Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Choices, Choices

A couple of hours ago I passed a notice for the new Tesco's catalogue.  It offered "more choices".  Did I want more choices?  Weren't there enough in the supermarket just behind me?  Or even too many?  I can only choose what I can afford anyway - is that really a choice?  Or would going hungry be the real choice?

It is taken for granted that Choice is a good thing.  "Of course, given the choice ..." we say with a bit of a whither.  "Free to Choose" was the title of one of Milton Friedman's books, the guru of monetarist economics and Margaret Thatcher, which rather ironically means that fewer people have any real  freedom to choose anything worth having  than ever. 

"I choose to have a house". 
"Well, you're poor, so you can't, that's the market".  

"I choose to have a car".
"Well, you're poor, so you can't, take the bus".  

"I choose for my children to have as good an education as yours". 

"Well, you're poor, so you can't, and they probably wouldn't be bright enough anyway".  

"I choose to have very rich parents and inherit privileges that make me even richer". 
"Now you're just taking the piss".

"Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and all the good things will trickle down to you from the rich people with bigger and nicer designer boots than yours".
"But I'm poor, I don't have any boots".

"Tough shit, life's not fair".

In America, the furious and sometimes violent debate about abortion is framed in terms of being Pro-Life or Pro-Choice.  You can't be anti-foetus-killing, or anti-unwanted babies, it seems, you must appear to be in favour of something.  But is anyone actually anti-life, unless they actually go ahead and top themselves?  Or anti-choice, unless they sit in a cardboard box under the stairs waiting to be fed? And even that's a choice, assuming mad people have a choice.  Political - and moral - slogans are peculiar.

It is a commonplace that people today are wealthier, healthier, and, arguably, even wiser, than ever, and yet are far more unhappy. Yet, suicide, addictions, depression in all its forms, relationship and family breakdowns, are having a field day with our fragile species, as we race around that field desperately trying to soak up all the choices we possibly can, and maybe becoming in the process just about the most disappointed people in history.

How do we balance on this tightrope?  Of course we want people to have choices, we want them to be happy - to choose what they study, their work, their home, their partner, the best for their children - but too much choice leads to a sort of collective insanity, and it also leads to envy of those who made better choices, or who had better choices laid in front of them.  And the envy can lead to social breakdown, but so too can the sort of economic policies which set those with good choices against those with little choices.

On Friday our little kitten is going to the vet to be spayed.  She has no choice.  We are hoping that this pro-choice option will turn out to be pro-life for a tiny creature who has started to mature too early and would be killed by giving birth.  But that is our choice.

Choices, choices.  I'm not happy about it, if I were free to choose ...

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2011

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Unlocking the Gates to the Garden of Love

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday, 22nd of August, 2011, 9 a.m.

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

Gospel: Matthew 23:13-22

Unlocking the Gates to the Garden of Love

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

It seemed to me that there is a lot of swearing in our Gospel reading this morning.  Now, if I were lecturing at a theological college, I could have a lot of fun with that, but the sort of language I would need to illustrate it would not be appropriate to this holy and beautiful place.  Instead, something else leapt out at me – “You who shut up the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, neither going in yourselves, nor allowing others to go in who want to”. 

It’s a pretty bracing image, isn’t it?  And maybe some of us recognise in that awful picture of jealousy and small-mindedness, ourselves. It made me think of a poem by William Blake.  Poetry scares me, but this one stuck in my mind many years ago, and here it is:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ``Thou shalt not'' writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

Sometimes I think I can see Mr Blake’s sad face as he gazes through the railings at something that once was beautiful, and thinks of all his joys and desires that others want to suffocate and hurt.  Of course, the modern mind – perhaps it was ever thus - thinks of sex when it hears about “joys and desires”, but, for a change, something quite different came to my mind.

I was making a funeral visit, preparing the order of service, with the daughter and only child of a lady who had lived into her late nineties and been away with the fairies for most of the last decade.  She was one of those for whom Heaven would not have been a surprise.  Her late husband had been a war hero, literally the man who went down with the ship, having tried his best to send everyone else to safety.  For years after grateful colleagues would knock at her door and offer their thanks that he had saved their lives.  “Of course, I couldn’t let them in”, she used to say, “What would the neighbours think?” 

She and her daughter – the lady I was visiting – were evacuated to Oxford during that war, along with other members of their family, from London.  I heard tales of marvellous family parties, singing round the piano.  And every time, the last song was “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”.

We got to a sticky bit in the order of service – what music to have at the end?  My friend was quite exhausted by now, and said “Oh, let’s just have what we had at the start, or let the organist do whatever he likes”.  I said, “What about “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”?”  She said “Oh no, I don’t think that would be appropriate”.  I said “Whyever not?”  “Well, it wouldn’t be allowed”  I straightened up to the full height of my pomposity and said, “I’m taking the service, whatever I allow, is allowed”.  “But I don’t have a recording”.  “I’m a Londoner, I do ….”

At the end of that service at the Crematorium, she led her children and grandchildren singing that happy song, indeed, positively dancing, out of the chapel.  I confess, I joined in.

Just for once, though I was indeed in a black gown, and I was walking my round, I had managed to kick open the door, take “Thou Shalt Not” from the lintel, and dig up the briars.  And it felt marvellous. 

Alas for you, scribes, and Pharisees, and hypocrites, who choose to stand guard over a locked door.  Hear the voice of the Good News which says: Kick it down, replant those sweet flowers, and shed your black gowns, because the garden is meant for Love, and let God show you there is a world of joy and delight that you are missing out on. 

Let God show you.      

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2011

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mary & the Intimacy of the Incarnation - I knew there was a better one!

A Sermon for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God
15th August 2004, 11 a.m.
Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London SW1
Readings: Galatians 4:4-7 & Luke 1:46-

Mary & the Intimacy of the Incarnation

I am a great enthusiast for graffiti.  I know it’s very annoying when it’s your wall they’re scribbling on, and I’ve never had the courage (if that’s the word) to do it myself, but there is much of social and political, and even religious interest to be gained from this particular form of vandalism.  Nigel Rees has compiled no fewer than four volumes of this stuff, from different times and places, and records this from a wall somewhere inside a Roman Catholic Convent Boarding School:

Holy Mary, we believe
That without sin thou didst conceive;
Blessed Virgin, thus believing,
May we sin without conceiving?

Which brings us, not only to today’s Saint, but also to part of the problem with her.  In art and literature Mary is portrayed as the most gentle and serene of saints – with the possible exception of the new sculpture in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.  There she carries an expression one might imagine from Germaine Greer if asked at tea-time “and will you be mother?”  Perhaps you can imagine the sense of fury.  So, apart from that one, Mary is depicted for us as tranquil and calm and yet she has been without question the most controversial saint of them all.

People tend to be very pro, or very anti.  I used to work with one of the antis.  She was a priest of evangelical background – a recovering evangelical, I like to think, someone who would never quite throw it all off – who would visibly flinch at the mention of Mary’s name.  Now, I’m not much given to mischief, but after noticing this, I managed to find a way of mentioning Mary in every Eucharist at which we were both present.  My former colleague is not alone.  The old Book of Common Prayer, compiled in the 1500s makes not a single mention of Mary by name in a Collect – not even at Christmas, when it must surely be admitted she had put in the lion’s share of the work.  This was all in reaction to the sometimes excessive devotion to Mary in the Middle Ages.  The reformers felt, and with some justice, that Mary had been turned into a goddess, and that distracted from the true worship of God.  Some Christians to this day share their misgivings.

We can understand how all this came about.  Christian people began to think of Mary as special in herself, rather than in relation to her son.  They pondered how this might be, how could Mary have been qualified to be chosen for the role?  Their answer was that she herself must have been without sin, and that led to the doctrine – made Dogma for all Christians to believe by the Pope in 1854 – of the Immaculate Conception.  Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna (“Holy Annie, God’s grannie”) – who are themselves never named in Scripture – conceived her without original sin being passed on as it normally was, from one generation to another.

Then – another problem.  If Mary was without sin, then surely she couldn’t die, as sin and death were part of that miserable package deal worked out for us by those incompetent agents, Adam and Eve.  So, if she couldn’t die, but wasn’t here with us, she must surely have been bodily assumed into heaven – the doctrine of the Assumption as it became, which was made Dogma by another Pope as recently as 1950.  Incidentally, the Orthodox Churches, thinking the Assumption too presumptuous, refer to the same event as the Dormition, or falling asleep, of Mary.

From here it is but a short step to Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, Queen of Heaven and all the rest.  A medical friend of mine assures me that it would be a very surprising thing indeed for a woman who had borne seven children to be still a virgin, but enough has been said.

All this stuff – pious and kindly meant as it is – comes at a cost.  It makes the Incarnation impossible.  S. Athanasius – the 4th century Bishop of Alexandria who is responsible for much of the text of the creed we are about to say together – wrote in his great work on the Incarnation: “that which was not assumed, could not be redeemed”.  By this he meant that Jesus must have been truly human in order to redeem humanity.  If Mary is immaculately conceived, sinless and immortal, then Jesus could not inherit true humanity from her.  It is ironic that those who wish to grant Mary the greatest honour have run the risk of unfitting her for her central theological task – to be the human agent of the Incarnation, the Word of God being made flesh, Mary’s flesh.

A more modern, and perhaps less weighty, strand in theology has become angry at the apparent impossibility of Mary as a role model for women.  A woman friend summed this up in the remark: “as far as I can see, the New Testament has only two well-developed female characters – one is a virginal mother, the other is a tart.  It could be argued that Christianity is not really taking women seriously”.  This is a fair point and one which we have begun to address in recent times, but there is more work to be done.

The late, and very distinguished, artist Francis Bacon, famed for his gory, tortured canvasses, was once asked what he would have liked to be, if not a painter.  He replied: “a mother”.  I don’t know what Bacon’s view of the Immaculate Conception was, but I think this rather surprising source points in the direction of something rather important.  Like those Catholic schoolgirls who wanted to sin without conceiving, the Western Church has got its priorities wrong about Mary.  Our Church Calendars call her the B.V.M. – the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In the East, Christians call her the Mother of God, Theotokos, the God-Bearer, and have done so since the 4th century. 

Because that’s the fascinating thing, that’s the mystery – that a normal, ordinary woman gave birth to God.  She fed him at the breast, taught him to talk and to walk, even changed his nappies, or whatever they used in 1st century Galilee.  Imagine that!  A mere human being changed the nappies of God.  That is how intimate the Incarnation is.  That is how close God wants us to be with him.  There’s nothing very clever or interesting about being a virgin, blessed or otherwise, but to be God’s own mother – that is an astonishing thing.

Once we learn to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation in this way, we find we don’t need made-up doctrines to glorify Mary, because nothing in this life could be more glorious than to be the Mother of God.  And once we’ve got rid of the Mediaeval paraphernalia we have a more realistic and accessible saint.  We don’t need to picture Mary as always serene, tall, elegant and gracious.  Let’s think of her as plump, or plain; let’s picture her laughing and getting cross – have you ever seen a mother not laughing and getting cross with her children?  Let’s picture her normal.

The glory is in the ordinariness of the scene, and because she is ordinary, and we are ordinary, we can strive to follow her example.  Often we think of Mary as a supreme example of obedience, and yes that’s true, but it’s much more dynamic than that, as all relationships with God are.  Her reply to the angel – “be it unto me according to thy word” is matched with the revolutionary anthem, the Magnificat, which is the Gospel reading today, with its manifesto of the lifting up of the humble and meek, and the casting down of the mighty from their pomp and luxury.  Mary has got the hang of the Good News from the start.  Mary is not merely acquiescing in the will of God, but co-operating in the work of God..

In that sense, she may stand as a role model for all Christians, men as well as women, not of obedience alone, but of creative co-operation.  Of course it is not given for us all to be the Mother of God – what a worry that would be! – but there is work in the world which God wants us – you and me – to help him to bring to birth.  Whatever it is, may God give us light to find it, grace to do it, and the joy of knowing that with God’s love, and the prayers of Mary and all the saints, we will never work alone.  Amen.

The Revd Richard Haggis
Assistant Priest
August 2004
(edited from notes)

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A little late, but a brief thought on Mary, the Mother of God, celebrated on the 15th

A Homily for Holy Communion
on the Tuesday of Easter Week, 14th April, 2009, 9 a.m.
Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres

The Red and the Blue – Earth and Heaven in the Kingfisher
Gospel: John 20:11-18

Alleluia, Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed, Alleluia

Perhaps sometimes you take a health-giving walk along the towpath to Iffley Lock.  During Holy Week, I was walking there and had the magical experience of spying a kingfisher on a branch on the bank opposite.  Scarcely the size of a sparrow, despite the width of the river there, its colours are so dazzling, you couldn’t miss it.  I stood in wonder, maybe even a kind of worship, for several minutes, and then I did something a little out of character, because my walks are solitary and silent affairs, and that’s how I like them.  I stopped a passing jogger to share the view with him.  He might have shrugged me off as a nutter, but he didn’t.  We watched in shared wonder, until a few minutes later the bird flew off and disappeared.  “Thanks for stopping me and showing me that”, the jogger said, and jogged off.

The next morning, I had a bit of an epiphany.  The kingfisher is an icon of Mary.  Traditionally, Mary is portrayed wearing a blue cape, often over a red garment.  The red of the earth is swathed in the blue of heaven, just as mortal Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.  The kingfisher’s plumage is a rich russet underneath, and a shimmering blue on top.  A tiny, humble bird, it makes an impact on us out of all proportion to its size.  Mary, an innocent young girl from Nazareth, is remembered the world over because of her Yes to God.

Perhaps this is just a bird-watcher’s whimsy.  In Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, Jesus too is portrayed in red and blue.  In him earth and heaven are bound together by love.  We can only wonder at the attractiveness, the sheer beauty, that drew so many people to him with a devotion as passionate as Mary Magdalen’s.   

We cannot touch the kingfisher, nor can we touch Christ – save in the bread and the wine – but we can watch, and wonder, and for a moment, or for eternity, our lives are transfigured.  So, the Risen Christ touches us.  The Easter hope is that in time, when we must shed the russet plumage of the earth from which we were made, we will find ourselves not naked, but swathed in dazzling, celestial blue, and fly, with angels and archangels to be with our maker and lover, beyond time and space, and feathers.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed, Alleluia

Richard Haggis, Littlemore, April 2009

A Skewed Reality

Missed this at the time - a yob was quoted saying that rioting and looting felt "like being in a video game".  I've never played a video game - nor many games at all, really, having no sense of fun (the adrenalin rush of the Guardian quick crossword is probably pretty low-level by comparison) - but I have seen it done, and seen the excitement and the intensity of concentration they can evoke.  Could it be that our rioters and looters suffered not so much from an inability to tell right from wrong, but a failure to understand the difference between fantasy and reality?

Aspiring For Hope

We are hearing the punitive bellowing of those personally unaffected by the recent riots, as the courts hand down exemplary sentences.  I suppose Messrs Cameron and Clegg and Mrs May did have their holidays ruined, but on £130,000 a year (and the rest!), I reckon they can probably catch up in the Autumn half-term.  "Make them clear up the mess ... make them wear tabards saying they are criminals ... bang them up ... stop their benefits ... throw their mothers out of their homes".  It is dismaying.  Was ever a child made a better person through being harshly punished?  Or an adult, come to that.  Read that both ways.  

Of course, the first people to blame for what happened are those who gave in to their baser instincts of violence and greed.  Then we can blame their parents for not teaching them better ways.  But might we not also look more broadly - the damage done by those riots is a fleabite compared to the damage done by the riots on the money markets, wanton excess, greed, and utter indifference to the welfare of others.  The bankers didn't set fire to shops and houses.  But they might just as well have done.  And they were educated, privileged, and rich.  Just like the rioters, they were care-less.  Couldn't care less. 

And let's go further up-market.  Our country is still engaged in illegal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Does that perhaps send out a message about violence, that you can use force to help yourself to just whatever you please, even if it is in a spirit of vindictive vengeance?  Where did the rioters learn it?  They learnt it from their betters.  And who goes to the wall?  The bankers?  No, massive bail-out.  The politicians?  Re-elected with unchanged (lack of) policies.  The rioters?  Yes, they must pay the price.  They were wicked in public and must be made an example of.  Unlike bankers and politicians, who seem not to have to take the slightest responsibility for their inactions, their carelessness.

Is this "broken Britain?"  Of course not.  Britain was never mended.  Disraeli spoke of "two nations" and seemed to want to make them one - rich and poor somehow reconciled, the largesse of the few enriching the sparseness of the many.  Between 1919 and 1979 the gap between rich and poor gradually got smaller.  Since then, it has got substantially greater.  Following on from the Great Depression, in the wake of the Second World War, and the economic stimulus war creates, and with the wonderful building opportunities afforded to us by the Luftwaffe, a new kind of politics emerged, which when I was teaching it used to be known as the "Post-War Consensus".  Its prevailing principle was that things must never be allowed to get as bad as in the late 1920s and early 1930s again, that unemployment was a social as well as an economic evil, the waste of lives that could be productive and dignified.  And it worked.  But English people being the contrary people they are - just look at the opposing benches in the House of Commons, the architecture itself says "fight, fight, fight" and not in the way Sir Winston meant - the Unions got out of control, demanding too much for too little, until they had over-played their hand enough that they lost the game, and the managers and shareholders were helping themselves to anything they wanted, for very little at all.
Think of the hopes and aspirations of these lawless young people.  What work do they have?  Successive governments boast about the work they have created.  This is an entertaining statistical lie.  The work is part-time, minimum-wage, insecure, un-unionised.  When a company does well, it doesn't expand and hire more staff, it hives off more money to the managers and the owners.  Not everyone who is out of work counts in the figures.  Hundreds of thousands of us are hidden in the figures for mental or physical disability.  They call us scroungers.  But I wonder how many of our rulers know how crushing it is to be rejected for countless jobs that aren't worth doing and would only have paid a pittance?  Is it any wonder that despondency leads to depression, addiction, family breakdown, and a host of other social evils?  "Work hard son, and you'll get a good job, just like I haven't".  

They say the average full-time income of a working person in this country is £25,000 a year.  I think this figure can only be reached by including a lot of people on fairytale salaries in the organised rackets that control the City, the professions, and business.  But allow it to be true for a moment.  What sort of mortgage could such a person afford?  The average dwelling in England and Wales in 2010 cost £167,000.  That's 6.7 times the average income.  "Oh, but most are bought by couples", so that's all right.  But is it?  When my parents bought their first house my mother's income didn't count.  I'm not saying that represents a healthy attitude to women, but that when the rules were relaxed, the banks realised they could fleece two people instead of just one.  And the banks were not exactly limping by on a pittance themselves before.  I don't know anyone doing an "ordinary" job who earns much more than £15,000.  Our prospect of having a home of our own is negligible.  There might be inheritances one day, but far too little, far too late, and eaten up by care home fees.  And so we rent.  And our leanness is stretched out to pay the pensions of the rentier class - we give our today, for their tomorrow.

Is it any wonder that people are resentful, bitter, violent, and avaricious?  They are all utterly destructive ways of being, destructive of relationships, of the person, of the soul.  And everywhere we look we see the signs of our avaricious society.  "Don't save up, get a credit card and have everything you want NOW"; have you got the latest computer, TV, X-box, mobile telephone, car, clothes, holiday, perfumes, tooth brush?;  don't bother cooking, buy something in expensive packaging full of salt, fat, and sugar; join a gym, rather than walking to work; doesn't the world owe you a living?"  Well, yes it does, but not that sort of living.  Smashing the house price inflation of recent years would be relatively easy, and would create work, and make practical training for trades attractive - build houses.  Don't give them to councils, give them to almshouses, and never part with the freeholds.  Quarter of a million a year for a decade would do it, and cost less than illegal wars.  Private investors will be forced to turn to industries which actually create jobs.  And the members of our society with the cheapest and feeblest stake in it would have homes of which they could be proud, homes they would not wish to lose, either to the bailiffs or the Luftwaffe.  

It is a recipe for a safer, more inclusive, kinder, Britain.  Don't punish those who destroy, build them something they will never want to destroy.  They will aspire for something far better than rioting and looting for their children.

Rant over!

Richard Haggis
17th August 2011   

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Letter from Littlemore, No. 23

Letter from Littlemore – No. 23
13th August 2011

The Muchness of Things

Today we took the new(-ish) car to Sussex to see my parents.  It performed well.  I hope we did too.  After a most pleasant lunch we had the delight (the Brasilian judge might be out on this one) of looking at old family cine films which my aunt has put onto DVD.  It was an uncanny thing to see so many familiar faces, so much younger than I last remember them, and so many now only visible to memory, having exchanged time for eternity.  With his usual droll wit, my father observed that his sister might perhaps have thought to record their wedding before my christening.  My late grandfather was there, dancing the night away, and trying to smile (he was very self-conscious about his teeth, having lost quite a few of the originals when he was boxing).  Grandmothers, great-uncles and great-aunts, cousins various, family friends, names known only as characters in stories, a cavalcade of history, and laughter.  What especially caught my attention was how very much my late godfather and his wife smiled, Uncle Jim and Auntie Margaret, as we knew them.  They weren’t blood relatives, but they had contributed a lot to my mother’s childhood, and loved her, and my father, and us, deeply.  They were delighted that my parents married, against all other advice, at 18 and 21.  Well, the world was wrong, my parents, and Auntie Margaret and Uncle Jim were right.  Forty-seven years later, we know this for a fact.  Well, we’ve known it for quite a long while.

My senior niece arrived after lunch, on horseback.  I can’t help thinking this is rather grand, although the horse is borrowed.  I told my mother a story she didn’t know about when my sister and niece (aged about two) and I were on holiday in East Anglia and visited Norwich cathedral.  Children love fire, and most churches let them light candles these days.  When she was done – heavily supervised, of course – she clapped her hands and burst out with “Happy Birthday to ME!”, then blew the candle out.  And there was this once-tiny personage, now a stroppy teenager, leading an enormous horse about as if it were a kitten.  She is a shy and reserved person, but she seemed to be entirely at one with herself, which at fifteen, is no small achievement.  It is a delight for now, and a building block for the future.

And so we returned to the Little Parish.  The other day I received in the post a parcel containing George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, which along with Gracie Fields’s “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World” (what odd bed-fellows those two are!) made me determine than one day I must own one.  This year that wish came true.  And I always wanted cats, and through no fault of my own, we now have Cleopatra and Ruby.  I have written one book, nearly finished my memoirs, written three monologues and sketched three more.  All I need is a publisher!  And then, a house, a macaw, and a Manchester terrier …

The Orwell takes me back to ancient days, because I lost the first copy in the first of my many divorces.  In fairness, it was his book.  Past, present, and maybe future, are winding round themselves today.  At the Parish Men’s Breakfast this morning we had such fun bantering puns, graffiti, limericks, and other jokes, new and old, and some requiring dredgers, that we even thought of posting them on a blog, and compiling a Christmas anthology.  It just might sell.  Names would have to be changed to protect the guilty, of course!

Tomorrow is another day – my extant grandfather is 91, I shall go to church, the cats and the fish will be their charming selves, and on Monday I will re-open my coursebook, and keep re-training as an electrician, and in the evening we will practice for His Lordship’s driving theory test.  There is so much in everything.  It’s a wonder we have time to breathe.  Mr Orwell wrote another novel called “Coming Up For Air”, but there are no slinky houseplants in it.  Honestly, did the man know nothing about marketing?

With love
Littlemore, Oxford
August 2011

Friday, 12 August 2011

Bad pun of the day

Ruby is delighted by flies and moths - is that the joy of insects?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A Thought on being Widowed, from a Widow's Grandson - a bagatelle

Sometimes to lose your life's partner opens new door, is a new lease of life.  You are freed from the tedium of caring for someone perhaps you no longer cared for.  Or who no longer cared for you.  But even tempestuous marriages leave a sense of loneliness when one party dies, and happy marriages even more so.

"We, who were two
are now one,
but not one in the way,
that we were one,
when we were two."

"I Blame The Parents"

This used to be a a commonplace of a certain kind of humour.  Inexplicble behaviour by children, particularly of a reckless, indulgent, or flamboyant, kind, was to be attributed to the previous generation.  

It is too early to understand what the Riots of the Innit Thieves are all about.  In the few snippets of interviews I have heard, it seems to be an inchoate sense of grievance combined with a sense of thrill, as if bare and wasted lives will somehow be mended by lawless violence.  It is easy to despise those who are doing it, those who will steal from a shop, then burn it down, defy the forces of law and order with violence, and terrify the people of their own communities with their viciousness.  It is very hard not to despise them.  But for all our sakes, and the sakes of generations yet unborn, we must seek to understand.

I hope that I should not need to say, that I do not in any way condone anything that has been done in the streets of the City of my birth, in Ealing where I was on placement, in Romford, where I had the happiest of curacies, in Croydon, in which I had hoped to become a vicar.  These places matter to me, as do their people, for the most part straightforward, kindly, honest, hard-working, family people.  Like the families in which I grew up.  I say "families" because we (almost) all have four grandparents, and those different strands of life give us different experience and understanding of human nature.  It is heart-breaking to see the damage, the violence, the cruelty, wrought by these disaffected and useless youngsters.  Literally "care-less".  Couldn't care less.  What a horrid expression.  But if you have no job, no prospects, and no one to care for, what do you have to lose?

At some point, though, we must, as a society, or even individual by individual, wonder what on earth went wrong, how did all this wickedness enter the souls of people who surely must have entered this world, probably underweight owing to booze and fags, as innocents like the rest of us, crying, smiling, pooing, wondering, laughing, grabbing our fingers with their own gloriously beautiful tiny digits.  Surely, they could have turned out well?  Poverty alone, nor racial prejudice, not that those involved in the riots have been only of one class, nor of one race, does not doom you to acts of extreme and disgusting violence.

There is a lot wrong with our political and economic system.  For over thirty years the Thatcherite-Monetarist Hegemony has been deeply uncomitted to the poorer members of society.  Our rulers have done their looting, through the law, the banks, business, and creamed off the profits and the share options and the dividends.  They have worked hard, but been rewarded highly.  My cleaner in Romford worked as hard, but for her I could only afford just above the market hourly rate, a card at Christmas, and the occasional bunch of flowers.  She deserved far more.  But she worked, and she didn't begrudge others what they had.  It is a matter of statistical record that the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever in memorable history.  But too, it is a  matter of statistical record that the poor are not as poor as they were.  We have cars, and washing machines, and televisions, we can afford to go to the pub, we have baths and lavatories in our homes, we will never go hungry.  I'm not saying that we should be sending up daily prayers of gratitude for our slendernes - well, maybe we should, it can't make things worse and might make things better - but for most of our people, as Harold Macmillan was once misquoted saying "we've never had it so good".  And yes, I know there's a recession on: I know the price of a slab of butter, and I use up the vouchers I am sent for using loyalty cards, and pay for things ending in 99 pence with precisely 99 pence, but this is nothing like the Great Depression.  If anyone starves it is because they choose to, or that the choice (as for children and old people) is made for them by others.   
So what are we to say about this rebellion without a cause?  Well, yes, I blame the parents.  I say so because I blame my parents.  I blame them that they (especially my mother) taught me to read and write and count by the time I was three; I blame them that they taught us to say please when we wanted something, and thank-you when we got it, and that the one did not automatically lead to the other; that we were taught to be as grateful for the presents at Christmas that we liked, as for the ones that didn't hit the spot, and not to give away our feelings, the positive ones of which could be expressed in a thank-you letter later; I blame them that I was taught that all men and women are equal, and you are to treat your betters and your inferiors equally, because they are neither; that respect is to be won, but it starts with age, wisdom, education, kindness, and love; I blame my father for making a bookcase, and my mother for filling it with books on all kinds of subjects some of which she would never read, but we might; I blame them that in the daytime there was always a mother at home for us; I blame them that access to the television was limited, and that sex and violence were off-limits, the one because it is private, the other because it is evil; I blame them that though sometimes we didn't see my father from one day to the next, up early, home late, we knew where he was, because we knew his scrapyard (a magical place for a child, and supremely dangerous!), and we knew that even after we had gone to bed, he would be there, locking the doors and making us safe; I blame them that I was taught to disagree graciously, and to listen to all sides of an argument, without losing my own.  I blame them that I passed a shed-load of exams and got into Oxford, without a moment's pressure to succeed, but for the sheer joy of learning.  My parents had not one qualification between; my father had known indifferent parenting; my mother had never really been a child, but I blame them for having the imagination, and the love, to make for us a world they never knew, a world in which we could be ourselves, make our choices, and fashion our destiny. 
We are, of course, animals, but animals made in the image and likeness of God, and that means anything can be redeemed, transfigured, and made glorious.  Sometimes the bird is born into the right nest, the fox into the right litter.

I wonder what the robbers and looters of London blame their parents for?  

I wager our cats are looked after better than they were.

Substitute "blame" with "thank", and the point is just the same.

Richard Haggis
August 2011

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Perversity of Providence

For some reason, I was thinking today about the Kaiser's arm.  You may perhaps know the story that the medical team - they blamed a midwife - by over-enthusiastic use of  forceps pulled his arm out of its socket before he was born, and it never grew right.  This was injury enough, but a kind nanny told him his mother was so repelled by him that she refused to breastfeed him.  The truth was that the ladies at the Prussian royal court thought breast-feeding vulgar, and so, despite being urged by her mother, the Crown Princess followed the local custom.  Her mother was Queen Victoria, sovereign of England and its Empire, and mother to nine children.  No slouch in either international affairs, or motherhood.  The Kaiser was there when his grandmother died - with an arm under her pillow.  He couldn't swap sides, because his other arm didn't work.

So, the Kaiser - Wilhelm II to his unfortunate people - grew up with a grudge - quite understandably.  He developed an obsession with the many uniforms to which he was entitled, altering them to make his stunted arm look more normal.  When he shook hands with people, his already ferocious grip was enhanced by turning the bejewelled rings on his fingers inwards, so they cut into the skin of his victims.  And he hated his Uncle, King Edward VII, who had established the Entente Cordiale by the simple virtue of being nice to people.  And liking French coffee.  Wilhelm preferred the other way of doing things.

And one thing led to another.  He became obsessive about military things, built up a navy to rival England's, and was itching for a war that would avenge him on his mother and her family.  He didn't dare do it whilst his Uncle was alive, and he knew his grandmother would have been disgusted, his mother despairing.  But when they were all safely dead, he took the first opportunity he could, and launched his people into the Great War, "the War to end all wars".  If only that had been true.  The casualties were immense, the costs to Germany's people, economy, and self-understanding, were immense.   And, by, popular demand, he was the last Emperor of the Germans.  

The cost to the rest of Europe was equally immense, and the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for that strutting ponce, Adolf Hitler, to sieze power, cheer the Germans up, and then wreak yet more horrific tyranny and bloodshed.

The Kaiser was forced into exile in Holland, where he lived for many more years, refusing, with a dignity and sense that had eluded him when he had actual power, to have anything to do with the Nazis.  He died in 1941.

All this, because of a clumsy midwife.

Providence, eh?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Some time ago I had a sadness with the hierarchy of the Church of England.  A job I had deeply wanted was taken away from me at the last moment, thanks to one bishop’s failure to take up references, another’s failure to open a file in over three months, a third’s failure to check what was in there, and an archdeacon’s profound malevolence in secreting a malicious letter into that file knowing his bishop would be too lazy to read it.  This was all a tremendous shame, as new things were on the verge of happening, both for that most excellent parish, and, I had hoped, for me.

As I struggled with a blend of deep depression and incandescent rage, a kind friend invited me to come and stay with her in a northern city I had never visited before.  It was a delightful stay, and a welcome tonic in a bleak time.  She is one of those friends I see rarely, but cherish much.  The highlight of my visit was perhaps when her dealer called round.  Yes, that kind of dealer.  In parish ministry you learn not to appear surprised:  “I’ve had an abortion”; “I’m leaving my wife for my boyfriend”; “I’ve never believed in the Holy Spirit”; “I was abused by the chaplain at school”; you know, that sort of thing.  You may flinch inside, but outwardly, never.

Noel listened to my story.  He was a man from a different sort of world from my own: a bit rough and ready; mixed-race; he had known hardship and prejudice.  He made a living, I don’t suppose I can really call it an honest one, in the only way he knew.  When I was done, he said:

“That’s terrible, man.  This guy needs sorting out.  I can do it for you”.

I said, “Oh no, I’m sure that’s not necessary”.

He said, probably looking at the threadbare clothes I was wearing (I wasn’t poor, just don’t like to throw things out):

“Honest, I won’t charge, just tell me where he lives”.

So, for a fleeting moment there lay in my hands the chance to wreak vengeance on my enemy; if not to have him killed, at least to make sure he never walked again without assistance.  It was pure, corrupting, power.  And do what you will with that oxymoron.

I made light of it, and the conversation moved on.

I was tempted.  Not for long, but I was tempted.  What stopped me was that if discovered, Noel would have suffered far more than me, or even the bishop in question.  And I suspect in his young life he had suffered enough.  I am not sufficiently a Christian to have worried all that much about the bishop. 

But there was in that nefarious young man’s offer a variety of compassion.  Wrongly expressed, and I suspect often used amiss, but it was compassion all the same.  We were strangers, and he thought I had been hard done by, and offered what he could to help, in the only language he knew.  It is of course a million miles from the Good Samaritan.  But then, so am I.

My prayer is that his compassion will have found a better outlet, something that may bring him joy and prosperity and peace, something to pass on, perhaps, to another generation of Noels who may never even think of such things. 

And my other prayer is that the wanting to forgive those hierarchs that is in my heart, may become the real forgiveness that my soul yearns for, and must find, before it can ever find its place at the table in heaven.

I think Noel will get a better seat than me; but if I ever hear those words “friend, come up higher” it will be from him.

Richard Haggis
August 2011


eyes to see

A Sermon for Holy Communion at SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford
Thursday, 21st July 2011, 7.30 p.m.

Gospel: Matthew 13:10-17

Eyes to see, and ears to hear

When we read this story, for many of us the first reaction is “But why?  Why keep it secret?  Why speak in parables, not in plain language?”

I have an old friend, a holy nun (she would resist the word holy, as is her right) who had a time of seeing to the reality of things, God’s reality.  At the sacrament of Holy Communion she could see the Holy Spirit.  Nuns being nuns, Reverend Mother said, “well if you can see so much, we’ve a leak in the laundry and perhaps you can find it”.  And she did. 

I asked her what it was like.  Very much to my surprise, she said “it’s hell”.  I thought it would have been wonderful and spiritual.  But it is not for mere mortals to see all that God can see, all the time.  Sometimes we need spiritual truth we can mull over in front of the telly, with a cup of tea. 

Perhaps you know the feeling described to me in a lecture one time – to my shame I forget who was speaking – quoting Bishop Ian Ramsey, one of the “great white hopes” of the Church of England, who thwarted all that by dropping dead when he was made bishop of Durham – he spoke of the moment when “the penny drops, the ice breaks” and some new understanding becomes clear.  Often it is something we already know, but haven’t yet expressed. 

There is a scene in the Forsyte Saga when after a sociable day with one of their nephews, one spinster aunt says to the other – having fathomed that his interest in his cousin’s wife is romantic rather than social – “Oh my dear, I’ve just had the most terrible thought”.  The elder sister replies, “then you mustn’t tell me, dear.”  The penny had dropped, the ice broken.

O God, give us ears to hear, and eyes to see, but please, not all the time.


Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
July 2011