Thursday, 26 July 2012

Divide & Rule in the C of E 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 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