afford that for long in London on zoo-keeper’s wages – and don’t think you’ll get any more allowance from me”. It went quiet for a moment, and then Grandpa said, very loudly, “You can have an allowance from me, then – it’s about time someone in this family had the gumption to do what he really wants!” Then he turned to the butler – “Knights, some champagne please, two bottles”.

I thought Father would have a stroke on the spot. Mother said to him “Hugo, darling, don’t fret, it’s just a phase, let him get over it”. Grandma said “Well, how nice to know what you want to do at such a young age. I had no idea at all what I wanted to do, and then your Grandpa swept me off my feet and the rest is history!”. The wine arrived and Grandpa stood up and proposed a toast to me and my future, and Uncle Ollie, who had been chortling into his napkin the whole while, seconded it. Father, slowly, and with great reluctance, stood up too. Mother joined in, but then made a face when she realised it wasn’t a Martini.

Uncle Ollie drove me to London. I didn’t have a lot of luggage, mainly animal books. I told him on the way that we weren’t going to do again what we’d done before, and he said “OK, old man, time to move on. But be careful in the big city, will you? There are worse people than me out there.” And so I started my new life.

Grandpa fell ill soon after that. Smoking and drinking didn’t exactly help, and he had another heart attack soon after the first. Grandma tried her best to improve him, but he was not a man for taking instruction. He limped along for six more years. Uncle Ollie paid for me to have driving lessons – he said it was no use going out with him in his car, as he should have been banned years ago. I passed first time, and my grandparents gave me a car, and insured it – I had no idea that’s the expensive thing, at the time – and it meant I could drive down and see them for the afternoon and still get back in time for the evening shift. I hardly saw my parents then. Clothed or otherwise. They were happy days.

Then Grandpa died. He was minding his own business in his library. He wasn’t found for hours, which shows how keen they all were on reading. Fred and I both read lessons at the funeral. Father just looked ashen the whole time. Mother bustled about the house. I made the mistake of asking Grandma what she was doing – “Measuring up, dear”, she replied, which was about as caustic as she ever got.

So the new reign began and it was an utter disaster. Father had read English at Cambridge, and knew nothing about farms. Worse, he didn’t trust those who did. Venture after venture failed. He wanted a fast buck – to squander on the horses – and instead the estate got a slow death. He had to sell 9,000 acres – twelve farms. They were the farms that Grandpa had bought when he sold up his Scottish estate. “Ghastly place, all scowls and midges, don’t go there”, he used to say whenever anyone mentioned Scotland. I did go there once; he was right. “You see”, said Father, “Your Grandpa didn’t get everything right”. He didn’t start a llama farm, either. My father was a prize chump. Everything he set his hand to turned to slurry under it. Then he got ill. And iller. He was only sixty. Same disease as Fred.

In a rare burst of sympathy, or empathy, Fred called me and asked if I could meet him at the hospital one afternoon. I met him in the car-park. “He’s not at all well”, he said. We went in. Rarely has English statement been used so under. “Fred, he’s dying”. “Oh Christ. I’d better call Mother”. “No, don’t do that, she’ll be pissed by now, there’s no point”. “She’s his fucking wife!” “And everyone else’s. There’s nothing to be gained from having her here.” I shouldn’t really have said that, and at least he gave me a look, one of those old Elder Brother looks. But he shut up about it. It only took about half an hour. We held his hands. No idea why. Not sure if we even did it as children. I let Fred have the right hand – after all, he was the heir, and I, the spare, had the left. A gasp, a cough, a croak, and it was over. I asked the nurse if the irritating noise from the monitor meant what I thought it did. It did. So, I covered his face with the sheet. Then dismantled Fred’s hand from his, took him out of the room, took his hand, and said “congratulations, you are now the eighth Marquess of Dorchester”. He broke down in tears. It may sound callous, but I really can’t understand why.

I put up with that for a while, but there was Mother to deal with, and Grandma. Fred said “but what about my car?” “I think you can afford the overnight parking and get it collected tomorrow”. What I was really thinking about was whether you tell a dead man’s wife, or his mother, first. Protocol, rules, orders of precedence, it’s bred into you. I decided we’d stop at the Dower House. Grandma had the advantage of not being drunk. Her housekeeper led the way, she didn’t need to, but she sensed “occasion”. Grandma looked up from the television – I thought grandmothers did embroidery in their widowhood – switched it off and, guessing, rightly, said “Oh my dears.” And then “How has your mother taken the news?” “We haven’t tackled that one yet”. “Oh but you must, widows before dowagers. Off with you both, right now.”

Mother seemed to take it very calmly, but then she’d taken about half a dozen Martinis equally calmly since lunchtime. I drove home. I had work to do.

It was high summer, so the next morning I was up at four, and got everything in order early. I met the Boss out on his morning walk with his dogs and his parrot, and told him what had happened. “Giles, take all the time you need, we can cope without you, we won’t cope well, but we won’t mess anything up, I promise”. Funny old stick, he is.

So, I motored back down there in time for breakfast. I had a roaring appetite, and I could sense that Fred thought it wrong to be eating at all with Father dead. Well, if we all behaved like that, we’d all be dead, wouldn’t we? Grandma was there. She said “we must ask the vicar about a funeral. And the crypt”. Grandpa had shown us the crypt once when we were boys – a dusty collection of old coffins belonging to the people who had given us life and fortune.

Then Mother arrived – unusually early for her, but, as ever, immaculate. “Giles, darling, what a pleasant surprise – and you in a suit too! I thought you’d be in your zoo-keeper’s overalls.” “Knights, would you sort out the car, I want to visit the hospital”. “Fred and I have some business to attend to today.” “Have you really? How frightfully important”. “We need to register Father’s death”. Then she went quiet for a moment and said “Knights, don’t bother with the car, it won’t be needed”. They had been married nearly thirty years; and people wonder why I never have been. She’d forgotten.

Then she said “Knights, I think I need to be alone for a while in the drawing room, would you prepare it for me?” This meant, mix her first Martini of the day – after all, it was nearly nine by then. And off she went.

Then Grandma said “Oh, my dears, I’ve just thought about it – the vicar is a lady, and your father didn’t approve of that”. Grandpa used to appoint almost anyone he thought would annoy the local people. In her case, he signally failed, and was, oddly, very proud to have done so. Father was more narrow in his preferences. Fred said “What about cousin Tim, he’s a canon of somewhere, Mother would like that”. “He didn’t know your father from Adam”. “Well, who then?” Grandma said, “Giles, didn’t you say your employer used to be a parson? I’m sure I’ve seen him on the telly, he looks very respectable”. I said I would ask.

So, we divided our tasks, and I came home to my work. I think the Boss was a little disappointed not to be allowed free rein for longer. He said, “bugger, you’ve just blown my excuse for not being in London tomorrow!”

And now it is Fred’s turn. Of course, Nathalie will play the weeping widow, next-of-kin, in charge. A good choice for Fred. Not well-born, of farming stock, but her father and her uncle had made a go of a huge farm in East Anglia. They had done well for themselves and their children, they knew the land, the crops, the stock. She had turned the estate round from a liability to a going concern.

And then she turned up. She must virtually have followed me back from the hospital. Nathalie, I mean. I was thinking things through with a beer by the fire. Or was I thinking? I’m not sure what I was doing. Anyway, knock, knock, knock, and there was my sister-in-law.

“Giles, I know you’ve seen Fred”.
“Well, it’s a free country, and he is my only brother, I’ve done it several times”.
“You know he isn’t well?”
“I know he is dying”
“He’s not an animal in your zoo, Giles”
“More’s the pity. We’d not have let him suffer so long”.
“I’m not going to beat about the bush, Giles, there are decisions to be made – I know it all falls to you, please think about the girls, it’s what Fred would have wanted”.

Curiously, Fred had often made his opinions known about my life and decisions over the years, but that wasn’t one of them.

“Because it’s their birthright”.
“No it’s not, they’re girls. It’s MY birthright. If you want to swan about being Lady Dorchester, you have to play by the rules, and the rules say, Girls Don’t Count”.

Even as I said it I knew it was wrong. I knew she had some real feeling for Fred. This wasn’t the time to play games. But if only she hadn’t come over, I’d have had more sympathy.

“But what are you going to do with it?”
“For myself, nothing, not interested, not bothered. Cousin Piers can have the house, and he’ll need the estate to pay for it. He’s a stuck up arse, but if he has to be a Marquess, he might as well look the part – and he’s got a son”.

“And what about the girls?”
“They’re well out of it, Nathalie, let them free, free of names and titles and honours and duties and responsibilities and a whole load of crap that none of us ever asked for”.

“What about the money?”
“There is no money! You’ve been salting it away for years! I’ve read the accounts. Let them have that, no strings attached”.

“It’s 26,000 acres, Giles”.
“Have you taught any of them how to farm? No, I thought not – I shall recommend that Piers makes you his land-agent and you can carry on as before”.

“You mean you’re not even moving in?”
“To that bloody mausoleum? You must be mad”.
“But what shall I do?”
“Mother moved into the Dower House, so that’s free. And Piers will need vacant possession – not that anything you do is vacant, and you are always self-possessed”. I was rather proud of that line.

“Anyway, don’t you have a dying husband to attend to?”

She headed for the door. Then she turned and said,

“Are you happy, Giles?”

As I closed it after her – she was only a farmer’s daughter, but a peeress to her fingertips, wouldn’t think to shut it herself – I thought, well, yes, perhaps I am.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Saint Edward, King & Confessor

Notes from a Brief Homily on the Feast of Saint Edward the Confessor

Thursday, 13th of October 2011, 7.30 p.m.

Parish Church of SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford

Today is the Feast of Saint Edward the Confessor, King of England, a saint close to my heart because he was the patron saint of the parish of Romford, where I served my title as a curate. There are many legends about him, but Edward is most famous for two things (both of which our little congregation in the Little Parish got right) – building Westminster Abbey, and dying in 1066 and so precipitating the Norman Conquest. But there was more to him than that.

He was made a saint very soon after the Conquest, and for a very convenient reason – on his father’s side, he was an Anglo-Saxon, a descendant of King Alfred the Great, on his mother’s a Norman, a relative of the conqueror. So, the invaders and the invaded had someone they could both share. Until Edward III started the cult of the rather more military Saint George, Edward was the Patron Saint of England.

Whether he was quite as pious in reality as the chroniclers record is questionable – he was an enthusiastic huntsman, and his piety seemed to come on a little later in life when he had little freedom, in his own kingdom, to do much else. He was known, for instance, for his celibate marriage to Queen Edith. But she was the daughter of the very powerful Earl Godwin, and it is not impossible that his marital chastity was intended, at least in part, to deny Earl Godwin the chance to be grandfather of a King of England. In the end, he sent poor Edith away to a nunnery, so chastity must have been a lot easier after that. Assuming he ever actually wanted to be unchaste with her in the first place. No one ever thought to ask Mrs Confessor what she thought about it all.

A “confessor” in the Christian tradition of saints is not someone who has a lot of sins and gets round to admitting them, still less a holy priest who has to listen to the whole sorry tale; it is a person who in their life and work embodies in some way the Good News of Jesus. Edward’s greatest claim to this title was that he was a man of peace. It was not always because he chose peace, sometimes he had no other option, but his inclination in those fiery and volatile times was to take the path that led to least harm – yes, to himself – but also to his people.

He built Westminster Abbey to be his tomb, but not his alone, for countless people have since been buried there, and as a monument to the presence of God right in the midst of the political nation. Earls and barons then, and Cabinet Ministers and peers and MPs now, may feud it out, but they do so under the shadow of that great building that shouts from its belfries and its rooftops that God is sovereign, and they have no authority except under God. All are called to prayer, and all are called to judgement on the last day.

Is it perhaps this, Saint Edward’s great legacy to us, that has protected us from the worst of tyrannies in this Sceptred Isle? Has this King of Peace left us with the blessing of the Prince of Peace, who said “Peace be with you”? And might we, as we seek to follow his example give thanks for the times when that Prince has helped us to become peace-makers in our own lives and opportunities?

May our peace-making be our confession of faith in the One who was, and is, and is to come, Christ our Lord, the Prince of Peace. Amen

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
October 2011

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Stewardship - Talk & Prayers


SS. Mary & Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford

9th October 2011, 10 a.m.

God, our Father, Lord of the Sowing as of the Harvest, give us wisdom to nurture and to share the good things of your creation, for your sake, and for ours, that all may have life, and have it in abundance. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

We have a change to the usual sermon slot today because the PCC thought it a good thing to talk about Stewardship before we move into the season of the bigger Christian themes of Remembrance and Advent and Incarnation.

Stewardship means looking after what we’ve been given, and being able to give a good account of ourselves to God, who gave it to us. Good stewardship is all about us at this season of our Harvest Festival of Talents, showing how people have used their time and their creative skills to delight, challenge and charm us. Volunteers have offered to be stewards, keeping the church open so that others – friends and strangers alike - can share these riches, too.

You may be thinking, “Yes, but get on with it, this pitch is about money, isn’t it?”, and of course you’d be right. We have prepared a little pamphlet which goes into it in more detail, and would be glad if you would take a copy home later and read it at your leisure. You will see there that the greater part of our expense is the Parish Share, the money we make over to the Diocese of Oxford each year. You might think, “well, why would I want to give money to them?” The answer is that in net terms, you don’t. You will see that far the greater part of the Diocesan income goes to paying for the clergy, and that what we receive from the Diocese exceeds what we give.

It is our privilege here to enjoy the ministry of a full-time, paid, parish priest, as well as the service of ministers who support themselves, but of necessity cannot be full-time. Those of you who know the church scene will be aware that it is unusual for a church of our size to be awarded such a ministry. There are reasons for this: the parish has a special place in Oxford’s history, and the Church of England’s history; we have many schools, and Christian ministry to them is vital so that, whether the children come to church or not, they see its human face; and the parish is very diverse in its demography making it an ideal training parish, as we see from the number of ordinands and curates who have spent their time with us over the years.

But times change, and we must change with them – something that John Henry Newman himself taught. As the church’s financial circumstances change, ways are being sought to cut costs, and the prospect of amalgamation looms. The closer we can come to meeting our Parish Share target, the stronger our hand becomes in the bargaining process about our church’s future. Our target on the PCC is to be able to look the richer churches in the Deanery and the wider Diocese in the eye and be able to say “Yes, we’re small and we’re poor, but we pay our way”.

So we come to you this morning not to say “give more” – these are hard times for all of us – but “give as efficiently as you can”. God gives the soil, the sun and the rain, but only a good farmer can turn these into a good harvest to His glory.

God in Trinity, you show us the path of infinite and mutually-giving love, give us grateful hearts for all your uncounted blessings, and generous hearts that we may spread those blessing abroad in your world, in Good News of the Name of the Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Stewardship Leaflet



II Corinthians 9: 6-15
“God loves a cheerful giver”

A Word in Advance:
The Clergy, Churchwardens, Treasurer, & Church Council
wish to express their deep gratitude for all gifts, of prayer, service, fund-raising, and money, that are made throughout the year in this church towards the work of the
Good News of Christ Jesus in our midst


This leaflet has been prepared not (in a time of recession and hardship for so many of us) to demand more, but to explain why the Church needs financial help, why it is part of our witness as Christians to provide that help, according to our means, and how it may be done most simply, efficiently, and effectively, in the service of the church, the congregation, the wider parish, and the diocese.


1. Why Should We Give Money To The Church?

“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own do we give thee”.
(from I Chronicles 29:11-14)

It has never occurred to some people even to ask the question, they give and ask not the reason why, because they’ve always done so. But it can have escaped no one’s attention that more is being asked in recent times. Why would this be pleasing to God?

The Bible is full of references to giving and generosity. Much is about being generous to the poor – tithing the good produce of the land to those whose need was greater, leaving the edges of your fields un-harvested so the orphan and the widow could come in and collect their share. The ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and its clergy, were sustained by the offerings of those who wanted to give thanks, or say sorry for sins. The ministry of Jesus himself, and his disciples, was paid for by women who were not themselves able to join them, but supported what they were doing (Luke 8:1-3). Have you ever wondered who picked up the tab at the Last Supper? The church has never charged a penny for the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and never will. Our church buildings, like the Temple in Jerusalem, themselves bear witness to the presence of God with Us – “Immanuel”. Sacraments, and buildings, are alike offered in a spirit of self-sacrifice, to bear witness to the love of God here and now and in our midst.

2. Why Does The Church Of England Have A Financial Problem Now?

“The Lord gave instruction that those who preach the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel”
(I Corinthians 9:14)

The Church has never received any money from the state. A lot of people think it does, but it has never been so. We have sought over the centuries to provide a church and a priest in every parish, regardless of whether they were rich or poor. Times change, and the enormous benefactions of the past (look at the board at the back of the church naming those who helped to have our church built) have slowly been used up. We have many old and expensive churches to maintain, and fewer people to help maintain them. The cost of living for everyone has risen, and so too for the clergy. If some of them are to devote their lives to their people full-time, it has to be paid for.

3. What Is The Parish Share?

“But if someone who possesses the good things of this world sees a fellow-Christian in need and withholds compassion from him,
how can it be said that the love of God dwells in him?”
(I John 3:17)

In recent times each diocese has faced the challenge of raising the stipend (i.e. salary) costs of the clergy by itself. The Church Commissioners, who manage what is left of the historic funds for the provinces of Canterbury and York, are no longer able to meet them. And within each diocese a share is allotted to each parish according to its ability to pay – the richer parishes pay out more than they receive, the poorer pay out less. But no distinction is made in clergy stipends – these are the same across the diocese, and pretty much across the whole Province, as is the housing allocation. This is so no priest need fear to move from a rich to a poor parish, nor be attracted from a poor to a rich one, just because of money. Only God, and God’s calling, need matter. At present, our parish does not pay its Parish Share in full. We are subsidised by other parishes, through the diocese.

4. What Do The Clergy Do For Our Money?

“If we have sown a spiritual crop for you, is it too much to expect from you a material harvest?”
(I Corinthians 9:11)

Speaking for our own parish priest, here is a list: preparation and taking of services, Jubilate and Fun Church services; preaching; preparing for baptisms and marriages; arranging and taking funerals; visiting the sick, housebound, and anxious; primary school worship, and visiting several times a week; making links with Age Concern, Youth Clubs, Rose Hill and Donnington Advice Centre, School governor; links with the new Oxford Academy school, especially to support staff in a time of change; monthly prayer group for key people in the community schools and churches; Churches Together; Isis House for the elderly; community coffee morning; linking local people both informally and informally; administration of the parish, preparing materials to advertise our events; finding and organising volunteers; chapter clerk to the deanery. Volunteers help with many of these things, but our parish priest is our anchor, she is our representative in the community in which we live, and pray, and have our being.

5. Yes, But What Has All This Got To Do With ME?

“Truly I tell you, anything you did for one of my brothers here, however, insignificant, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)

The Church of England exists not just for its congregations, who by-and-large are well-served by well-trained priests, who know how to conduct worship, preach, teach, listen and care, but also for everyone else in the parish who may need them. When you leave church on a Sunday morning determined to be nicer to your colleagues at work, or feel bolder to answer next time someone asks you why you believe in God, that is mission. When the parish priest goes into a school or a care home or is even just seen cycling from one appointment to the next, that is mission. Mission means “sending out”, just as the disciples were sent out, and we too are sent out. We bear witness by being present in the community, and no one person is more obviously present as a Christian witness than the parish priest. The good fruits of this labour may be harvested many years later, and many vineyards away, but if we do not help God sow, how can he reap?

6. How Do I Know How Much To Give?

“Let your almsgiving match your means. If you have little, do not be ashamed to give the little you can afford” (Tobit 4:8)

God does not want to inflict hardships on us for the sake of his church. We all have other commitments – vocations even – to partners and children, family and friends, interests and enthusiasms, and from time to time the relief of suffering for those whose plight we see either at first hand or through the media. God means us to have “life more abundant”, not less. Maybe the simplest thing is to work out what, when accommodation, bills, taxes, living expenses and a little leisure are paid for, is left. The answer to the question “do I really need this?” is often “no”. But the question needs to be asked from time to time. There is no formula. Give according to your means.


7. Standing Orders

These are easy to set up – there is a form at the back of the church. Whether you pay income tax or not, you can make your contribution on a weekly or monthly basis directly through your bank. This means if you have no cash in your purse or wallet, can’t get to church, are unwell, away on holiday, or busy with someone else, or just feeling grumpy that day, but still want to do what you can to help, your contribution can be made and appreciated. It is hugely valuable to know what is coming in each month so that we can budget most effectively.

8. Gift Aid

You might say that for the first time in history the state, without actually giving us money, is allowing churches, along with other charities, to claim back the income tax that parishioners have already paid on their money. This means every £1 you give is worth £1.28 to us. All you have to do is sign an envelope with your name and address on. If you don’t pay income tax yourself, but someone else you live with or to whom you are close does – you might have a joint account, perhaps - if they are amenable, let them sign the form, and your donation will add to their treasure in heaven, and help us to pay our bills on earth. This applies to regular giving, Sunday giving, or one-off gifts.

9. The Plate

The weekly collection plate is the traditional form of giving in cash. We are introducing little laminated cards for those who give by standing order to put in the plate as it comes by, just pick one up at the back of the church, pop it in the plate at the collection, and your offering is carried up to the altar along with everyone else’s. Donations in the plate can also be made by Gift Aid, just put your offering in an envelope with your name and address. If you already have a standing order, but have had a windfall a part of which you wish to share, then put it in the plate and delight the treasurer.

10. Bequests

Our circumstances change over time, and sometimes we enter the autumn years feeling flush for cash that disappears, or sail through old age with great good fortune. Wills are laborious to make, and the value of specific money gifts can vary enormously, so, if you are minded to make a contribution to the church from your estate when you have finished using it, the best thing is to leave a percentage of “the residue of your estate”, after other more personal expenses and bequests have been taken out. If you are making a will, ask your solicitor for advice about this. The proper beneficiary is “The Parochial Parish Council of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, Littlemore”.

11. Who Gets To Know How Much I Give?

Anything in the plate is, of course, anonymous. Standing orders are processed by the treasurer. Gift Aid envelopes have to be counted and recorded each Sunday by his deputies. It is their burden to be sworn to utter discretion, and they would not be chosen otherwise. The clergy and church wardens will never know what you give, nor will what you give affect your pastoral care, your standing in the parish, or any other contribution you might wish to make. Giving is a personal and private choice.

12. Parish & Diocesan Figures for Income & Expenditure

Our Parish:

Income 35,000

Expenditure 36,000
Of which
Ministerial costs (Parish Share) 21,000 58%
Insurance 3,000
Other expenses 10,400

Shortfall 1,000

The Diocese (2010 accounts):

Income 19,869,000
Of which Parish Share was
16,915,000 85%

Expenditure 20,728,000
Of which Parochial Ministry was
16,508,000 80%

Friday, 7 October 2011

Kindly Light & Encircling Gloom

Letter from Littlemore – No. 23
8th October 2011

Kindly Light & Encircling Gloom

“Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom” is the first line of one of Cardinal Newman’s famous hymns. In his Anglican days, he was the founder of our little church here in Littlemore. As you read it, or sing it, you wonder which one won out in Newman’s own soul – the light or the gloom. I read somewhere that Baron von Hugel – and what on earth was he doing in England, anyway? – said of Newman how sad it was that someone so learned, so full of passion and vision, so pious and holy, could be so depressing.

Depression is a puzzling thing, as varied as the people who suffer from it. It is well-known that it often affects those who ostensibly have a cheerful sense of humour, although on inspection it may be rather darker than is first realised. But even so, they make other people laugh, and the diagnosis of depression is often hard for others to believe because of that. Then there are other depressives who have every symptom, and yet use all their energies to propel their depression outwards, to bring others down with them. They protect themselves, at the cost of hurting those around them. After all, as one I worked for was fond of saying, “God did not put us on this earth to be happy”.

Depression puzzles further because depressives, especially the bi-polar kind, are capable of great energy and achievement. I well remember when it was at its worst when I worked in London, drawing the energy of the week together for the Sunday sermon and the Thursday lecture. Utterly useless the rest of the time. You lie there still, in the bed or the armchair, neither lazy, nor asleep, nor even drunk, watching the clock go round until at last it is too late to do anything. The ship has sailed out of the harbour, and you are not sorry to see it go.

You wonder when the gloom will end, and think it probably won’t. But kindly light sometimes shines, and when it does, it shines from other people – or from creatures, or God’s good creation. I have found that walking is much more use than medication, but that is a luxury of the unemployed. The most helpful people are those who have experienced it themselves, or those remarkable people who somehow just work out how to say and do the right things. My hopeless boss, whose affliction was infinitely worse than mine, had an assistant who was the mistress of the short simple task. She’d ask me to do something which she knew, and I knew, I could do. It had a swift deadline, and meeting it afforded an uplift of mood which was very welcome. Kindly light, amid the encircling gloom.

It’s not easy dealing with depressives, but I hope, sometimes, it’s worth it.

With love
Littlemore, Oxford
October 2011

Never A Borrower or Lender Be

Letter from Littlemore – No. 24
8th October 2011

Never a Borrower or Lender Be

What fun the meeja types have been having with Mr Cameron’s speech this week! Apparently, his first intention was to tell us all off for not paying off our credit cards and getting out of debt. Then, oh no, this wouldn’t do, so it was changed to “well done, you little people, for trying to pay off your credit cards and get out of debt”. There were two prices that had to be paid for this – he had to blame his scriptwriters for getting it wrong, and his flunkeys for releasing it too soon; and he had to bear the terrible burden of the “Tory millionaire toff realises that life might actually be financially harder for most other people than himself” storyline. Given that Messrs Miliband and Clegg have equally never had to bear the burden of poverty, benefits, and not knowing where the money was coming from to pay for the heating, that wasn’t a huge sacrifice.

But I wonder if the true story might have been a little different. After all, since the Great Bail-Out, Britain’s banks have been castigated for not lending enough money to businesses. This, supposedly, will create work and growth. Not least for the banks. Not that the banks have anything to worry about because, unlike all other businesses, they know that they can ask the taxpayer to foot the bill when they screw up. The Government line seems to be that credit is good. Which, put another way, means debt is good. So, telling the ignorant masses to pay off their credit cards at the exorbitant rates of interest they charge, is actually bad for the economy, not good for it. And what does it matter if a few small people go to the wall, when the big people are so lovingly financially upholstered by their friends in Parliament? Imagine the whispering spin doctors - “So, The People’s Dave, think again – if the little people don’t stay in debt, the big people might have to find new jobs themselves, and there’s a recession on, in case you hadn’t noticed, and just imagine how embarrassing it would be to see fellow members of the ruling class out of work? And in any case, there are people in the Cayman Islands, and Belize, and Switzerland, who badly need that money, so really, it’s a case of international development.”

But actually, The People’s Dave was right first time, and Mother was right a lot longer before that – “never a borrower or lender be”. Live within your means, cut your coat according to your cloth, and so on. Ebenezer Brewer in the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has this cute little rhyme:

“Little barks must keep near shore,
Larger ones may venture more.”

There is an allure in credit – we always call it that, not debt – that somehow we have been found worthy to spend money we don’t have on things we shall soon forget. I’ve fallen for it myself, and got into several right old tangles, thinking that the good times would continue to be around the corner, when they weren’t. And then the debt-collector comes along, making his demands with menaces. One of the snags of the tuition-fees hike for universities is that it pushes more and more young people into Plasticville. After all, if you’re going to be £30,000 in debt when you end your course, what difference is another little dinner for eight at the Randolph Hotel going to make anyway? When I was a student, sometime after Noah’s coming-of-age (about 500 in those days) and before the Ark sailed (but “larger ones may venture more”) none of my friends had credit cards. We went out to dinner sometimes, and we went armed with cash. And we calculated who’d had what, too. In plusher times I’d have found that vulgar; then it was a necessity – it would have been absurd for my friend Elizabeth, who doesn’t drink, to subsidise my wine, or for me, not keen on puddings, to pay for her ice-cream. It may have lacked panache as a way of living, but it was fair. We lived within our means.

And most of us had limited means. We came from relatively comfortable families, and we wanted for no necessity. Our parents took the government’s maintenance grant as an indicator of how much money we might realistically need, and didn’t far exceed it. One of the saddest and most salutary experiences of our time at Christ Church was seeing the ambulance that took away Olivia Channon’s body from Count Gottfried von Bismarck’s room in Blue Boar Quad (she was the daughter of Paul Channon, then a Cabinet minister, and a descendant of Guinness money and he of the same family as the more famous Otto). I had been at Mattins and the early Holy Communion that morning, and seeing the ambulance parked outside the Deanery I thought it must be Dean Heaton, who had had major heart surgery a little before our time. But no, it was a young woman our own age, dead of drugs and alcohol. When the rest of us lived comfortably on £2,400 a year, her personal allowance was £22,000 a year. Small wonder that there was nothing else to do with it but invest it in things that proved fatal for her.

Easy money is easily wasted. When I was a child, we saved up for things; sometimes for months on end. When I collected coins (it’s a phase; you grow out of it) I wanted to own a gold sovereign – and not any sovereign, an Edward VII 1902 sovereign. Every penny I was given for birthday or Christmas, and other gifts, was saved up for this, and finally I hit my target - £29.50. Off we went to the bullion department of Johnson Matthey, later disgraced, and there it was – but! £31.50! The price had gone up in the time it had taken to me save it. My father dipped into his pocket for the last £2, thinking I’d done well to be patient for so long, and probably also thinking that he didn’t want to waste another Saturday morning driving into the centre of London at a later date. I still have the receipt somewhere. And the sovereign. That was over thirty years ago.

But shouldn’t it be the case that what is true of small boys saving up for their coin collections, is also true of adults and businesses? Is it such a bad idea to save up, instead of borrowing? I know the economic theory behind “credit creation”, but when “creation” turns to “crunch” it seems less appealing, the pound that everyone could share, turns into the pound that everyone owes. One thing an enlightened government might do, though, is to make those glittering sovereigns just a little less expensive, to cut down the waiting time for an impatient “want it now” generation, until we have re-learnt the ways of thrift our mothers taught us.

With love
Littlemore, Oxford
January 2011

Friday, 30 September 2011

Angels for Michaelmas

A Brief Homily for Holy Communion
on the Feast of S. Michael & All Angels

Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford

29th September, 2011, 7.30 p.m.

Readings: Genesis 28:10-17 & John 1:47-51

Tonight is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, a fond day for Oxford and Cambridge because it is the name our universities give to the Autumn terms; a fond day for me because it is traditionally the beginning of the season in which geese are eaten. This is not because geese are fondly associated with angels – if you have ever kept them, as I have, you’ll know they are decidedly NOT angelic, especially in the Spring – but because geese eat grass, and once the free grass stops growing in the autumn, you might as well eat them, rather than waste valuable corn feeding them.

Our Scriptures are full of angels, like our two readings tonight, but nowhere are we really told what they are, or even what they are for. In literature that never made it into the Bible there is an elaborate “angelology”, literally, the science of angels, which divides them into nine ranks. Some of you may know the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones”. It is by Athelstan Riley. I suppose Mr and Mrs Riley thought that with such a plain surname, he needed a colourful first name. My parents took a similar approach, but the other way round. The first verse speaks of

“Bright Seraphs, Cherubim and Thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluya!
Cry out Dominions, Princedoms, Powers,
Virtues, Archangels, Angels’ choirs,
Alleluya ….”

We used to sing this at school where we learnt nothing about Christianity, it being a C of E foundation, so it was a very long time before I realised that all these outlandish characters represent the nine ranks of traditional angelology, starting with the Seraphs, and ending with the common or garden angels who just sing a lot and hang around on ladders.

I don’t think it could be demanded of us that we believe in angels, although I’ve never heard of it doing anyone any harm. Some people believe we each have a Guardian Angel, who is the voice of conscience which stops us making fools of ourselves, or reminds us we are driving too fast.

But what are angels, what do they do? The name comes literally from a Greek word meaning “messenger”, and when we read about them in the Bible they are usually messengers of God. Sometimes quite literally, as when Gabriel told Mary the Good News of the Incarnation, more often, as in our readings tonight, pointing out the presence of God in places and in people where we might not expect it. In his dream, Jacob’s angels open his ears to the voice and presence of God, not only with Jacob, but in the land itself, the Promised Land. Jesus tells Nathanael that angels will show him a greater truth even than the one he has realised, that God himself is revealed in the Promised Son.

I knew a mystic once, a very old, and rather deaf, lady who would sometimes come and tell us her visions after the service. One time she said, “I know we say it every week, but I don’t think I ever listened before – “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” – and I looked up, and the church roof was gone [at this point, the vicar’s face went white, fearing a prophecy!], and there they all were, singing with us. Wasn’t that a lovely thing, dear?” And she trotted off to her lunch.

She was my angel that day. May you too be someone’s angel. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
September 2011

Saturday, 24 September 2011


That naughty old bishop, Montefiore
At one time caused quite a furore
He suggested the Son
Might have been ... "one"
Thank goodness he's since gone to glory

Saturday, 24th September, 2011, 4 p.m.


God, our maker and redeemer, we come before the throne of the heavenly grace to offer our prayers for this church, this parish, this people, for one another, and for ourselves:

Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer

At this Festival time, we pray with thanks for the witness of our church here in Littlemore, for all those in its 175 years who have illuminated its walls with their prayers, those who have come here and found your love and your solace, your kindness and your joy, your truth and a true faith, those who have led the celebrations at the altar, and sought to enlighten from the pulpit, those who have gone out refreshed, to witness to your faith and hope and love in the world;

Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer

Father, as we give thanks for past and present, give us eyes to look towards the future, and your light for the path we must take, the better to bear witness to your Good News in our midst; give us courage and wisdom, hope and heart, to make good choices, to risk change, and being changed, and to dare to become all that you will us to be;

Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer

We pray for your blessing on this parish and this city, for its universities, colleges and schools, and especially for Oriel College, our partron, for its hospitals, care homes and hospices, factories, businesses, shops, and watering holes, for our families, and friends, and neighbours, and all the communities to which we belong; we pray especially for our brothers and sisters in the faith, who ascend the holy mountain with us, but by a different path, for the congregations of the Roman Catholic and Baptist churches in Littlemore, for the people of the University Church of S. Mary the Virgin, out of which our parish grew, for all Christian people, for those of other faiths, and those whose faith is known only to you; may your kindly light lead us all to that place where our differences shall be lost in wonder, love, and praise;

Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer

Father of your compassion we pray for all those at this time who are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity; in the quietness of our hearts we name before you those known to us in a silent moment now …. Be with us in our hard times, and show us the way to be good friends to those who need us;

Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer

Lord of life, whose son conquered death and rose again, we pray with thanksgiving for the lives of all those who have died; at this time we pray especially for Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, Blessed John Henry Newman, for Jemima Newman, and all the many benefactors of this church, by gift and prayer, and deed; we pray for all who have touched our lives also with their love, and called our love out, and especially for those who have led us in the way of faith; in the fullness of time, may we share with them in the eternal banquet prepared for all your children;

Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord
And let light perpetual shine upon them

May they rest in peace
And rise in glory

Silence for Private Prayers

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all, evermore, Amen.

Childhood - Letter to the Daily Telegraph

No idea if this will get in, but for what it's worth -

Dear Editor,

The "childhood" that your correspondents mourn is a relatively recent invention. My late grandfather was born in 1908 in a workhouse, his mother died when he was 6, he was left as a deposit on a debt at 12 working for nothing and sleeping under a kitchen table, became a barrowboy at 15 and was fed by gypsies, and was given just one present in his whole childhood.

He would have given his eye teeth for a bellyful of burgers and the leisure to waste time on computer games.

He could read and write, though.

Yours faithfully,

(The Revd) Richard Haggis

PS - I know this sounds like something out of Dickens, but it is verifiably true. He was an amazing man.

26 Bampton Close
"A previous Chancellor, Robert Lowe, described the office in the following terms in the House of Commons, on 11 April 1870: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man whose duties make him more or less of a taxing machine. He is entrusted with a certain amount of misery which it is his duty to distribute as fairly as he can.""

From the sometimes dubious Wikipaedia, but rather a nice line if it is true.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Sunday Prayers - 18th September 2011

Intercessions for Holy Communion
at the
Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford

18th September 2011, 10 a.m.

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
The Labourers in the Vineyard

Father, may our prayer be our work
May our work be our prayer

God our Father, Lord of the vineyards in which we toil in your Son’s name, we pray for the Church in this place and throughout the world. We pray for the bishops who serve our dioceses, and for our clergy who care for our parishes, for all congregations who gather in your name in every denomination, to pray your praise and to set it forth before your other children, in word, and work, and example. Hear our prayer for Rowan our Archbishop, and John our Bishop; for Margreet and all, lay and ordained, who serve us here. We pray that the Holy Spirit may bring them vision and joy, commonsense and kindness, guide their deliberations and enlighten their choices.

Father, may our prayer be our work
May our work be our prayer

We pray with joy for this beautiful world which you made and gave to us to look after. Hear our prayer for the those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, elected and unelected, for the work of the United Nations, for those in the Middle East who are discovering new freedoms; may those with power use it wisely and well, and may their people have courage to hold them to account for wrongdoing and cruelty, and gracious hearts and minds to encourage them in the ways of peace and justice;

Father, may our prayer be our work
May our work be our prayer

We pray for our families, and friends and neighbours, for all the communities to which we belong; and we give you thanks that we were made for one another and for you; we thank you for the love and laughter that we share, for the shoulders to cry on, the tables at which to rejoice in fellowship, the pubs and clubs, the bus-stops and shops, where we can make, for however long or brief a moment, new friends;

Father, may our prayer be our work
May our work be our prayer

Hear our prayer for all who suffer in any way, for ourselves, and all who suffer sorrow, anxiety and grief, physical pain or frailty; we pray especially for the families and friends of those who have lately died in the Welsh mining accident; we pray for all whose work is hard and dangerous; we pray for those who face the fear and horror of military combat around the world, and for those who love them; We have been especially asked to pray for …. and in a moment together, aloud or silently, we remember before you the names on our hearts at this time ….

Father, may our prayer be our work
May our work be our prayer

God our Father, you are Love, and in the Divine Trinity in whom we are all baptised, you show us that love, which is immortal and eternal; hear our prayer of thanksgiving for all those we have known who have exchanged this world for the Kingdom of Heaven, we thank you for their love, and we pray for those whose love was never known or never saw the light of day; especially at this time we remember …

Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord
And let light perpetual shine upon them

May they rest in peace
And rise in glory

Let us take a moment in silence together to offer our own personal and private prayers to the Lord of the vineyard in which we serve …

Father may our prayer be our work
May our work be our prayer

Merciful father …

Epitaph on a Puritan - Hilaire Belloc

"He served his God
so faithfully and well
That now he serves him,
face to face, in hell"

Friday, 16 September 2011

Letter in The Daily Telegraph, 16.09.11

SIR – Our economy is over-invested in housing. Building companies who bought at the height of the last house-price boom cannot be blamed for wanting to wait before developing their land. But the state could buy that land off them, and build at a speed that would ease the need for housing while also reducing its value.

One person can only live under one roof. A house should not be an investment. The Government should smash the housing market and free up money for investment in real industry that creates work.

Rev Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxfordshire

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Mystery of Fathers

"I want to pick your brains about metallurgy"

"Oh, I've forgotten all that stuff"

Twenty minutes later, after a tutorial which included heaviness of osmium, the conductivity of irridium, the percentage purity of sterling silver and 22-carat gold, the oxidisation of copper, the smelting and thieving of lead, the strength and consistency of titanium, and the qualities of platinum when it is heated over a gas ring (it keeps its colour), I had all I needed for a little sermon about how sometimes the noble needs to be mixed with the base in order to do its job.

"Forgotten all that stuff"!


Saturday, 10 September 2011

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Friday, 9th of September, 2011, 9 a.m.

Motes, Beams, and Unconditional Forgiveness

Notes from a brief ex tempore sermon to the
Sisters of the Love of God,
at Fairacres Convent, Oxford

Friday, 9th September, 2011

Gospel: Luke 6:39-42

When I was younger, this reading always puzzled me. I didn't have a churchy childhood, so I'm not really sure how I heard of it. Motes seemed to me quite easy - aren't they the flecks of dust that float in the air when a shard of sunlight catches them, and your Mum has not been paying attention to the housework? But beams were different. A "beaming" person was someone happy, with a nice smile. What was wrong with having a beam in your eye? I was too young to think then "Ooh, that's a bit saucy". But, thanks be to God for the New English Bible, which translated these words as "a speck" and "a plank". Here was a little sliver of the comedy of Jesus which somehow made its way into our Gospel, a comic image which is timeless. A silly fellow with a great big plank of wood over his face, telling everyone else how to do things. Some of you may remember Eric Sykes's classic slapstick silent film "The Plank", in which just about everything that can go wrong when an idiot is walking about with a plank, does. Jesus was a funny guy. I think he would have liked Mr Sykes.

Eric Sykes is not a satirist. He is a gentle comedian. But I am drawn to satire in all its forms. I like the Flanders and Swan definition: “The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion, and cosy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” Tom Lehrer took a slightly different line – he resigned from writing satirical songs in the 1970s when Henry Kissenger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He claimed he couldn’t compete with the Nobel Committee.

But Jesus has a hard message for us too. I imagine in a convent not a lot of wallspace is given over to mirrors. I'm not a great fan either. A kind friend says this explains the state of my hair. But how are we to see this plank in our own eye? Where is our mirror? With a great big lump of wood slapped across our face, how are we to see anything at all? Maybe that is Jesus's point. Maybe he means us not to judge others, nor to judge ourselves. The ascetical tradition speaks of finding a "soul friend", or a confessor, to talk to about the things that make us anxious and guilty. At its best, the hope is that we will find someone who will at least like us, listen to us, and stop us from being too hard on ourselves, from turning that plank into a lean-to, which is the well-trodden path of Christian masochism, and sometimes appalling architecture.

Our consolation must be that the throne of the heavenly grace is occupied by the most generous and forgiving judge we can any of us imagine.

For our motes and beams, our specks and planks, Lord Have mercy.


Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
September 2011

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Unexpected Welcomes

A Homily for the Feast of the Birth of the Mother of God
being also the end of the Octave of Saint Giles of Provence

Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford
Thursday, 8th of September 2011, 7.30 p.m.
Readings: Psalm 113 & John 19:25-27

Unexpected Welcomes

This evening we keep the Feast of the birth of Mary, the Mother of God. It is also the end of the “octave” of Saint Giles of Provence (octave means eight days in which a special day is remembered and observed). Technically, that is cheating, because Saint Giles doesn’t qualify for an octave, because he isn’t important enough. But here in Oxford we have Saint Giles’ Church, Saint Giles’street – the widest in our city, and Saint Giles’ Fair, so we can do the Orthodox thing, and claim a special local consideration. As luck would have it, we can combine the two, and here is how:

Saint Giles is the patron saint of many things – of lepers and cripples, of those with a secret sin, of blacksmiths and cobblers, and of nursing mothers. As a preacher, I personally take comfort in knowing there is a patron saint of cobblers, but that a celibate monk should be the patron saint of nursing mothers is more interesting. The legend is that Giles lived as a hermit in a cave, and one day the King of the Visigoths (remember them?) was out hunting with his cronies and they wounded a hind. She came to Saint Giles’s cave and he nursed her back to health. In return when she gave birth to her fawn, she shared her surplus milk with Giles. And so he became the patron saint of nursing mothers. I once served in the parish of Saint Giles-in-the-Fields in London, and for many years we had in our parish the first hospital for new mothers.

I’m not a mother, and only tenuously a father, unless you count two cats and a stepson in the Amazon, but it seems to me that motherhood is about welcome. Welcoming a stranger. I have noticed how sometimes when children are born, the mother seems to know precisely who they are already, so the stranger can be welcomed long before breathing the outside air, but at whatever stage, we all start off as strangers.

Our Gospel reading tonight speaks of welcoming the stranger – the Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’s mother, Mary, into his home. There is no evidence to suggest they had even met before the momentous event that gave birth to our redemption. I hope, being fond of my mother, and indeed, of many people’s mothers, that Jesus’s mother didn’t have to live in a cave. But I am glad that in her grief and loss, God gave her someone else to love, for “He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children”.

God, give us grace and kindness, to open our homes and our hearts to the stranger, that joy may abound, and life together may be life more abundant indeed. Amen.

Richard Haggis, Littlemore, Oxford, September 2011

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Rational Belonging

Kenneth Clarke, the Lord Chancellor, has said that: "The general recipe for a productive member of society is no secret. It has not changed since I was inner-cities minister 25 years ago. It's about having a job, a strong family, a decent education and beneath it all, an attitude that shares in the values of mainstream society. What is different now is that a growing minority of people in our nation lack all of those things and indeed, have substituted an inflated sense of expectations for a commitment to hard graft." (The Guardian, 6th September 2011)

I dimly remember from studying economics at university that there is a creature called "the rational egoist". Broadly, this creature serves his own interest with steely logic. He will take risks if the prospect of gain is proportionate to them, and avoid them if he stands a significant chance of making things worse for himself. He is not altruistic unless other people can see, think the better of him, and improve his chances of future benefit through their goodwill. Goodwill is something that can be paid for. He is prepared to trade in both love and money - although his love is not really worth having. He is not an attractive creature, but he is clever enough to make it look as if he is, until he has made enough. The trouble is, enough is never enough, and tomorrow never comes.

A lot of economic theory is based on this model, which suggests that with infinite resources, supply will rise to meet demand, and with finite resources, prices will rise to match supply.

And, of course, it doesn't work. People's tastes and priorites may be quite out of step with their financial worth. The woman who lives in a draughty room of her mansion rather than selling up and going somewhere more comfortable is not a rational egoist. The man who is offered a job that pays more, but stays with the one he actually enjoys, is not a rational egoist. Parents who would lay down their own lives to save their children, are not rational egoists. The person who keeps a cat when there is no mouse problem, or a dog when there is no cat problem, is not a rational egoist. The art-lover or gardener or hobbyist who invests money in things that will never bring any return at all, is not a rational egoist.

And there is the heart of the economist's problem - love cannot be priced up, budgeted for, or predicted. And when we have love, enough may well be enough.

So, returning to Lord Chancellor Clarke's analysis, what are we to do with the irrational egoists who brought chaos to our streets, and wrought punishment on themselves? Presumably not the same brutal punishment wrought on those who bankrupted the economy and expected (correctly) to be bailed out?

It is relatively easy, in economic terms, to create jobs. But jobs worth having are another matter. Stable families are a matter beyond even that. Whether there is any real political commitment to closing the gap between rich and poor for the sake of society in general, I rather doubt. Mr Blair - whatever happened to him? - used to talk about a stakeholder society. Or was it Sir John Major? Or even Lady Thatcher? They blur in my mind. It seems to me that a decent stake in society is a home of your own, a job worth doing, an education for your children, and freedom from the fear of illness that you can't afford. Doesn't seem a lot to ask in the country that started the Industrial Revolution.

People with something to lose don't start riots.