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