Sunday, 30 December 2012

Mrs Butler & the Prostitutes

The ASB (1980) used to celebrate on this day Josephine Butler (1828-1906) "social reformer, wife, and mother". The Common Worship (2000) lectionary has moved her to May. But I am slow to change things, and I quite happy to leave her where she was. Let us leave to one side the "wife and mother" side of her write-up - Archbishop Cranmer, and John Donne, are not listed as "husband and father", and it seems to me astonishing that these were dots that as recently as 1980 the C of E was unable to join. Oh no, hang on a moment, given this last year's fiascos, I might suspend astonishment for a bit. I know very little of her own biography, and for me she was only a name in the Kalendar until I read a book by Richard Davenport-Hines, called "Sex, Death, and Punishment". It is a fascinating study in British hypocrisy, looking at attitudes to sex, sexually transmitted disease, and sexuality over the last few centuries. His study of the Victorian era fascinated me most because one of my great-great-grandfathers died of syphilis in 1915 (don't be too smug - how many of you can even name your great-great-grandfathers, still less what they died of?). The death certificate said "general paralysis", and it was quite a time before I managed to fathom (no internet then) that this was the gentle euphemism that was used for the tertiary, and fatal, phase of that disease; in full "general paralysis of the insane" - he died in the London County Lunatic Asylum. To put it into a sort of perspective, over 60% of the British Army in India in the 1890s had a venereal disease of some sort. So, that's how I met Mrs Butler. The Victorians were rather obsessive about prostitution - Prime Minister William Gladstone, for instance, was noted for his interest in "fallen women". Most of them seem to have taken the view that prostitutes were a menace to men, and that picking up the fallen (not like that!) would ensure that men would not be led into temptation and could have nice family lives and lots of healthy children. At the beginning of Victoria's reign, the age of consent for boys was 14, for girls 12, so, one can well imagine those menacing 12-year-olds luring grown men astray (never mind those dodgy boys). Opposition to raising the age of consent was partly inspired by a fear that interfering with the prostitution market would mean men would have to make do with their wives, and put a lot of pimps out of business. Mrs Butler took a very different view, and in particular she led the campaign against the "Contagious Diseases Acts". At their worst, these permitted the constabulary to assume that any woman walking alone at night was necessarily touting for trade, and could force her - on threat of imprisonment if she refused - to undergo physical examination for venereal disease (followed by three months of incarceration and compulsory treatment if she wasn't given a clean bill of health). It's hard, a century and a half later, to believe that such things could be considered desirable, or even make sense, to people at the time. The law was enforced with particular brutality within walking distances of naval dockyards and army barracks, but when the powers of piety and self-righteousness tried to extend the same brutality to the whole country, Mrs Butler's coalition - consisting of many avowedly Christian people - triumphed, and had the whole lot repealed, in 1886. Josephine Butler has been described as a "vehement feminist". Was she? Wasn't she just a decent Christian with a zeal for justice and human dignity for all people? I'm sure she regarded prostitution as deeply morally repugnant - but not just on the women's side - and might she perhaps have taken the view that the demand was the cause of the supply? And wondered how the lives of women could be improved so that there would be alternatives to supplying this particular trade? Hers is a model of intervention based not on judgement, but of justice. Our rulers seem ever-keener on punishing people for drinking, smoking, or eating too much, for being fat, or ill, or unhappy, or poor, or criminal, or ill-educated, or old. This is a rich country, there is plenty for everyone, but, responsibility where it is due - those who claim those riches for themselves, and do not share them, will one day face justice from a higher court than this world's, and a far scarier judge than Mrs Butler.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A letter to the Telegraph, 12.12.02

Dear Editor, For generations the Anglican clergy of this country have conducted the marriages of divorcees, against the expressed wishes of Synods and bishops. They did so for pastoral reasons, and within the law, as civil registrars. What possesses the government to think that ministers of "the established church" should be exempt from the same liberty when the law changes to allow same-sex couples to be legally married? Forget the Synods and the bishops; the clergy know their people, and they should be trusted to do what is right. Yours sincerely,

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Submission from "An (un)Common Book of Hours", compiled by Peter Watkins PhD ASH WEDNESDAY Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 JUDGEMENT It is human nature to judge. We judge a person’s looks, their clothes, their voice and accent, their education and background. And we think “oh, you must be this-or-that sort of person” and decide whether, in principle we will like them or not. But a person who to me looks cute, may to you look dull; to me seem bright, to you seem cocky; to me seem refined, to you seem snooty. Not all of your friends can be my friends, nor mine yours. We judge, but we come to different verdicts. The Bible is full of anxiety about judgement. There is even an Old Testament book called “Judges”, in which the people of Israel do well under a good judge, and badly under a bad one. The prophets constantly pronounce God’s judgement on the people of Israel and their behaviour. But every so often we see a glimmer of something much more interesting. Our reading from Joel shows us that judgement by God is something to look forward to – “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”. We’re not expecting this. Joel is telling us that being judged by God is infinitely better than being judged by the caprice and expediencies of human judges. As we look forward to the season of Lent – and let’s look forward to it – our readings point us towards that merciful God, the God to whom we can confess our sins in penitence and faith, because all that we have done “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault”, he knows already and has forgiven. But we in turn must forgive. That is Lent’s greatest challenge – not to give things up, but to grow into the most characteristic aspect of the God in whose image and likeness we are made – to forgive, as we are forgiven. For God’s sake. Amen. God our Father, hear our prayer of penitence for all that we have done amiss; for the wrongs we have done; for the times we have cheated others; for the anger and fury we have carried in our hearts; for the indolence and indifference that has soured the good times you have offered us, and the friendships we might have made; guide us by your grace to make amends for what we have done amiss, and to strive towards that glorious day, when we too might rise to the fullness of the stature of Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen. Almighty God, the Prophets called, your Son bore witness, and in every generation you send your saints and seers with the challenge of Good News; give us ears to hear, and eyes to see, what our work must be in this broken world; give us courage and confidence to work for the peace of the world, to hold out the hand of friendship to neighbours we know, and neighbours far off; to share what we can of our plenty with those without; that these small sacrifices might be pleasing in your sight. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. In this season of Lent, give us your grace to grow in faithfulness, to show forth your love in the world, by word, and deed, and prayer, and to know your promise to be with us always, as a light in our lives, and the inspiration of our souls. Amen. God our

Sunday, 2 December 2012

You Brood of Vipers - A Parish Newsletter

Parish Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, Littlemore

The Window, Sunday, 9th of December 2012

“You Brood of Vipers”

Those are the words with which Saint John the Baptist, of whom we think on this Second Sunday of Advent, greeted the crowds that came out to be baptised by him. You can’t help thinking that for all his holiness, austerity, and prophetic vision, Saint John wasn’t much of a salesman. And yet they came, in great numbers, including Jesus himself, in search of salvation and the washing away of sins. John was that uncomfortably attractive figure – the person who says deeply unpleasant things in a way you just can’t help listening to. His message was stark, and frightening – there’s trouble ahead, and unless you mend your ways, you’re going to be in it. Those first “vipers” must have thought they were on to a quick-fix, but John doesn’t offer that. His baptism is for those who repent, a word which means “change”. Most of us have had encounters with people who’ve suggested – with varying degrees of gentleness – that to move onto the next stage of our journey, we’re going to have to change. We often don’t want to hear, but their words ring in our ears, for days, or months, or even years. That’s a part of what prophecy is about – saying the words that we cannot help hearing, even though we’d rather not, and pretend we haven’t. John’s is a difficult – and dangerous – example to follow. Sometimes we can think we are telling people home truths, when in reality, we are just being spiteful. This sort of prophetic ministry needs to be rooted in deep prayer and holiness, and the occasional spell of locusts and wild honey in the desert. God give us courage to speak when we must, grace to speak kindly when we do, and if the Spirit is not with us, not to speak at all.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
December 2012

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

So, Farewell then, Church of England

Letter from Littlemore No. 27 Wednesday, 21st of November 2012 So, Farewell then, Church of England Dear Friends, Some years ago there was a hugely entertaining cover on the periodical magazine Private Eye with the heading “Women Priests – Yes, It’s No” and a photograph of two newly ordained bishops camply holding hands with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, on the steps of a cathedral, with the speech bubble “who needs women priests when they’ve got us?” If memory serves – and I am too old to believe that it often does – the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was against, had voted for, because they’d won the argument, and the Archbishop of York, who was for, voted against, because he didn’t think the time was right. The General Synod had done its evil mischief then, as it has this last week, leading some of us to despair of the Church of England. Intransigent conservatism, absurd politics and psychopathic misogyny were allowed to get in the way of theology and good governance – not to mention the more important and vital matter of the calling of many good and faithful women to serve their church as ordained clergy. It was dismaying then (although later the Holy Spirit’s call to women to serve within the Church as priests was admitted) as it is dismaying now, for those of us who would wish women with the right gifts and skills to be ordained to the episcopate if and as and when it is right and fitting for them to do so. It is hard to convey just how awful this feels to me. I don’t know any women who want to be bishops – although I know several who could do the work well and with immense distinction – but that isn’t the point. The point is a much more personal one. I was doing the sums this morning and it seems that for twenty-four years I have watched the Church of England abuse, dismiss, disdain, and vilify, people I love, people who wanted nothing more than to serve God within its hallowed portals, and in his name to serve the people of this country according to the ancient tradition of Anglicanism, the English church, for all the people of this land. And I’ve been one of them. For years, I only stood up to the hierarchy in private – often in no uncertain terms that they found challenging and shocking. And it got worse. Then I started to do it more publicly, in the newspapers, and on the telly and radio. And it got worse. Now I have nowhere to go, because I simply do not believe any longer that it will get better. Several years ago I said as much to Rowan Williams, the present but soon-to-retire Archbishop of Canterbury, and he agreed. It will not get better. So, my time with the Church of England is at an end. I am, will always be, an Anglican to my fingertips. It’s a way of worshipping, of thinking about God, of turning belief into action, that is entirely natural to me. I didn’t grow up with it, it found me, long years ago, when I was an undergraduate, in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, at evensong each day, and at our little 9 a.m. College Holy Communion services every week. Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, not to mention the whole created order, all helped me on the journey. They made sense of the God I knew was there but whose presence I didn’t know how to honour. So I am forced to a new way of being. I can’t become a Catholic because the claims of the Papacy are absurd (those born in that tradition never have to think about it, and, I find, don’t really think it’s very important); I can’t become a conformist of any other kind. Orthodoxy has its theological charms, but with its attitudes to gay people and women priests, well, that’s not really a promise of a welcome haven. I hope my friends, the Sisters of the Love of God at the Convent of the Incarnation here in Oxford will continue to invite me in to celebrate Holy Communion with and for them. I have no intention of resigning my Holy Orders, as, in the words of the lovely old song “they can’t take that away from me”. But I have became an Anglican without a church, as my own church - not the parish church here in Littlemore which has always been kind and accepting - but the wider institutional Church of England has wandered too far from its own path to be credible any longer. I have felt more at home in the last decade or so with Anglicans in the USA and in Brasil than in my own country. Jumping ship feels like a cowardly thing, but I hope in over twenty years of being faithful to the Church of England, in its mission, in ministry, in worship, preaching, and teaching, I have done the best I could, and not always in the best of circumstances. Tomorrow I will be sending letters to Archbishop Rowan (who once gave me and my first partner a temporary home at Oxford long years ago), and my diocesan bishop, my PCC, my MP, and the chairman of the Parliamentary Ecclesiastical Committee. The spirit of agitation is deep in my soul and I will not let up being a thorn in the flesh of those in power. But 26 years since my confirmation in Christ Church Cathedral on S. David’s Day 1986, by Bishop Patrick Rodger, who was himself confirmed there at the same stage of his own time as an undergraduate, it is time to part company with a church I can no longer respect nor defend. Maybe a new journey begins. I doubt they will miss me; but I shall miss them. With love Richard

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Letter from Littlemore No. 26 Sunday, 11th of November 2012 In Remembrance

In Tesco’s just now it went quiet, for the Two Minutes’ Silence. Not absolutely quiet; some people took their chance to zoom round otherwise busy aisles. But most of us kept the peace for the sake of those who lost their lives in war. I’d say “gave” but I don’t think in most cases it was a very willing gift. And whether they’d look at today’s world and think they gave it for something good, well, I can’t know. And all morning – and most of the night, as His Lordship wasn’t well, and I was playing Florence Nightingale – I’ve been thinking, “what is there to remember?”.

Like most people my age, I don’t know anyone who died in war. So I remember those who didn’t. I remember my father, who was born in the Blitz in London in 1943, and who dimly remembered air raids, and whose acid wit and rationality I miss every day. I remember my cousin Doris, who departed this life last December at 93, but whose father, my Grandad’s favourite brother, Uncle Harry (we always referred to him as “Uncle” even though no one alive had ever known him as that), set things up for his wife, and the daughter he never saw, to become Australians. Uncle Harry died in 1919, having served for the duration in the Royal Navy, and died as a result of the after-war ‘flu’. Sixty-odd years later his daughter took up that citizenship. I remember Sister Cynthia, who perhaps knew Edward VIII’s governorship of a nearby island to her home before she came to England, and became a cornerstone of Fairacres Convent, and who looked after me so kindly and so effortlessly, when I stayed there twenty years ago. I remember John, who served as churchwarden of my favourite church for many years. One of the most civilised men I ever knew. “What do we do now?” we asked after the 9-11 disaster. “We have to convert them …” he replied … “…by example.” And I remember my Great-Uncle John, who did serve in WWII, who taught me about snobbery. He didn’t mean to, he was working on some plumbing at my school long ago. We recognised each other, and chatted until he had to get back to work. “Why did you talk to him?” said my soon-to-be-ex-friends. “He’s my uncle!” I remember the young man who had served in the army all his brief life, then when he fell awkwardly out of a helicopter, he wrecked his back; and the threat of having to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair made him take it. What is there to remember? Rather a lot as it turns out.

Happy Remembrance Day.
With love
Richard

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Lighten Our Darkness - 25.10.12

A Homily for Holy Communion on Thursday, 25th of October, 2012, 7.30 p.m. for the Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas Littlemore, Oxford Readings: Psalm 33:1-6 & Luke 12:49-53 The Earth is full of the goodness of the Lord + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. Maybe some of you know what it is to suffer from the seasonal depression that comes with the shortening of the days, the dark mornings, the dreary onset of winter. A day like today is very typical of the sort of thing that some of us find very oppressive, but we have had rather a lot of them lately, both here in Oxford, and also in Sussex, where I’ve also been staying, and doubtless in most parts of the country. But in the midst of them, there are graces. No one can deny the beauty of the autumn leaves on the trees, and on the pavements, and footpaths. Yes, if the rain falls they can get slippy and treacherous, but let’s just appreciate the colours for a moment, especially in those scant moments when the sun shines on the trees, and we can imagine ourselves in the midst of the famous “New England Fall” – I saw it once, in Connecticutt, and some of the views in Oxford just now are equally wonderful. Tonight’s readings remind me of this – grace amidst gloom. For once, though, it is our Old Testament reading, from the Psalms, which casts the light in the darkness of the alarming things that Jesus is recorded as saying in the New Testament. We are used to thinking of Jesus as the Prince of Peace, as we tell one another at Advent and Christmastide, but here he is threatening dissent and upset, families divided, fire set on the earth, and no peace at all! Oh my! That is a dismal winter indeed. But the Old Testament reminds us to hold these things in balance. Jesus would not have said these things for nothing, for effect; he must have known that his message would cause immense disruption to all the vested interests of his day, from the religious authorities of the Temple, to the ingrained values of everyone’s family life. He warns his followers that it’s not going to be an easy ride. When you challenge vested interests, when you challenge assumptions, when you try to do something new, at the very least people’s noses are put out of joint; at worst, war follows. And Christian people have a very sorry history of causing those wars. So, for comfort, we reach out for once to the Old Testament, tonight the Psalms that Jesus would have known – he never heard a word of the New Testament, as his own words were written in Greek, not the Aramaic in which they would have been spoken, nor the Hebrew with which he would have been familiar in the synagogues. And here we find a promise of God’s faithfulness, his truth, his righteousness and his goodness. There is judgement too, but we can sometimes forget that the reason why the Old Testament writers rejoice that God is going to judge the earth and its people, is because God is just, unlike people! A Christian writer, Christopher Bryant, one of the Cowley Fathers, an Anglican community of monks founded here in Oxford, wrote once that in the midst of the gloom, the drear dark days of our personal winters, we might strive to find something for which to be thankful. He is not glib, he doesn’t say it is easy to do, nor does he dismiss the hardness of some parts of all our lives. But he points us to words like this from the Psalm – “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord”. The challenges of Jesus are not in conflict with that goodness, but they grow and flourish in the middle of it. God, give us your light, in the dark days of winter, to see the goodness with which you have filled this glorious world. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford October 2012

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Saint Francis of Assisi

A Homily for Holy Communion on Thursday, 4th of October, 2012, 7.30 p.m. for the Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas Littlemore, Oxford Saint Francis of Assisi Readings: Psalm 8 & Luke 10:1-12 + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. Saint Francis is perhaps best known for two things, although, like many great people, he did many other things besides. The first is that he was the first person recorded as having experienced the “stigmata”, receiving in his own hands and feet, and side, the wounds experienced by Christ on the Cross. The second is his deep commitment to explaining and exploring the love of God through the created world. Saint Francis was not an easy person to know. He came from a rich family, but when challenged by his own father with Christ’s words “if your enemy demand you coat, give him the shirt off your back too”, he took him quite literally, and paraded about the village square, naked. What was there to be ashamed of, in what God had made, and his Son had commanded? It is hard to question the evidence that some people have indeed experienced the “stigmata”, but equally hard to question the evidence that most people have thought them, as they thought Saint Francis, mentally unbalanced. Francis was by no means normal. He was actually rather shocking. He lived his faith in Christ with a vivacity that puts the rest of us to shame. He rejoiced in all of creation, the sun and the moon and the stars, the creatures with whom we share this world, and even death who kindly lets us go when our time here is done. For such views, he would have been thought an astrologer, a necromancer, a hippy, an extremist, someone bent on “bringing down society as we know it”. And yet, amongst his followers he created a third order, which exists to this day, of people who could seek to follow his rule – approved by the church authorities of his time – in their own homes, and within their own families. This was a practical radical. Shocking, alarming, extreme, prepared to undergo all manner of hardships, and certainly to forgo the luxury to which he was born, but utterly faithful to God in Christ, to the Church, and to his brother and sister Christians for whom he sought to make things better, not worse. His is not an easy example to follow, if we choose to take it all at once. But let us start a bit at a time. Let us dare to travel the road we’d rather not, and risk welcome or rejection when we arrive; let us rejoice in God’s good creation, and share everything we dare to share, with those whose need is greater than our own; let us idle in the sun, or the rain, and know that our good God has sent them both to us in love. And also – and I am not a radical – keep your kit on, whilst you do it – Assisi is warmer than Littlemore. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford October, 2004

Harvest

A Homily for Holy Communion on Monday, 24th of September, 2012, 9 a.m. for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford Luke 8:16-18 “So Take Care How You Hear” + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. These words leapt out at me from today’s gospel reading – I had never noticed them before. In fact, and in view of what I’ve thought of to say, it’s ironic, I thought “oh, it must just be the Missal, I’ll check it in a proper Bible”. But no, the translation was the same “take care how you hear”. It’s interesting that it’s not “take care what you listen to”. There are warnings in the New Testament about false prophecies for twitching ears, and rumours of wars, but that’s not what Jesus says here – “take care how you hear”. I wonder if it’s about paying attention? My late father was a man of agile mind, much experience, and many opinions, and an argument with him was always a bracing intellectual journey, but at times he would also say with an acute self-awareness, “I’ve made my mind up, don’t confuse me with the facts”. Examples of this sort of selective hearing abound in politics, my other love, but we find them in religion too. There was an astonishing, and thought-provoking time, it just occurred to me in the vestry, when I was working at S. Giles-in-the-Fields Church in central London. It was just a little weekday evensong, and we had – O! the holy grail! – not only newcomers there, but young newcomers! And by miserable chance it was the evening of the month when we had to say Psalm 137, which, you may recall ends badly: “O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery: yea, happy shall be be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us. Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children: and throweth them against the stones”. And just as we were starting out (admittedly tentative) “glory be”, one of our young visitors stood up and shouted “this isn’t the Bible, this isn’t the word of the Lord!” I remonstrated, gently, that it might well not be the word of the Lord, but it was certainly in the Bible and had been there for a very long time. But she was not to be placated, and marched, with her friend, down the aisle of the church, singing improving hymns at us. Of course, she was right, and her rightness made us old lags think again about those words we’d used so glibly. We had a lesson “take care how you hear”, and maybe we all learned something that evening, in our different ways. It is all too easy not to see what the light illuminates, not to hear what the words actually say, and instead see and hear what we have already decided must be there. So, these few words are a challenge, but a permissive one. Jesus says “by all means hear – but take care how you do so”. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford September 2012

So Take Care How You Hear

A Homily for Holy Communion on Monday, 24th of September, 2012, 9 a.m. for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford Luke 8:16-18 “So Take Care How You Hear” + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. These words leapt out at me from today’s gospel reading – I had never noticed them before. In fact, and in view of what I’ve thought of to say, it’s ironic, I thought “oh, it must just be the Missal, I’ll check it in a proper Bible”. But no, the translation was the same “take care how you hear”. It’s interesting that it’s not “take care what you listen to”. There are warnings in the New Testament about false prophecies for twitching ears, and rumours of wars, but that’s not what Jesus says here – “take care how you hear”. I wonder if it’s about paying attention? My late father was a man of agile mind, much experience, and many opinions, and an argument with him was always a bracing intellectual journey, but at times he would also say with an acute self-awareness, “I’ve made my mind up, don’t confuse me with the facts”. Examples of this sort of selective hearing abound in politics, my other love, but we find them in religion too. There was an astonishing, and thought-provoking time, it just occurred to me in the vestry, when I was working at S. Giles-in-the-Fields Church in central London. It was just a little weekday evensong, and we had – O! the holy grail! – not only newcomers there, but young newcomers! And by miserable chance it was the evening of the month when we had to say Psalm 137, which, you may recall ends badly: “O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery: yea, happy shall be be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us. Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children: and throweth them against the stones”. And just as we were starting out (admittedly tentative) “glory be”, one of our young visitors stood up and shouted “this isn’t the Bible, this isn’t the word of the Lord!” I remonstrated, gently, that it might well not be the word of the Lord, but it was certainly in the Bible and had been there for a very long time. But she was not to be placated, and marched, with her friend, down the aisle of the church, singing improving hymns at us. Of course, she was right, and her rightness made us old lags think again about those words we’d used so glibly. We had a lesson “take care how you hear”, and maybe we all learned something that evening, in our different ways. It is all too easy not to see what the light illuminates, not to hear what the words actually say, and instead see and hear what we have already decided must be there. So, these few words are a challenge, but a permissive one. Jesus says “by all means hear – but take care how you do so”. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford September 2012

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Somewhere Under The Rainbow - for 23.09.2012

For “The Window”, 23rd of September, 2012 Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas Church, Littlemore, Oxford

SOMEWHERE UNDER THE RAINBOW

Yes, I know that’s a misquote, and it’s deliberate. In “the Wizard of Oz” Dorothy and her travelling companions are seeking “somewhere over the rainbow”, the magical place where they will find all they need. The story ends by telling them that they have all they need right there and then, with them, all along. All that was lacking was someone to tell them so.

Rainbows are magical things, and I write this having seen the most marvellous rainbow yesterday, as I emerged from drab shopping at Tesco’s. They remind me of God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9, that he would never again punish the earth for sin. More personally, they remind me of the falls at Foz do Iguacu, in Brasil, where we spent our first anniversary. It is a place of 276 natural waterfalls, ranging from a mere tap in a cliff, to over half a mile wide. The air is so full of mist and spray, that the sun has only to shine, and there are rainbows everywhere – you are always “under the rainbow”.

And that is the Good News, both of Noah, and of the falls at Iguacu, and of The Wizard of Oz. We live under the rainbow, we don’t have to aim over it. Our skills and gifts, and all the good things that we are, are here for the taking, the mending, and the making, and enjoying! We have hearts, and brains, and courage, like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. We just have to get on with it. And sometimes we have to sit with our friends, and hold their hands, as they discover these things. And a whole new world emerges. “Somewhere, under the rainbow”. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford September 2012

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Unless You Change - 14.08.2012

A Homily for Holy Communion on Tuesday, 14th of August, 2012, 9 a.m. for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford (but not in the end delivered) Matthew 18:1-5,10,12-14 Unless You Change + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. The English summer has many delights. Not least is that these days it comes in a number of instalments, each as charming as the last. This, of course, has nothing to do with “climate change”. But whether we’re in a sunny bit, or a rainy bit, it is warm, and pleasant to be out and about. Mainly. However, there are things one can miss, too. I spend much of my days at my desk beside the open garden doors, and in the school holidays it is noticeable that the shouts and shrieks and laughter of the playground at our local primary school – Saint John Fisher’s – are absent. Some noises one can block out – like the perpetual murmur of the ring road – but a school playground one can’t. Often you don’t notice a thing until it is gone, and today’s Gospel reading made me realise that I hadn’t heard that noise for a little while. It’s quite a remarkable passage in which Jesus sets a child in front of his disciples, to show them who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I dimly recall quite respectable theologians suggesting that Jesus’s attitude to children – taking them seriously – is remarkable in ancient literature, even that he might have invented the idea of childhood, when before, a child was simply seen as either a trainee adult, one’s posterity, or a bit of a nuisance. What’s striking in this version are his words “unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. “Unless you change …” The irony is that as children we long to change: ideally, to become older, more grown-up, to have more freedom, more power, and more money. But Jesus isn’t so interested in freedom, power, and money, so he must have something else in mind. Over the years, getting to know other people’s children, it has struck me that two things characterise the child’s nature that Jesus might have meant: spontaneity, and the sense of wonder. Children can be artless and guileless; they say what they see, or think, or feel. I remember with discomfort the day I asked aloud why my ancient great-grannie had a moustache. Within moments a great-aunt, wielding scissors, had put this matter right. But sometimes when we are small we blurt out much nicer things. The day after my father died, my little niece threw her arms around my mother and said “I love you Granny”. Many of us would give much for that kind of spontaneity. And for wonder, there are really no limits. Visiting cousins in Ohio long ago I was asked by the youngest generation what England is like. A spirit of mischief made me say “and of course, we aren’t allowed to laugh”. Wide-eyed horror. “Why not?” “Well, we had a Prime Minister called Mrs Thatcher who said laughter was inefficient, and made it against the law, so we wouldn’t waste time”. The eldest of them cannily saw something in my eyes, and asked, with a stern expression, “are you lying?” I had to tell the truth, but it was fun while it lasted. Whilst adults can lie, children can indulge in make-believe. As a child, I was variously an orang-utan up the apple tree in the garden, a polar bear in the old coal shed, a hippopotamus in the sea at Littlehampton. I was a little child, and in my mind’s eye, I could change into all these things. That wasn’t about freedom, or power, or money. It was about the sheer joy of being alive. Might it be that when we finally approach the kingdom of heaven, we will hear from outside, not angels with harps and trumpets, but the sounds of the playground? Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford August 2012

Thursday, 2 August 2012

On Gore Vidal

RIP, Gore Vidal, gone to a glory he didn't believe in. I shall miss his supreme arrogance, his wordplay, his broad learning and deep wisdom, his deep-soaked liberalism, his sexual ambivalence, his hatred of war, his eviscerating contempt for those who were more successful in politics than he ever was, whilst they were a quarter of the person, morally, and intellectually, that he seemed born to be. I suspect, if no one was looking, he was occasionally kind. "Peace" seems like the wrong word. Rest in truculence, perhaps.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Divide & Rule in the C of E

http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2012/27-july/news/uk/women-bishops-synod-asked-for-its-views Irate letter of the day, no. 2 Dear Editor, The House of Bishops ignored the considered opinions of 42 diocesan Synods. Now, they present the General Synod with seven options. This might be an exercise in careful listening, or it might be divide and rule, and represent a deep institutional commitment to remaining in limbo. Until the C of E gives up its addiction to finding clever forms of meaningless words to avoid addressing its own problems, it has no right to be heard on the subject of anyone else's. Big boys and girls learn to live with losing arguments and still staying friends. Yours faithfully, (The Revd) Richard Haggis

Social Mobility

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/9430500/Oxford-attacks-Vince-Cables-state-school-student-target.html Irate letter of the day, no. 1: Dear Editor, My late father had a better idea than Dr Cable's for increasing educational opportunities for children from working class backgrounds. He worked every hour God sent, and paid for us to go to independent schools. Yours faithfully, (The Revd) Richard Haggis MA (Oxon & Nottingham)

Monday, 23 July 2012

Not the Family Kind - 24.07.12

A Homily for Holy Communion on Tuesday, 24th of July, 2012, 9 a.m. for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford Micah 7:14-15, 18-20 & Matthew 12:46-50 Not The Family Kind + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. There’s a cartoonist called Jackie Fleming whose work I much admire. She has the reputation of a feminist, but beyond that label I see only a wry observation of the delightful twists and turns, inconsistencies, and paradoxes of modern life. One that comes to mind portrays a rather elegant woman, probably at a party, holding a glass of something cheerful, with a cat sidling up to her, rubbing itself against her legs. Clearly it is her own party, as her friend says to her, in that wonderfully patronising way some people have “is this your substitute for children?”, to which she replies in tones of such withering scorn that even though it is only a cartoon drawing, you can hear, “no, it’s a domestic cat”. “The family” is one of the most fascinating inventions of the Christian imagination. Of course, the laws of genetics dictate that we must all belong to other people – we can only be caused by two other people, and we have common heritage, if not necessarily common cause, with any others those people happen to cause. One of my enthusiasms is genealogy, and over the years I have had conversations with complete strangers with whom all I had in common was a shared ancestry – even to an eighth cousin, once removed (she was a marvellous cook). We lament when people turn up in bad families, or, like my Italian great-grandfather, who was a foundling, they have families they can never know. And yet families are a mixed bag. They include some of the closest and most loving, and yet sometimes also the most cruel and destructive, relationships in our world. Our blood relatives can potentially understand us best, from the gut, and also fail to understand us at all. Our Gospel passage this morning draws attention to this. Jesus’s mother and brothers appear, and they want to talk to him. One can only assume that he is some way from home, and they’ve put a bit of effort in to tracking him down and making the journey. He’s been teaching, and healing, and sorting out pesky demons on his way, so perhaps he left something of a trail. All they want is to “have a word”. They are his own flesh and blood – it would scarcely be so much as good manners or kindness to let them. But then he says this extraordinarily dismissive thing – “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” We tend to fast-forward from this bit to the end of the passage, but let’s listen to it for a moment. Here was a Jewish teacher, a rabbi, if a somewhat eccentric one, a member of one of the most family-minded cultures there can be, dismissing his own family ties as irrelevant. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Would Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob, have put up with that from one of their sons? Would the wonderfully sentimental King David? But here is a member of their tribe, their house, their family, speaking as if to belong to a family is nothing, as if the ancient promises were made to the empty air. And then he turns it on its head – “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother”. At a stroke, he creates a new family, not dependent on blood and kinship. In the kingdom of heaven there are to be no eighth cousins once removed, but one equal unity of obedience to the Father’s will. And dare we to hope that there will be a unity of love there too? If so, this is Good News indeed, for we have found a place where all our frailties are made good, all our breaking-downs mended. And maybe there’s even room for the occasional domestic cat. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford July 2012

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Thoughts of a Fatherless Son

It's been a little over three months since my father died. It still feels inexplicable, surprising, and wrong. We had, not unreasonably, expected another twenty or thirty years from him. When he fell ill, at 68, he was in outrageously good health and full of energy. If he'd been slowing down, he might not even have noticed he was seriously ill. His mother lived to 95; his grandmother to 91; there was long-life on all lines in his family tree, and he had lived a life without vice or indulgence (except, perhaps, almost always being right, which could be bloody annoying). He was 23 years older than me; I had seriously thought I would be collecting my pension before attending his funeral. But facts is facts, and face them we must. Dad was not perhaps an easy person to be close to, and only blood relatives and very old and trusted friends got anywhere near. In retrospect it is a feeling of having been firmly grafted into his life, rather than being intimately intertwined. In my dreams, which are frequent, and always of his being well again, he is being quietly and unceremoniously helpful, as when the washing machine here broke, and he simply loaded up my old one from his barn, drove the 102 miles with Mum, plumbed it in, and, after tea (not quite two sugars by then!) quietly asked if I'd thought where we would have lunch. If he thought it would do any good, he'd have driven to Timbuktoo. And never made a fuss about it. Formalities have had to be observed, and it has meant frequent journeys back down to Sussex, to help, or just to be with my mother as she comes to terms with this emotional earthquake in her life. I suppose it is one of the respects in which I am blokeish that I have preferred to be busy, to have things to do, the funeral to arrange, the inquest to make a submission to, paperwork to file and order, letters and e-mails to write, telephone calls to make, probate to sort now, anything but look the reality in the face. The curious thing is that when I have stayed there, I have not felt his loss so keenly. Of course, there is Mum to worry about, which is a distraction, despite her astonishing and loving fortitude, but it is more than that. They are so unthinkable as not-a-couple that he is still there when she is. Every inch of the house, every square foot of the nursery, was his work and his care, usually by his own strong, clever, hands, and always under his watchful, dangerously intelligent, eyes. To have a ringside seat on others' grief is unhappily instructive, but my own sets in when I come home. His presence can be felt in his own house and amongst the people and things he treasured most, but when I travel those 102 miles home he slips from my grasp, from reality to memory, and dreams. When I am there, so is he. When I am home, he isn't. It is not the going back there that is upsetting, but the returning to a changed world.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Let us be Indifferent

"Adiaphora". Not perhaps a very slinky sort of slogan in a sloganising world, but one with potentially great value. It means "things indifferent", and it was used in the 16th century to describe those things about which Christians could validly disagree without falling out. You'd think that would be quite a useful tool today. We may disagree about gay vicars and women bishops, but we aren't prepared to shove the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Ministry, and the Sacraments, out of the window along with them, are we? That would be foolish. Compared to those building blocks of the faith, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, as received and passed down, our present controversies are silly little things: "things indifferent - adiaphora". When the dust settles, we still have not just a part of, but the whole of, our Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, inheritance. We still have the means of grace, and the hope of glory. This is not a counsel of despair and snivelling. I am foresquare behind women as full participants in the threefold ministry of the church; I am foresquare in favour of an adult and sensible approach to sexuality in considering candidates for the ministry (straight, gay, bi, trans, or whatever). I am not saying these things don't matter. But I am saying they don't matter THAT much. Does an angel die when a gay man is made a bishop? I doubt it. Does a Seraph have a coronary when a woman is made a bishop? The jury isn't out, because there is no jury - there is no case to answer - God doesn't care. We care, sometimes too much, and sometimes at the expense of our charity and kindness. And God cares mightily about that. The idea of "adiaphora" was part of the genius of Anglicanism from its first days. You have only to read Cranmer's eucharistic rites to realise how much he wanted to appeal to everyone; only to read him on "The Lord's Supper" to realise that he thought it mattered less what each person thought was happening, than that they came to the altar to think it, pray it, be open to it, together. Our great foundress Elizabeth I did not desire windows into our souls. She wanted Christian people to come and pray together. She might have thought me an ass. Probably would have done; she was far better educated than me. But an ass who would come to communion with his neighbour, the queen, was a good enough ass for her. It was Elizabeth's first archbishop, Matthew Parker, who is most associated with "adiaphora" in England. The two of them, both single people, who would have raised a wry eyebrow at our present controversies, were the ones who set about creating an ecclesiastical polity that would work for the English people. And so it has worked, and so it can work still. If you don't like your bishop, you can always shove off and find another. For ordination, that was always so. The fearsome Bishop Warburton of Gloucester, in the 18th century, ordained almost no-one because they couldn't pass his test. He granted them papers to go elsewhere. John Wesley ordained priests for the American church because English bishops afraid of the government wouldn't. Generatations later, those same Americans ordained the first women en bloc. We change, we adapt, our little crises are not of ultimate importance. What actually matters? What is not indifferent? It is proclaiming, and living, and praying, the Good News of God's love revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The rest? Details. The bathwater without the baby is a pretty foolish thing. I guess you can drink it, but it will probably make you sick. Mine's a G & T - with Jesus.

Letter to the Daily Telegraph, 10.07.12

SIR – Last year, 68 per cent of a 42 per cent turnout voted against changing the electoral system for the House of Commons. Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg want to inflict an even worse electoral system (party lists) on the House of Lords, without deigning to consult the electorate at all. In what sense will this make Parliament more democratic? Rev Richard Haggis Oxford

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Homily for Holy Communion on Thursday, 5th July, 2012, 7.30 p.m. for the Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas Littlemore, Oxford Reading: Amos 7:10-17 Amos and the Bad News + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. In seventeen years of ministry, I don't think I have preached on Amos. So, here goes: It’s hard to think that Amos would have been a pleasant person to know. No one much liked him at the time. “Go away, seer”, says Amaziah the priest of Bethel. Amos had followed God’s call to come north to a strange land, and like a lot of Southerners in the North, or indeed some Northerners in the South, he wasn’t welcome (the late Eric Sykes was a happy and cherished exception). But Amos particularly wasn’t welcome because they didn’t like what he had to say. It’s hard being a prophet, because almost by definition you will be saying things that people don’t want to hear; not much point saying them otherwise. Prophecy has often been confused with prediction, but it isn’t that at all. Amos wasn’t going to tell you which lottery numbers would come up, or how many grandchildren you’d have, if you crossed his palm with the right amount of silver. In fact, being Amos, he’d have been very stroppy with you, chucked your money back across the table, and sulked off back to his sycamores. Prophecy is about judgement. The Seer that Amaziah wants to shove off is not someone who can see the future, but someone who can see what God sees, and what is most wrong in God’s eyes with the way Israel was being run. He saw the poor oppressed, and the proper respect for God, and the ancient values of the Hebrew people, denigrated and forgotten, in a lot of material greed, covered over with temple-codswallop. God had made himself known for everyone, not just the priests and the kings, and their sycophantic followers, on the make. So, Amos had bad news. I know a little bit about bearing bad news of late. I have had to tell many friends and relatives about my father’s illness and death. You don’t want to make the call, but you can’t put it off. That sort of bad news has to be told, and told soon. And it’s no use the person at the other end of the line saying “look, just shove off back to Oxford with all your misery”, because there’s no gainsaying it. Even so, amidst the bad news, there is good. The kindness that flows, the flowers, and the cards, the spontaneous visits, sometimes within hours. The bearer of bad news is comforted. But Amos’s bad news is different. Now, it’s clear that he didn’t preface it with, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this”, or “are you sitting down?”, but the fact is it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference. He was looking at earthly power – and that includes the earthly power of the religious authorities in the temple – and telling them it was all going to end badly. “Your wife will be forced to go on the streets, your sons and daughters will fall by the sword”. Who is going to respond well to that sort of bad news? Of course we stick our fingers in our ears and go la-la-la because we don’t have to look it in the face, it’s in the future, it’s not happened yet, so it might not happen. If we look around us, we can see this now. There were prophets who said that an economy built on over-inflated house prices and chronic personal debt could not last. There were prophets who said that the greedy were turning-over the poor, and no one was coming to their defence. There were prophets who said there is an alternative to unlimited growth, which is the old idea of “enough”. But did we want to listen? Did the world of “Me Me Me” want to forgo its house price boom, its dividends, its atmosphere-destroying cars? No. Because we had forgotten, as a society, that the earth and all that is in it belongs to God, and we only have a lease, and we must return what we’ve leased in a better state than we took it on, because God means it to be shared again by generations yet unborn. There are prophets like Amos in every time and every place. We must pray for ears to hear them, and hearts strong enough to turn their words to deeds. Amen Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford July 2012

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Vocation & Ministry

Littlemore Parish Church The Window for Sunday, 8th of July, 2012 Vocation & Ministry Most ordinations fall between the feasts of Saint Peter, the denier, and Saint Thomas, who questioned. Just before, we have Saint John the Baptist, and after, Saint Mary Magdalen; and at the very end of the month, the (relatively) new feast of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Jesus’s friends. For people thinking about their vocation there is a lot to latch onto; many models to help us ponder the kind of Christian we will be, in the role that has fallen to us. There is a tendency in the churches to think of ordination as a special vocation, somehow different from the vocation of all other Christian people. I don’t think this is so. It is distinctive, yes, and has particular challenges, and joys, but all Christian people are called by Jesus to follow him in the way that is most appropriate to them. I have known professors, nurses, builders, civil servants, bus drivers, shop assistants, nuns living in enclosure, and countless others, who have served God in and through their work and their prayers. Likewise, partners, parents, carers, and friends, who have found in their calling to pay attention to the needs of those specially and providentially given to them, that they have been able to do so by the grace of God, and to God’s glory. Our parish has been given the joyful calling of nurturing the vocation of a new curate this Ordination Time. As we seek to support and pray for Tom Albinson, may we also pray for one another: God, our Father; by your Holy Spirit, guide us all who have heard your call to live and work and pray within the communion that is the Holy Trinity, that we may be faithful to our vocation and ministry, to follow as disciples and friends of Jesus, your Son. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford July, 2012

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Corpus Christi & Lonesome George

A Homily for Holy Communion on Thursday, 7th of June, 2012, 7.30 p.m. being also the Feast of Corpus Christi for the Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas Littlemore, Oxford Readings: Psalm 116:10-end & John 6:51-58 + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of “Lonesome George”? He is a giant tortoise in the Galapagos Islands, and the very last of the Pinta Island species. Conservationists have searched high and low, but the prospect of finding a mate for him is slender – Pinta Island is small, and giant tortoises are, by definition, big. He is a hundred years old, and although the time may be far off, when he is called to meet his maker, that will be the end of his line. Tortoises, like most reptiles, are rather less likely than us to form firm romantic attachments, or to grieve for the offspring they never had, so to some degree when we think of Lonesome George in that way, we are projecting our own feelings onto him – what an awful thing it would be, to be so alone in the world. In his own form, his own body, he epitomises the loneliness that most of us dread, and the fear of extinction without posterity. For various reasons I have been thinking a lot about families these last few months, and how the family tree diverts, divides, branches, seeds, and spreads, so that in a few generations we may no longer recognise one another in the streets, where our great-grandparents played and fought as children. The family is all about bodies. To be born is to have been given a body by two other people, and to share their heritage with countless others, living and departed. This surely is why Jesus uses those astonishing words at the Last Supper, which we repeat every Sunday, at every Eucharist – “this is my body”. He intends for his own life and witness, his teaching and his love, to nourish us as our parents intended to do. More than that, he tells us we must love not only him, and through him, God the Father, who made all bodies, but one another too. This is what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ, in Communion with God and all his other sons and daughters, in every generation, bound not by ties of blood, but of discipleship and of love. We are the Body of Christ; we are Corpus Christi. Christ gives us his body and says “make your home here, be nourished, be loved, be transfigured, be glorified”. There will be no Lonesome Georges in the Kingdom of Heaven; which is all the more reason for being nice to lonesome tortoises, and all other lonesome creatures, on our journey there. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford June 2012 P.S. - not two weeks after this sermon, Lonesome George departed this life on the 24th of June. Sentimental about animals as I am, I trust he is lonesome no more.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Constitutional Tinkering Whilst The Economy Burns

Dear Mr Clegg, With the greatest respect, I think the idea of Lords Reform is cobblers. It is a distraction from what is most necessary now, which is to address accommodation costs, the poverty trap, unemployment, pensions, social mobility, and a whole raft of socio-economic problems which are just getting worse as successive budgets unravel, and policies are not thought through, or subjected to proper consultation before they are announced. This is grossly incompetent government. No one is addressing the question of how the Lords and Commons will relate to one another. What, precisely, is it that the House of Lords is at present doing badly, that will be done better by a another tranche of PR-experienced elected politicians, with no principles and no gumption? The value of most peers is that they know something, have succeeded in their careers, and that they have actually lived. A really good reform might be forbidding anyone from entering the House of Lords who has been an MP, or a candidate for the House of Commons, in the last ten years. Sorry to sound cross, but you are in serious danger of mucking up one of the few bits of the Constitution that actually works, for the sake of a "democratic" principle that demonstrably doesn't (and about which the electorate doesn't give a fig anyway). What next? Boris Johnson for Queen? Yours sincerely,

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Complete Joy

A Homily for Holy Communion on Thursday, 10th of May, 2012, 9 a.m. for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford John 15:9-11 Complete Joy + Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluia. Perhaps you have been to Ireland? I went in 1986, and loved it. It was the year my maternal grandmother died, and I went to stay with one of her brothers, in their birthplace in Co. Leitrim, “the smallest, poorest, and wettest” county in Ireland. One of the places we visited was a little cafĂ© in Mohill, whose proprietor was a Christian of the kind who liked to adorn his place of work with the kind of cutesy posters you often used to see on the bedroom walls of evangelical students at the time – kittens, and ducklings, appearing appealingly alongside an improving text from the Bible, or some Christian classic. One time, I quoted one of them, in my amateurish way, in an essay for Rowan Williams, “faith isn’t faith until it’s the only thing you’re hanging onto”; when he marked it, he wrote in the margin, in his small, neat, but authoritative, hand, “I think you’ll find it’s St John of the Cross”. Another I recall said simply “the surest sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, is joy”. How are we to discover this joy, especially in times of adversity, when joy seems the furthest thing from our hearts? One of the things I have learnt lately is how to arrange a funeral. I’ve taken scores, maybe hundreds, of funeral services, but never had to arrange one before. At one stage there were five different diaries to reconcile – and that was even before asking the family. One of the hardest things was informing old friends of my parents that my father had died. My mother’s oldest friend is a greyhound trainer. It was no easy thing for her to make preparations to leave behind a hundred – literally - baying hounds and be with my mother by teatime. But she did it. Nor was she the only friend who did so. And, amidst the tears and grief, there was, as there has always been, much laughter and joy. The laughter and joy had, of course, over six decades, always been there; they were and are the heart of their friendship, but they stood out with clarity and poignancy in new and unexpected circumstances. Jesus says in today’s Gospel “that my own joy may be in you, and your joy be complete”. I have wondered, does it really take a death for us to discover this completeness? Of course, not. The joy of friendship is always there. But sometimes when we are at our saddest and most alone, we experience it afresh, and with a new intensity. My imagination took a sideways step to the Jacob Epstein sculpture of Jesus in the tomb, in the Tate Modern Gallery, in London. It is entitled “Consummatum Est”. Those, in Latin, are the words of Jesus on the cross in John’s Gospel that we normally hear in English, rather more blandly, as “it is finished”. But a consummation is not an ending. “That my own joy may be in you, and your joy be complete”. In the love of friends, we glimpse the love of God; the transfiguring mystery of eternity breaks into mundane time. “Consummatum est”; it is not an ending: it is the beginning. Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford May 2012

Monday, 7 May 2012

John Metcalfe, Churchwarden, Diplomat, Christian

JOHN ISMAY METCALFE 1st August 1929 – 9th April 2012

A REMINISCENCE

John’s funeral was on Thursday, an occasion to return once more to the remarkable church and parish of Saint Giles-in-the-Fields, in the West End of London, which I had the privilege of serving for just over three years from 2000. Funerals are always sad occasions, but S. Giles is not a sad place, and John was one of the many people whose character and qualities made it so. Nor would he have wished his funeral to be sad, being a marker of the culmination of the Christian faith and hope in which he had lived all his life. He had expressed the wish to me, and I’m sure all the parish’s clergy over the years, that he should not have a eulogy at his funeral, but a simple service, according to the Book of Common Prayer. Nor did he countenance prayers for the dead. When we depart this life, he believed us then to be “past praying for”. At first this seemed rather a harsh – if typically logical – doctrine, but in John’s case there was some very considered theology behind it. He suggested that if, for instance, his late wife’s eternal destiny was to be influenced by his own prayers, the prayers of a weak, and sinful, and occasionally forgetful, man, then what sort of pressure would that place on him? And what sort of God would God be, to be open to such influence, and such infinite opportunities for caprice, and neglect? Would the popular be more likely to enter the kingdom of heaven, because they would have more to pray for them? He found no warrant in Scripture for that. It was a compelling argument, and since that conversation I have preferred instead to “pray with thanksgiving for the lives of those who have died”, seeking that, in the spirit of the Prayer Book, we might so “follow their good examples” that we too might have the hope of heaven.

He was a highly educated man, who read the lessons in Greek before the service, and afterwards too, if he thought the sermon had deviated from acceptable doctrine. That was a daunting thing to any preacher, especially one who might have to preach to him twice on a Sunday, because, faithful to his duty as churchwarden, he was there in church, without fail, come rain or shine, or leaves on the line, from his home in Black Heath, morning and evening, Sunday by Sunday. But this is to make of him a much more dry and dusty man than he was. He had a dry wit, but a real sense of humour, bordering on the saucy at times. He had a zest for life, which was genuinely catching. Sometimes, if the service, and the bell-ringing, and the music, had particularly moved him, he didn’t mind saying so – “if I hadn’t wanted to be there for every minute, I’d have gone out into the highways and byeways, and compelled them to come in!”. It was typical of him to express his enthusiasm with an apt reference to a Gospel parable. He was a most convivial man, and whilst I couldn’t share his enthusiasm for sport, and what he called “being a football hooligan”, it delighted me to know that when other members of the supporters’ club brought their tinnies along on the coach, he made careful selections of vintage claret from his cellar, and shared his offering without a care for its cost or value. Although, the original cost would have been relatively little – he said he’d never spent more than a fiver on a bottle for his cellar, but over the years those fivers would have appreciated more than the most carefully chosen stocks and shares. He had hoped, he said, to share that cellar with his wife in their retirement, but then she had gone and died, and he was bereft of someone to share it with over dinner. He took me to the Travellers’ Club one time and seeing something on the wine list said “I’m sure I’ve got this downstairs, let’s see what it tastes like”. My guess is that it was priced at considerably more than a fiver. And to taste – well, its value was far greater! But I don’t think money interested him. He was meticulous with it, and paid his dues to the church and other good causes annually, not weekly or monthly like the rest of us, and he was very supportive of the measures we took to smarten up the finances of the parochial charities at S. Giles. Because that was another, integral, part of his work as churchwarden – to be also a charity trustee for some millions of pounds, donated long ago for the education and welfare of the poor of the parish. Our own parish school had closed in the 1960s, but the trust still allowed us to make grants to neighbouring schools, and he not only came and visited some of them, being, with Jill Hutchings, his fellow-warden, possibly the first trustee in many years to do so, but also connived with me to bend the rules of the charity so that we could benefit others just outside our boundaries too. The church, and its benefactors, meant to do good, and good they must do.

I found him not only a convivial and encouraging man, but also a peacemaker. There was a time when an anxious young man, a little over-devoted to Prayerbook rubrics, had brought his copy with him to the altar rail. He had lately been rather scathing in his criticism of both the rector and myself, for failing to follow the rubrics, and he had seemed not to want to receive Holy Communion. So, I gave him a blessing – it is the tradition in many churches that that is what you do when someone carries a book, or the order of service to the rail. But no, this wasn’t what he wanted at all – he had wanted the full words for the distribution of Holy Communion, and finding us lacking (because we had agreed to use only the first half, that the rector could remember), was going to make good himself. He accused me of excommunicating him. As it happened, I did give him communion, when he explained what he really wanted, but it rattled me a lot, and I asked the wardens – John, and Peter Whitfield, back then – to come into the vestry after the service to explain it all. They not only calmed me down, but also stressed that the poor fellow was clearly very upset, and hadn’t meant to make a scene. It poured needed oil over those briefly troubled waters. It saddened him, too, that the rector wasn’t happy in his role, and he wondered how we might make things better for him, which prompted me to put in a good word for him when the Deanery of Christ Church came up. It didn’t work, but at least I tried. I think John was rather more successful in dealing with the British and Spanish governments over the equally vexed business of Gibraltar, earning an MBE in the process! The most lasting thing I shall remember of John was something he said after the bombings in America in September 2001. It was the Sunday night, after evensong, and we were discussing what on earth the future might hold, and someone asked John what he thought the answer might be. “It’s obvious”, he said, “we must convert them”. And whilst our eyes were rolling at what appeared to be a Colonel Blimp comment from a man wearing a pound sign on his tie, he added “by example”. And that, 11 years into the Afghan War, is the single wisest thing I have heard said about the whole wretched affair, and the single bit of advice that has not, alas, been heeded. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”. May one presume to say, rest in peace, thou good and faithful servant?

Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford May 2012

Letter from Littlemore, No. 25 - My Father

Letter from Littlemore, No. 25 Dear Friends, After some months of holding my breath as my family and his other friends slowly entered a world in which it was becoming ever clearer that my father would soon enter another, the time has come to write again. I hope it isn't cheating to attach what I said about him at his funeral. One of the very hardest pieces I have ever had to write, despite, if I am honest, many mental (but not written - that would have made it all too final) drafts beforehand. The night before, it was 2,500 words, so on the morning, I started from scratch at 6.30, and whittled it down to these few. There is so very much more I want to say about him, and to record before precision lapses, and recollection muddles, but that can wait to another time, and another medium. I find myself experiencing the truth of the thing I have said so many times to grieving families - that when someone dies the landscape of our own lives changes forever. What was once there on the path all about us, is now something we have to turn our necks to see again, no longer in the dependable here-and-now, nor the hopeful future, but in the eternal past. But present all the same, like all our histories. Dad was a most unusual man. Someone - one the teachers at his grammar school, I think - called him "an enigma". He liked that. Well, he was our enigma. And we were very proud of him, and loved him more than sometimes he knew, or realised he deserved. With thanks for so many kind thoughts expressed, and prayers offered, And love Richard Littlemore, Oxford, May 2012 A Few Words for the Funeral Service of my Father GORDON HAGGIS 2nd January 1943 – 8th April 2012 S. Margaret’s Church, Angmering, West Sussex 27th of April, 2012 This day was always going to happen. Given that Dad had long life on both sides of his family, and a healthy life of his own, without vices, it would not have been unreasonable to imagine it might have been in twenty or even thirty years’ time. But we reckoned without the lurking asbestos dust, and the cruel savagery with which it can strike a strong man down in such a short time. We have watched, helpless, as in a few short months, we have been brought with so little preparation to this sad day. Dad would never knowingly have put his life at risk, he cared for us too much, but unknowingly, that is what he did all those years ago, working to care for his family, which was his most precious treasure. But that is not what Dad would wish us to remember. So, though it is not easy to do, I am going to turn my thoughts not to the last few months, but to the sixty-eight good years that went before. Obviously, I am bound to speak as his only son, just as Sarah was his only daughter. And he was our only father. But he was also a husband, first and foremost, a grandfather, a brother, a nephew, an uncle, a cousin, and a loyal friend. In what I have to say, I hope you will recognise something of your own experience of Dad. So what kind of man was my father? He was a family man. He was born into a huge family, with a battalion of aunts and uncles on both sides. His father’s family was, well, let’s call them colourful; his mother’s, the Italian side, was close-knit, and steady. Thankfully, he took after the Italian side. He and his brother and sister, for all their dissimilarities, are just about the closest siblings I have ever known. Home was the centre of his life. For years he used to refer to his parents’ house as “home”, until he realised he had made a new one of his own, with Mum, and with us. I’ve always thought of Dad as a man of science. He liked things that moved, he liked engines, and machinery, was fascinated by how things worked, and how things were made. Metals are essential to almost all of that, so as he left school to join the family scrap metal business – re-cycling and green, way ahead of its time - he taught himself metallurgy. He learnt how to identify metals and alloys by chemical and spark testing, which was fascinating to watch - especially the spark testing, because that was like a miniature bonfire night. For children, the yard was a magical place to be. Sometimes he could take his science a little too far. When he was a small boy, he was fascinated by the material the steering wheel on his uncle’s car was made of. So he decided to test it, to see if it would burn. It did. So did the whole car. With characteristic quick thinking, he ran and hid in the bath, because until then, no one had used it. By the time they found him, they were too relieved to be angry. I imagine Grandad had to settle up for the car. He had a fine mind, and applied it to solving problems, and keeping accounts. When the VAT man came to call to examine the books, he put them on the table in the corner of the kitchen, and went off up the nursery with a quietly confident smile. When the man was done he said “there’s a discrepancy”. “Oh dear”, said Dad, “How much?” “Fifteen pence”. He put his hand into his pocket and produced the fifteen pence saying, “but I’ll need a receipt, for tax purposes”. Later I asked him, knowing how meticulous he was, how there could have been a discrepancy. “Because I put it there - I didn’t want to waste his morning’s work, and if he hadn’t found something, he might have come back”. Then he started chuckling. “And anyway, he got it wrong, it was thirteen pence.” He was just as precise with words as with numbers, and although there’s less profit in them, there’s more fun. He had a great feel for the proper meanings and use of words, and how using them wrongly or strangely could be funny. His sense of humour - the Goon Show, Stanley Unwin, anything written by Ronnie Barker, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, amongst many others - was rooted in verbal comedy. And he relished comedies of manners too. As a child I remember him watching an episode of Fawlty Towers - I’m not sure, but my money’s on the episode called “The Germans” - when he laughed so much he actually fell off the sofa. There is no one here today who hasn’t laughed with Dad. There were two watershed moments in his life, times when things changed, never to be the same again. The first was in September 1962, nearly half a century ago, when he met the girl who two years later was to become his wife, and the mother of his children. He was dark, and handsome, (yes, I missed out “tall”, but a son must surely be allowed to trump his father in at least one small regard) and smart, and funny, and well-mannered, and softly-spoken, but with a steely determination to succeed (and, though he kept this privately between them, a decidedly romantic side, which is why at the end of the service we are going to play “Moon River” because they used to dance to it). He was a catch. And she caught him. But he thought just the same about her, and they never looked back, nor sideways, but made their lives together ever after, and brought their children into a secure and loving home. Looking at their wedding picture now, when I am older than both their ages combined, a part of me wonders “who let these children out?” I think their parents thought that. But the doubters were wrong, and Mum and Dad were right - this wasn’t dressing up, this was the real thing, and so it has remained, and will remain, always. The second watershed was in 1981 when we moved to Merry England Nursery. We four dyed-in-the-wool Londoners were unlikely rural incomers, but it has been the backdrop for our lives, and latterly for Jaz and for Tara, for over thirty years. He didn’t turn out to be great with flowers - they are, after all, a bit different from metal, you can’t whack a flower with a spanner - but he loved the space, the greenery, the quiet, the wildlife. There was a huge garden in which he could play with his spaniels, Gunner, and then Bertie, and become again like a small boy with a puppy. His last work on the nursery was to adapt the stable doors, so that the swallows could get to their nests, but the magpies couldn’t. That’s the sort of man he was. There was no profit it in, save the pleasure of knowing he had done a favour to small creatures who needed his help. So, if you are visiting Merry England in the summer when the swallows are there, remember that they, and we, owe a debt of gratitude to my father, who my mother has always called “a good man”, and if any of us is inspired to go out and care for swallows of our own, then he would find that the most fitting memorial of all. Richard Haggis Angmering April 2012

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Day That Judas Died

Some Good Friday Thoughts
6th of April, 2012

The Day That Judas Died


Radio 4 offers a wide range of sometimes brilliant comedy, of which perhaps the most brilliant over more than forty years has been “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”. One time, the panellists were asked what a list of famous people, including Judas the Betrayer, had in common. It turned out, they were all red-heads. “Good heavens,” said that eminent Biblical Scholar, Barry Cryer, “Judas is carrot!”. Of course, there’s not a shred of evidence for this, and if anything Christian art portrayed Judas as a redhead not because he actually was, but because red was the colour of the world, the flesh, and the devil. (Sorry, redheads, I know you have enough to contend with already.)

It’s hard to feel that history’s judgement on Judas has been entirely fair. Dante, I believe, put him in the seventh and coldest pit of hell – with Brutus, amongst others – because he betrayed a friend, and most Christian art and homiletic has taken the same line. In the Eucharist we have for many years heard the words “who in the night that he was betrayed …”, but as William Vanstone pointed out in one of his masterly, sedate, sad, beautiful, books, “The Stature of Waiting”, the more proper translation is “handed over”. Jesus wasn’t betrayed into doing anything, he let himself be handed over. That is the real meaning of “the Passion”, not a lot of rushing about by hot-headed gingertops, but the complete opposite of “action”, a letting go, into a world of heart-breaking vulnerability, which leads to his trial, torture, and the cross.

The Gospel accounts lay the blame for Jesus's crucifixion squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish authorities, and yet crucifixion was not a Jewish punishment, and if the two thieves crucified with him were robbers, death was not the penalty in the Jewish law. This was a battle with Rome.

There is a school of thought – you can find it in Nikos Kazantzakis’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, but it is older than that – that far from being a money-grubbing traitor, Judas believed so passionately in Jesus’s mission that he wanted to force his hand; that he believed the salvation of Israel meant its liberation from the Romans, and was prepared to push Jesus into unleashing angelic armies to force the Romans into the sea. There is no evidence for this either, but it makes sense of Jesus’ mysterious last words to Judas in the Garden, as recorded by Saint Matthew – “Friend, do what you are here to do” (26:50). Would he call a traitor, “friend”?

And just suppose the conjecture is right, that Judas meant good to come from his actions, disguising as financial greed a much bigger and more devastating plot for the salvation of Israel, two questions come to mind: what was he hoping to get out of it? And what if he hadn’t done it?

Maybe Judas was one of those people who likes to play his part, to think that he can one day be a big fish in a big pond, by getting the moment right, by forcing circumstances to happen. Did he envisage becoming a chief priest in that new Temple Jesus had promised to build in three days? Perhaps by lineage he was debarred from being a priest in the old one, but he knew it was a nice little earner and he would surely not be debarred from the new, and he would have liked the dressing up? Perhaps he just hated the Romans so much that he longed for his people to know freedom for the first time since the days of Solomon? Perhaps he just wanted to see the teacher he had followed and loved live out the fulfilment of his own vision? If you back the right horse, you might not be the jockey, but you still look good.

But what if he’d backed another horse, and his winnings were more than 30 pieces of silver in a first century lottery? What if he’d thought, oh, just let’s wait and see, what can I do anyway? What if the fuss of Palm Sunday – which in any case must surely have been the rumpus that sealed Jesus’s fate with the Roman Authorities – had died down? Maybe Jesus and the disciples would have gone back to Galilee, started a kibbutz, settled down and led normal lives. Perhaps Jesus would have married the Beloved Disciple (controversial, but it’s been said before!) or Mary of Magdala (as my friend Alan would dearly wish was the case), and died in his bed with his socks on. What then? Would we still have had salvation? Surely God can’t have actually needed the death of his own son, his own self, to guarantee us that? Of all the offensive Christian doctrines, the “penal substitution theory of the atonement” is the most loathsome: the idea that God needed to be sated by innocent blood for the sins of mankind. Such a God would be a monster, and to use the word “love” in his regard would itself be a blasphemy. Did Jesus need to die?

Judas didn’t stay around long enough to find out how wrong he was – if money was not his motive, although the story says he regretted even that, returned it, and hanged himself (Acts says he blew up). Ever since, suicide has been regarded as one of the gravest sins and even, in English law, a crime until the 1960s (reflected in the severe penalties for those who assist a suicide to this day). Yet surely even Peter the Denier could not have felt and expressed a more bitter, a more desperate, remorse.

Let us not judge Judas – as Jesus will not judge those of us who do impetuous and foolish things, with good intentions, and no real understanding. And let us spare a prayer for him, too, because the prayer is for ourselves, and all frail, fallible, humanity.

“Friend, do what you are here to do”. From tragedy, God wrought a glory far more than even Judas, in his vainest moments, anticipated.

“Here might I stay and sing.
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.”

Four men died that first Good Friday.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
April 2012

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Louis Armstrong and the Power of the Gospel

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Wednesday, 28th March, 2012, 9 a.m.

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

Daniel 3:14-20 & 24-25 & 28

And They Had A Very Good Time In the House of Babylon

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


One of the benefits of being an anachronism is that you sometimes find out about things that others don’t. I doubt that those who listen to contemporary popular music have ever heard a song which was a commentary on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but that is precisely what Louis Armstrong (who died the day after my fifth birthday) sang.

The story is too absurd to be meant to be taken literally, so we don’t have to think of anyone actually being thrown into a furnace, which would be a vicious crime and a sin, although we know from history – and maybe still in our own day – that appalling things like that are possible. So, the combination of the story itself, with Mr Armstrong’s wonderful charism of endless cheerfulness, is thoroughly uplifting.

If I were a better man, or maybe a worse one, I would sing it to you, but best not, and I leave it you to judge which I might be.

Three things come to mind, having listened to it afresh last night.

The first is that Mr Armstrong is obviously a theological liberal, adding the trombone and the clarinet to the hilarious list of instruments that the king wants played when his new idol is to be worshipped. Doubtless he thought that although they didn’t exist in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, if he had known about trombones and clarinets, he would certainly have included them.

Then there is the marvellous “Hey there!”, when King Nebuchadnezzar sees the four figures walking unharmed in the middle of the furnace. This is about as close as we can get to the A-word that we don’t say in Lent. His “hey there!” is for Nebuchadnezzar the beginning of a journey, the opening up of a new understanding, taking him from the making of idols to the worship of God.

And there are those final words of the song “and they had a very good time, in the House of Babylon”. Well, the Israelites were certainly not expecting to have a good time at all – they were captives in a foreign land, and being land-less, they had thought they would be God-less too, because God would have been left behind with the land and homes and flocks they had lost. But no, God had come with them, and here God was, in Babylon. They too were on a journey of discovery, one which must have appealed to Mr Armstrong, with his roots in the American South, where so many people had been taken captive into slavery until only a generation before his own.

We all have our Babylons, the choices and decisions we don’t want to make, the journeys and treks we dread going on but are forced by circumstances beyond our control, but “the power of the Gospel” as Mr Armstrong puts it, is that if God goes with us, these things can go well, and we may yet “have a very good time in the House of Babylon”, which we weren’t expecting. Amen.


Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Being In Communion With Thomas Cranmer

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1556 when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was put to death by burning, in Broad Street, here in Oxford, on the orders of Queen Mary I. He was first ceremonially de-frocked in Christ Church Cathedral and "tried" in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (an altogether nicer Mary). He had done his best to recant his "heretical" views, and escape to his wife and children in Germany, eventually he realised the game was up, and so, as the flames began to rise, he held out his writing hand into the fire, saying that the hand that wrote the recantation deserved to be burnt first. A macabre gesture, in a brutal age. To make matters worse, it was a damp and dismal day for burning(yesterday actually turned out rather nice and sunny), and so, in an act of mercy, boiling oil was thrown at the dying archbishop to speed it up, and end his agony. They say that in the cellars of Balliol College they keep a door that was scalded in the line of fire (as it were).

Cranmer is a fascinating figure, a man of huge intellect and deep learning, ancient and modern. Before he became archbishop, he had not even been an archdeacon, and was leap-frogged into the top job because of his commitment to the King's causes - to disentangle himself from the Queen, Katherine of Aragon, and from the Pope. Cranmer managed to stay in Henry's service for nearly twenty years without having his head chopped off, which is no mean achievement, and testament to his adroitness, tact, and sheer commonsense. But there is another element too - he really did believe that Henry had been put there by God. Henry thought that too, although perhaps in a different way: Henry thought God had put him there to do what Henry pleased, and Cranmer thought God had put Henry there to do what God pleased. There are two famous portraits of Cranmer, one before, one after Henry died. The latter shows the archbishop with a long grey beard - as a sign of mourning for (whatever you think of him as a man) a majestic king (the first king to use the title, Majesty, which has stuck ever since), he never shaved again.

One of the longest-standing controversies about Cranmer concerns his eucharistic theology - what did he think happened in the Mass, Holy Communion, Lord's Supper, Eucharist, or whatever else you want to call it? The text of his first, 1549, Prayerbook, is compared with his second, of 1552, which, with a few changes, evolved finally into the Prayerbook of 1662 which prevailed unchanged until the 19th century, and is still legal, and sometimes even used, today.

I'll leave it to the historians to judge whether Cranmer's own thought was evolving in the 1550s, but the text of the 1662 book is there for us all to read. In the 16th century you could align yourself on a scale from the Mediaeval belief in transsubstantiation (that the bread and wine actually become Christ's body and blood, and that his sacrifice on the cross is re-enacted on the altar), to the Zwinglian view that the ceremony is just a solemn memorial - "do this in remembrance of me". In the 1662 book you can find comfort for both views, and quite a few in between. Whether deliberately or not - and I tend to think it is deliberate - the text has been drafted to offer something to everyone.

In his book about the Lord's Supper, Cranmer takes a dim view of "magic words", as he makes fun of transsubstantiation, when understood at its literal worst. In fact, there is even what must pass as a 16th century joke, as he imagines saying "this is my bo ..." and lifting the veil to see if bread has turned to body yet. I suspect he would be in sympathy with the drafters of the American Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in which only one "amen" is printed in capital letters - the one at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, suggesting that it is not the words of the priest, but the amen of the people, which makes the sacrament. This would fit with these very early words of the liturgy: the priest says "Let us give thanks unto our Lord God", and the congregation answers "It is meet and right so to do". This represents the permission of the people to the priest to continue on their behalf. I once stopped a little communion service because I couldn't hear that reply, and I told a slightly surprised congregation, that if they didn't give me permission to continue, we'd all have to go home to breakfast early and without communion. So, we tried again, and they spoke up!

Cranmer's innovation - and he was little given to novelty, preferring instead to translate, edit, and elide the words and phrases of the Greek and Latin Fathers - was to make the service more dramatic. In common with many reformers, he deplored the way that the laity would come to hear and see the Mass, but not actually to receive communion. So, he gathered them round the table, and distributed the bread - and the wine, previously usually reserved to the priest alone (I wonder why ...?) - immediately after reciting the "words of institution", the ones that Jesus used at the Last Supper in the Gospels. This innovation has not found favour with modern liturgists, but centuries after Cranmer first started to encourage it, regular communion, and the bread and wine for everyone, have become much more the norm.

However, returning to the question "what did Cranmer think happens in the eucharist?", I think we make a mistake in concentrating too much on the bread and the wine. In his book, the archbishop writes eloquently about holy communion being not only something that happens with comestibles, and not only an encounter between the believers and their God, but also a sign of a deepening relationship one with another. The key to this can be found in his "Prayer of Humble Access", which in a revised form is available for us in Common Worship, just before the distribution:

"We do not presume to come to this, thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under they Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen."

For Cranmer, the essence of the sacrament was this mutual indwelling, not just of God-with-us, Immanuel, but also one with another. The idea of saying, for instance, "that I may evermore dwell in him, and he in me", would have been a nonsense to him - the sacrament was communion-in-community, modelled on the community of the Divine Trinity itself. That is why, after the Reformation, Church of England priests were not to celebrate Holy Communion on their own.

One can only presume that Elizabeth I's famous dictum "I do not desire windows into men's souls" was influenced by this view. It is in our gathering together to share the sacraments, that the reality of communion can live and grow, not in our doctrinal disputes about who is right, who is wrong, and who doesn't really understand. There is much argy-bargy about "communion" in the Anglican churches at the moment, all of which misses the point that if you are arguing about "who's in and who's out", you're ALL out. And that is why the Anglican position has been, with very few qualifications, that if you want to come to communion, you are welcome to come, and if you do, you are in communion with everyone who welcomes you.

And those who won't come to communion, or refuse it to others, might bear in mind, to take another line from Cranmer's Prayerbook "how grievous and unkind a thing it is", and a "great injury and wrong" done unto God himself.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012
A Homily for Holy Communion on
Wednesday, 21st of March, 2012, 9 a.m.

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

John 5:17-30

A Baggy Old Frock - One Size Fits All


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

It does us no harm sometimes to be baffled by Scripture. As the years pass, we hear it a lot, and become used to its rolling phrases and grand ideas, and whilst the words change relatively little (although the Old Order of one translation sufficing for several centuries has long since passed), but the ears with which we listen, do. Life raises different questions for us from time to time, and with those questions in our minds, we listen afresh, and what once was a hint or a whisper, becomes a firm loud voice, or even sometimes a shout.

What shouts at me from today’s Gospel is that it’s not answering my question. Mindful of Rowan Williams’s announcement of his retirement as Archbishop, my lurking question is, “who’s in charge, then?” John’s Gospel was written in the context of that very question. To ancient Judaism, the answer was, simply, “God”. But John is pointing us in a new direction “Yes, of course God, but also Jesus”, and today’s passage exemplifies this. We are in transition from autocracy to committee rule, from the tsar to the politburo. And yet it’s very hard to tell if Jesus actually wants the job (would-be archbishops, take note). The Father “has entrusted all judgement to the Son”, who is to be “supreme judge”, which seems fairly straightforward delegation. But, Jesus says, “I can do nothing by myself, I can only judge as I am told to judge”. Hmm, this is starting to look like “you can buy any colour car so long as it’s black”. And then there are those who “listen and believe”, who will not be “brought to judgement”, which starts to look like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. These people are the ones who have eternal life already. But then there’s another catch – the dead are going to leave their graves, and those who have done good will rise again to life. But what happened to all that listening and believing?

So, we have a supreme judge whose hands are tied, and a two-tier system of appraising the evidence. This is at the very least confusing. How are we to get out of this one?

The error is perhaps to have been looking all along for a seamless robe. The Gospel is for everyone, not just for me, or you. If one size is going to fit all, that robe is going to have to have a bit of growing room in it, and it might need patching from time to time. It is so easy for those of a religious disposition to turn the phrase on its head, and insist that “all must fit one size”, and we apply it to Scripture, and we apply it to each other, regardless of how much of Scripture, and one another, we might have to chop out to achieve it.

God did not command his messengers, editors and translators, to chop and change Scripture until it made sense. God does not command us to chop and change our brother and sister Christians until we all agree. There is something for everyone in the baggy old frock which is the Gospel; God give us ears to hear the Good News. Amen.


Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012

Friday, 16 March 2012

In Defence of Modern Marriage

IN DEFENCE OF MODERN MARRIAGE


To start with, there’s no such thing as “gay marriage”. Not because it’s not allowed yet, but because it makes no sense, and it’s not what anyone wants. The government is suggesting that the rights and duties and legal language of marriage be extended to include gay couples. Nothing new is being proposed, unlike in 2005 when the Civil Partnerships Act became law. Just that what is already there should be understood more broadly, to include all citizens who wish to make a binding commitment with one other person.

This should be the occasion of rejoicing, not least from the Christian churches, which argue from their Scriptures that “God is love”. As an elderly monk – himself a grandfather – said to me one time in America, “there’s so little love in the world, the least you can do, when you see it, is bless it”. But the Church of England and Roman Catholic hierarchies seem unable to do this. Cardinal O’Brien finds the idea grotesque. They seem united in finding the marriage of gay people deeply threatening to the reality of other people’s marriages. This intrigues me. Obviously, there isn’t a Mrs Cardinal, but I wonder if, for instance, Lady Carey, the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, actually feels that her marriage to George would be undermined if gay couples were acknowledged as married? Would the Cardinal start to think, “oh, if gay men could marry, I might not be a cardinal?” Would Lord Carey think “if gay women were allowed to marry, I might never have found a wife?” Is this what they are worried about? Are their own commitments – to celibacy or to marriage - built on such frail foundations? Of course not, they will say. And I agree. So, why should the rest of their heterosexually- or celibacy- inclined peers react any differently?

And then we have the children. The Roman Catholic Church has at least the virtue, if such it is, of consistency on this one. They detest birth control, and regard it as unnatural. Far better that people abstain from sex if they have enough children already, or, if they have not “the gift of continency” than that they should have still more unwanted children, because, after all, sex must have its price. And, what the hell, why not make the children pay it? It’s true that most, but not all, gay couples will not have children. Some do. There is no evidence that those children go without, either emotionally, or materially, and evidence that positively points against the idea that growing up with two mums or two dads makes you gay, or sets you up any less well for life in the world.

But marriage is for a man and a woman, it says so in the Bible. But does it? Yes, the Genesis story is about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, but you’ve got to go some to try to find modern marriage in that book: Polygamy, sexual slavery, concubinage, rape, prostitution, even celibacy; but a covenanted relationship between equal partners? Apart from David and Jonathan – and there’s no evidence that was sexual – there is none. In fact, apart from the Curse in Genesis 3, and the naughty rudeness of the Song of Solomon, nothing even acknowledges that women might have sexual desire at all. Biblical marriage looks like something deeply unattractive.

So, the churches can keep that. Modern marriage is a product of our own culture, our own society. Christianity played its part in creating it – it was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (the first married Archbishop of Canterbury) who put “the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other” into the wedding service. He was dared to put it first (after procreation and the avoidance of sin), but his nerve broke. Centuries later, his insight has prevailed.

Couples who fall in love, and wish never to be apart, fall for that one – “the mutual society, help, and comfort” – as the essence of marriage. They might have children, they might not, that is immaterial. There are good marriages, there are bad marriages. We all know that these things are defined not by law, but by practice. But it is the purpose of the law to encourage the best, and discourage the worst. When gay couples are allowed to call their relationships marriage, the sky will not fall in. When they claim their rights as equal partners in a world in which they were made as equals, they will make things better for everyone, not worse. Youngsters, gay or straight, or bi, will think “yeah, I could do that”. The role models will be the best relationships, not the ones of which the churches approve.

Marriage is made for mankind, not the other way round. And by their fruits you shall know them. It’s in their book. Could their religious lordships just pay a little attention? Or else, shut up.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012