Saturday, 21 January 2012

Christian Unity: Let Us Side With The Evil Spirits

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Thursday, 19st of January, 2012, 7.30 p.m.

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

Readings: Psalm 56:10-13 & Mark 3:7-12

Unity? Let Us Side With The Evil Spirits

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

This is the second day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I have failed to find out when it was invented, or why it is at this time of year – from the 18th to the 25th of January. But here it is, and it invites us to consider why Christians are so incredibly good at falling out, and so very bad at being nice to each other.

Surely we are citizens of One Kingdom, servants of One God, believers in one Redemption? But no, we find things that allow us to say “yes, but you don’t believe things right, so I will not pray with you”. What Jesus would have made of this is very hard to tell. He didn’t come to found churches and sacraments and holy orders and liturgies and canon law. He wanted to show us what God is like. That’s what we mean by the Incarnation – God made flesh, God with us, God we can understand, because he speaks to us as a friend, a neighbour, a brother. We can hear the words of Jesus in the Gospels, and maybe in our minds eye, even imagine his face, the kindness, the compassion, the thrill, that our first forbears in the faith saw.

So, how did we get in this mess? Why do we have to pray for Christian Unity? One reason is because we mistake “unity” with “uniformity”. Just because we are called to be friends, doesn’t mean for one minute that we have to agree about everything. But we do have to agree about continuing to be friends despite our disagreements. Some would say that Anglicans are in pretty thin ice telling the world about Christian unity, and certainly, we see little sign of commitment to “unity in diversity” in the Anglican scene lately. But we are practised. We have disagreed with one another from the very earliest times. Just as the earliest Christians did – read the Acts of the Apostles, and just imagine what Saints Peter and James and Paul wrote about one another in their diaries after their meetings! Ours has always had to be a broad church, because it was always meant to be the Church of all the English people. Our great foundress, Queen Elizabeth I, once said “I do not desire windows into men’s souls”; and the architect of that policy – who was a generation older than Elizabeth – Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, composed our Book of Common Prayer with the intention of drawing everyone to Holy Communion together. To misquote Saint Augustine, their view seemed to be “have love, and believe what you will”.

Well now, what does all this have to do with tonight’s Gospel reading? Is it good news for us in our divisions, arguments, and difficulties? I think it is. Because it directs our attention to the Incarnate God, to Jesus, who was so popular that they were worried that the crush of the crowd meant they needed a boat to save him from them. Even the evil spirits recognised who he was, and he told them politely to shut up.

So, what are we do make of this calling to be united in our diversity, to mend our divisions for Christ’s sake? Maybe we need to side with the evil spirits, to learn to recognise when the Son of God is amongst us. How are we to tell? What are the signs? We are Trinitarians, so we believe in God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each may be known in different ways, as well as together. They say the surest sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is joy. For God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, surely it is beauty, and the sense of wonder that sees it. For God the Son, it is the kindness that heals, that preaches good news to those who are far off, and those who are near.

If we find those things in our brothers and sisters, no matter that they belong to different churches, or even to no church at all, we are pilgrims on the same path. Different is not wrong. The Glory of the Divine Trinity rejects none of his children. As we are not rejected, let us in turn not reject. To the Glory of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
January 2012

Monday, 16 January 2012

Saint Antony of Egypt - Nunning Again ...

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Tuesday 17th Friday, 2012, 9 a.m.

Feast Day of Saint Antony of Egypt

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

Galatians 6:14-16 & Matthew 19:16-26

Pleasing God, By Living Well

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


There is a story - I can’t remember where I read it, but I think it might have been something to do with this place - of a Reverend Mother who greeted a young priest on retreat for the first time after taking up his post as chaplain to a very rich college in a small borstal in The Fens, that shall remain nameless (but which I think I may also know quite well), famous for the sumptuous luxury of its high table. Reverend Mothers being blunt sort of persons, she looked him up and down, eyeing the evidence of his having partaken of that luxury “not wisely but too well”, and said “Father, I think perhaps a little more of the desert is in order, and a little less of the dessert”.

Saint Antony is famous for having made that choice, exchanging a comfortable bourgeois life for further and further solitude; hearing the Gospel reading we have heard today, and taking it quite literally, before following the promptings of his heart, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, edging out of his town to the tombs, and finally deeper and deeper into the desert, to fend for himself as a hermit and to be alone with God. They say the Sinai desert is a place of awesome silence, but also of great beauty, and by all accounts, he did indeed find God there.

It is difficult to hear his story without a pang of envy alongside the awe. After all, isn’t it easy enough to be good when you’re in a desert, miles away from the distractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil? No parents, partner, progeny, pets or pubs; no shopping to do nor things to covet, because there are no shops; nor public transport to drive you mad with fury, because you aren’t going anywhere; no bills, no plans, no social life, because no one knows where you are; no books to feel guilty about not reading, because God and his wild creatures do not write books. Sometimes it can sound like bliss. But then the awe comes in. With no distractions, you have no excuses. With no occasions for sin, you become the more deeply aware of the sin within. And so it seems to have been for Saint Antony, as he wrestled with demons he didn’t previously know he had, and shared his wisdom from the fight with those who came to seek his advice.

Above all, the desert provides an opportunity for paying attention, which is all you can do when you have no distractions. And this is something we can all do in the brief desert moments which are given to us. Here’s a little Epiphany from yesterday. I was sitting in a field – Oxford is very well-served for fields and parks, and many have not entirely uncomfortable benches for us to sit and think, and sitting and thinking is one of the unsung luxuries of underemployment. My eye was caught by something glinting in the grass. As I moved my head, it seemed to shine with different coloured lights, like the facets of a good quality diamond. I confess, I got off the bench and went to see if by any happy chance it really was a good quality diamond. But no – and for once I will not say “alas”! – it was the melting frost, like dew, on the grass, caught by that bright, low, fierce winter sun, and the light reflected and refracted in those glorious ways. Was it any less beautiful for not being a really good quality diamond? Of course not; for it had been, I’d have scooped it up (to find its rightful owner, naturally), and no one else could have shared it. So there it stays, in the desert, until the next person is lucky enough to see and enjoy it, and thank God for the beauty that is all around us.

Antony said we should “please God by living well”, because God furnishes us with still better things than port and stilton, if we but learn to pay attention. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
January 2012