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

Monday, 5 March 2012

See how they love one another ...

From H. Benedict Green's commentary (OUP) on Saint Matthew's Gospel:

"... one has only to read the controversial writings of such outstanding Christians as Luther or Thomas More, to say nothing of the Fathers of the Church, to realise how recently religious controversy has come to be conducted with even elementary courtesy ..."

The context is the tensions between the earliest Christians and their Jewish contemporaries.

A Load of Old Tassels

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Tuesday, 6th of March, 2012, 9 a.m.

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


Matthew 23:1-12


A Load Of Old Tassels

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


The trouble with the use of Scripture in our day – and perhaps in every day – is that we make the mistake of thinking it’s talking about us. It’s like a sort of inverse paranoia, but whereas the psychological kind, in which we falsely believe that others are talking about us, and plotting against us, which leads to anxiety, this kind leads us to mis-read what is actually there, and leads to complacency – of course we must be right, because the Bible tells us so.

For members of the Christian churches, and perhaps especially the more formal and structured kind, and most of all for the clergy, today’s Gospel makes pretty uncomfortable reading. I well remember the first time I was addressed as “Father”. I had taken evening prayer in Binsey church when the vicar was on holiday. He had lent me his rather smart 39-button cassock for the occasion, and I had walked all along Binsey Lane wearing it, not because I needed to – it was actually rather a warm summer day – but in the hope of being seen in it. After the service a man older than my grandfather, said “thank you, Father”. I wasn’t ordained at the time, nor even an ordinand - “call no one on earth your father” - but surely it would have been churlish to put him right? And what was that smart 39-button cassock if not a modern edition of phylacteries and tassels?





It is entertaining to read the New Testament commentators wriggle and squirm on this one. Most of them are personally familiar with being called “father”, or “doctor”, or “professor”, which is surely the same as “rabbi” in this context? “Of course,” they seem to say, “this particular teaching refers only to how the disciples must treat one another; or applies only while Jesus is personally present with them; or should be read as a criticism of Pharisaic Judaism in Palestine in the later part of the first century; and it should on no account be taken as a judgement on the subsequent, still less the current, practice of the church”. Anything but read what’s actually there, and let us use our cleverness to get ourselves off that hook. As that distinguished theologian, Dorothy Parker, might have parodied it:

“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.”

And for once, strikingly, and challengingly, the Bible is actually about us. These verses look us in the eye and ask the quiet question “are you disciples, or Pharisees; is your faith in God, or in a load of old tassels?”

The Good News is that God chooses to see through the tassels and still find us. Here, he encourages us to see through them, and to find God. Amen.



Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012