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


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