Monday, 29 December 2014

Holy Innocence

Thoughts from a Homily for Holy Communion on
The Sunday after Christmas, being also Holy Innocents Day
28th of December, 2014, 9 a.m.

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


Holy Innocence & Telling the Truth

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

Lately, I seem to have become unaccountably incompetent at reading lectionaries. “December the 28th – Holy Innocents”, I thought, on reading the e-mail message from the Prioress, a happy date for me as it was the birthday of my late godmother and Great-Auntie Marie (she was my father’s godmother, too). Then, mindful of what happened last time, I thought, “no, best check whether they are actually keeping it”. First Sunday after Christmas. Rats. But then I had a look in my Revised Common Lectionary (admittedly, late at night, and in the dark, and saw, to my delight that the Gospel reading was nonetheless exactly as it would have been for Holy Innocents – the horrible story of Herod’s slaughter of the boy children of Bethlehem. Alas, that was for Year A. We are in Year B. Christmas II is common to years A, B, & C, but not Christmas I. I feel most short-changed by all this. So what I propose to say is a little of what I have prepared, and whatever takes us all by surprise as we go along.

Normally I come here on a weekday, and it took me the whole of the walk down from Barton to realise what felt so different about the journey today. No children. Between here and there, are several thousand schools, with several million children, who in term-time are swarming across the pavements, and into the roads, like noisy, slow-moving, cluttering, ants. They always sound very jolly though, as if they are looking forward to going to school. I’m sure I never did. Perhaps it has improved since my day. That is a dangerously un-curmudgeonly thought.

But today, it was quiet, and instead we heard the sound of the birds, robins and sparrows and the rest, and wrens in particular. I think wrens must dislike children, as they were in abundance this morning, in every garden bush and hedgerow. The quiet also made me think of a sad thing – but one inspired by the reading we should have had this morning – “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel, weeping for her children”. The sad thing was that both my grandmother and my great-grandmother lost their first children, before they had any others, and although neither of them even said this to me – and I knew them both – I have for long years thought of what it must have been like to come home to a silent house, which had until just lately been filled with the noisiness of a new baby. They went on to have more children – in my great-grannie’s case, eleven more, of whom three are still up and doing today – the eldest is 93, the next will, God willing be 90 next summer, and the baby of the family is 88. In both generations, they were spared the awfulness of losing a second child in their own lifetimes. So, for these different family reasons, the feast of the Holy Innocents was something to think about.

Where’s the holiness? One thing I am sure of is that it is not in the suffering. The story we tell on this day is one - whether literally, historically, true or not – of monstrous unholiness. To cause suffering to anyone at all, but especially to a child, can only be an evil sin crying out to heaven for vengeance and to all of us for justice. Some Christians struggle with this, having been caught up in a kind of spiritual sado-masochism, in which virtue is to be found in pain. It finds its secular counterpart – perhaps you have friends who frequent the gym with this mantra? – “if it hurts, it works”. My reply to that is “if you told a doctor it was hurting he’d almost certainly advise you to stop it”. And the medical advice is right – there is no virtue in pain and suffering, only in stopping it. Of course, adversity can be borne with great courage and fortitude, and there is virtue in those things, a virtue which derives from the grace of God, and God’s image and likeness reverberating through us, but suffering itself is an evil.

And what of innocence? I had a friend at theological college who had two delightful twin daughters, who I used to tease about the innocence of children. “They aren’t born with it, they need innocence beaten into them by their parents”. We made it up, and she invited me to preach at her first mass, so all was well, but I learnt to be just a little careful making jokes about children with doting parents. On Christmas Day I was speaking on the telephone to my mother about her younger grand-daughter, who is five, and possessed of what she and my sister called “the WOW Factor”. I well remember her delight when I brought her – when she was very small – a present of a box of coloured paper tissues for about fifty pence. They entertained her all afternoon, and eventually littered the whole sitting room. I was – remain – a much more cynical child, and can’t help thinking that the Wow Factor is a very good way of cultivating in grown-ups the tendency to give more and better presents. But this is a step too far – for my niece – and many other children of all ages, it’s not cynical calculation, it’s sheer joie de vivre. That might not quite be innocence, but it’s not a bad approximation.

But returning to our Holy Innocents, slaughtered by King Herod (and the slaughter is by no means over, in so many parts of the world, and especially still in the Middle East) - is the cruelty done to them any less wicked because they are harmless and have done nothing to deserve it? Doesn’t Jesus call us to a higher standard than that, that all violence, all cruelty, all malice, and hatred, and spite, whatever the provocation, is sinful? And what of those who have hurt us – and we must all of us in this room have been hurt by others at some point or other – just how guilty were they? The instinct of furious vengeance abates when we start to ponder what hurt it was in them, that made them hurt us. And the tables turn when we look within, and question what hurt it is within us that makes us in turn hurt others.

So, why do we tell this tale, of the Holy Innocents? Where do we find any good news in it at all? Reading the actual Gospel for today – in the vestry, ten minutes before the service! – I wondered whether it’s about telling the truth, which is what Christmas is for. We celebrate the amazing grace that in the person of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, we see God, and in seeing God, we are ourselves brought to abundance of the life we live in God’s own image and likeness, that we share with Jesus.

These last couple of days, I have called in at Michael Sobell House, one of the local hospices, to see a friend who is receiving respite care. It’s a long time since I’ve been in a hospice – not since I was first a curate in Romford, I think, when we had a very good one just outside the parish – and its gentle calm reminded me of why the hospice movement is so popular and has found such favour, despite concentrating on the solemn and almost unmentionable subject of death. It’s because a hospice is a place where you can tell the truth – the truth about death, but also, because of that, the truth about the whole of life. Like Rachel, we can wail and lament that life is cut short, but it brings into sharper focus the gift of life itself – and the challenge to do all we can to make that life abundant now, no matter how long or short it will be.

And the truth is that this life, our life – like Bethlehem two thousand years ago – is touched by grace, by the real, living, love, of God, to which as brothers and sisters of that same God, made in that same image and likeness, we can call out, as Saint Paul teaches us, “Abba, Father”. This must surely be the truth that sets us free, the Good News of the Holy Innocents.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December, 2014






Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Scenes from a Very Modern Marriage

Not like that! It was, last Monday (the 15th of December) the day of our "conversion" from Civil Partnership to Marriage, under the new "Marriage (Same-sex Couples) Act 2013". Just paperwork, I had thought, no great fandango like last time, with guests, and dressing up, and two receptions, and a cake, and rings, and so on. Just the two of us, quietly signing the papers which change the law of the land.

But it was more than that. It was an anxious night before. Apart from the usual control queen butterflies about whether things will go according to MY plan, I was thinking about my role in the Church of England. They ordained me a deacon and a priest, in 1995 and 1996. I am still in Crockford's Clerical Directory - "the Book of Death", as my friend Elizabeth Christened it, when she was briefly an ordinand herself. But since February 2006 I have had no ministry, no stipend, no house, no pension contributions, no licence, no permission to officiate. In June 2005, I was being asked to look after the impending vacancy at the parish I was serving in - Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, Chelsea (London!) - as the rector, Bishop Michael, steeled himself for the awful prospect of retirement at the age of 70 the following April. Those are the rules. In July, the House of Bishops produced a bonkers mad statement about their clergy, saying they could only enter civil partnerships with permission from the pointy-hats, and if they promised there was no hanky-panky. It was pathetic drivel from a group of men who were once considered educated and intelligent. I wrote something furious for the Guardian about it, which was published the next day. Instantly my potentially golden future - managing the welfare of an interesting parish through its vacancy, and probably applying for the job itself - disappeared. Six months, then you go. In no bishop's eyes, but on our civil partnership and marriage certificates, and maybe to God, I remain a "Clerk in Holy Orders".

So, at 3 in the morning, I was sleepless, remembering something my training vicar in Romford had said, about how bishops expect to be asked their permission before a parson marries. This is in stark contravention of Article XXXII of the 39 Articles of the Church of England, which say that clergy are to be allowed to marry at our own discretion, but anyway, I thought I'd send the acting bishop (we have a vacancy here in this diocese; you might say we have had one for some time since before the last bishop retired) an e-mail at least telling him. He replied a couple of days later. He didn't congratulate us. Bishops, huh?

And so to the day, in town, on the bus, well over an hour early, and with Ricardo aching with hunger and yet refusing to eat, presumably so as to keep being angry. I don't think it's that he didn't want to finish the paperwork and get the certificate that would prove to any interested party (like our unfit-for-purpose Home Office) that ours is not a "sham marriage", but that compared to last time it felt too small and rushed. We had been waiting for appropriate ID for him. His passport had run out, and never one to do by telephone or e-mail what a trip to London can do better, he made not one, but two trips to London, and on the Friday the passport arrived. By lunchtime, the "conversion" was booked - for Monday.

We twidddled our thumbs, drank coffee and wine in the pub where we were to meet a few friends after, with him spitting tacks about the vulgarity of the clientele. It was actually chosen because one friend might have been able to come by wheelchair, and it had far the easiest access of any of the five local pubs - this is 2014 for heaven's sake! - but it helped that it was such a contrast to the splendour of last time, the real time, at Christ Church (my old college) straight after, and then in our friends' smart house and garden, in smart Divinity Road, one of the nicer parts of town.

And then it was time. We sat in the waiting room, seeing other people come and go. Mostly, I think, registering deaths, which I am gracious enough to say takes priority. A friend arrived, rather unexpectedly, but most welcome, who had been with us seven and a half years ago for the real thing, and within moments we were all ushered into the registrars' office - not the ceremonial room, just an office. We had thought we couldn't bring guests in, but they didn't challenge him, and nor did we, so off we all toddled. They sent out for a chair "Oh, don't bother, I can stand" he said "No, really, we haven't a clue what we're doing, this is going to take ages" they replied.

And so it did - two registrars, one number-crunching into the computer, the other consulting her crib-sheet of information from what I suspect was the sole training day anyone had had about how this would all happen. When I called in a few weeks before, one of their colleagues said "oh yes, it's all happening on the 10th. What is happening, we don't know. But it's happening on the 10th". They were hugely patient, with my melancholic humour, and Ricardo's slapstick, and Murray's sardonic asides, and gradually the form emerged. We read a declaration that we would be "husband" to each other. We weren't expecting that. There was a "wife" option, but I think that was for lesbians. And we signed, and the first draft was printed, and it wasn't quite right, as I pointed out, gently (I know a thing or two about marriage certificates). And then it was right, and it was done, and there were general congratulations, and history was made, and we were in it.

Looking up, I noticed an aerial photograph of the City of Oxford above the fireplace in the room. Well, it wasn't really Oxford, it was mainly Christ Church, and clearly visible was the Lee Building where we had our first reception, thanks to the kind offices of our friend Robert who is a lecturer at the college (as well as an august professor in Bristol), and its terrace, between which we ran, on that rainy-sunny day, back and forth, with considerable merriment. It joined some dots for us both, and for Murray, who was there for that too.

Hands shaken, registrars left behind swapping notes about what they got right and wrong behind us, we walked down the corridor to be met by two people who weren't there in 2007 - one bearing confetti (they had gone halves - how appropriate!) the other, a camera. Lina was in America then, and would be now, except her son was over in Oxford for interviews (thirty years after I did the same thing, with the rather less demanding journey from Sussex), and Liz we only met last year, when we first moved to Barton. They met on the steps, and knew they had arrived to see the same patients at the madhouse. Murray had to scurry back to work, but the four of us headed back to that dubious dive in Castle Street, and were met by Robert, and Hala, the latter the key orchestrator of the pomp last time, when I had intended that anyone who wanted to meet us, could jolly along to the nearest pub and wish us well afterwards, but this was deemed beneath Ricardo's dignity.

We swapped notes about how we'd all met - Ricardo and I through a gay website, Hala and I through an HIV charity for which we were both volunteers; Murray and I rooming at Hala's house and fighting (most politely) over a very small kitchen; Lina I met through drugs (a Home Office project in the West End), and Liz I met on a park bench in Barton - I was wearing a Panama hat, and being the daughter and grand-daughter of parsons, she instantly knew there was something wrong with me. Robert alone I met innocently as an undergraduate at Christ Church, untainted by grown-up-ness, or hats. And thinking over all our lives was interesting too. Unmarried, but with a child who grew up elsewhere; unmarried with a child who's very much part of daily life; two of them twice married, once unhappily and without children, second time round, happily and blessed by them; married once and divorced, but with married children, fixed maternally closer than ivy to a mansion's stonework. Is that a cross-section of Britain's Rainbow Nation?

Finally, two of our company had to leave, to care for children of varying sizes, and the three of us remaining left on the bus, back to Barton. Another day drawn to its close, but history made. The pieces of paper we held in a box bought for the purpose are for a backdated marriage. "When Married: 16th June 2007". The law hadn't changed then. It is changed retroactively. That is remarkable and rare in constitutional history.

And history it was. Holding in my hand that marriage certificate, identical in form to every certificate I have seen from my ancestors in 1839 (S. Mark's, Kennington, they eloped, scandal! -'twas ever thus) to my grandparents and my parents, certificates I had written for couples I had married as a parish priest and college chaplain, was moving more than I can say. This was history. My history. And I was now not only part of it, I belonged to it.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2014









Wednesday, 3 December 2014

It would be thought, it would be, a bitter thing to observe that the church of England refuses to give me any parish post, but on Monday, an elderly nun, a very bright woman, who has clearly since we last talked, had a stroke, laughed at every point in my sermon that was actually funny. I think that showed that both of us were alive. Maybe for a few moments we had "life more abundant" together. The hierarchy would seem to be against this.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

From today's paper

SIR – Mr Cameron proposes that EU immigrants to Britain must wait four years before being considered for council housing. I am British, and out of work, and have waited more than four years for a council house or flat to no avail, because so few remain. Is Mr Cameron promising to build more council housing for the natives?
The Rev Richard Haggis
Oxford

Daily Telegraph, letters, 2nd December 2014

Monday, 1 December 2014

Only Connect - to Saint Andrew

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 1st of December 2014, 11.30 a.m.
being also the Feast of Saint Andrew (translated)

for the Sisters of the Love of God (in general) and for Sister Helen Columba (in particular) on the occasion of her birthday (translated)
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Romans 10:12-18 & Matthew 4:18-22

“How are they to hear, without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him, unless they are sent?”


Only Connect

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


Over quarter of a century ago, when I first came on retreat here, I noticed a book in the library of the hermitage I had been allotted. It was called “Only Connect”, by Robin Green, of whom I hadn’t heard, and with a foreword by Harry Williams, of whom I had. It was the motto of the novelist E. M. Forster, and I believe it is printed at the beginning of all his books. I was never a great fan of them, to be honest, although I returned to them with a frisson when I learnt that a new friend of mine had met him when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge. I suppose you could say, now there was a connexion (although she did say he was a dry old stick, and clearly didn’t like girls much; no real surprises there).

Back then I was young and foolish – kindly folk would say these days “younger, but otherwise unchanged” – and thought the whole point of life was to live it with a bang, too young to know that you’ve got away with it, if it goes with a quiet splosh, so “only connect” seemed a rather tame little motto to me. I have learnt better.

Saint Andrew’s story in the Scriptures is rather scant. We know he was Simon Peter’s brother, a fellow fisherman, and according to Saint John’s Gospel, he was the one to bring Jesus to Simon Peter’s attention, who assisted at the feeding of the multitude, and conveyed the curiosity of the Gentiles. Andrew was something of a sidekick. The theme returns in his legend, too. His remains were taken from Patras in Greece to Constantinople to fortify the claims of that great patriarchate against those of Rome – “you’ve got Peter, but we’ve got his big brother!” - and then when the Crusades failed, they were dismembered and his body was taken to Amalfi, south of Naples in Italy, and his head to Rome. My great-grannie came from the next town but three to Amalfi, and Rome is the only place in Italy I have ever visited. Only connect. In 1964, the head was finally returned by Pope Paul VI to Patras, from which it had originally been nicked. I suppose you might say that was a sort of re-connect.

In the 8th century, his relics had a northern European tour, including a stay at the city now named after him in Scotland. It’s a place of which I am very fond, not for the usual reasons, which seem to be either the university, the Duchess of Cambridge, or golf, but because it’s where I saw a dipper. This might not be something you’ve heard of, except in the fairground, but a dipper is a small bird which does what it says on the tin – as it flies, it dips. It’s a humdrum little thing, really, about the size of a robin, that frequents coastal areas. I’d seen the dipping diagram in a book years before, so when I saw it, I knew, and rather thrilling it was, too. Only connect. It was partly by virtue of that reliquary visit, and his later hoisting to the Celtic flag at the Synod of Whitby, because they felt they needed a bigger saint than Columba to wave against Saint Peter of Rome, that Andrew became Scotland’s patron. In a similar way, he became Russia’s too – and also the patron of Ukraine, Romania and Barbados, and cities in Italy, Malta, Greece, and the Philippines. With Scotland, Russia, and Ukraine, What a busy year Saint Andrew must have had.

In the late 19th century a Scottish missionary went out to the Holy Land and built a hospital and a chapel. I chanced on this unexpected place during my only visit to Palestine, in 1996. We were in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, and soaking up the sheer wonder of it – “and did those feet, in ancient time?” asked William Blake. Well, no, not in Somerset they didn't, but in Galilee, they jolly well did. And so, in 1996, did we, from Romford. The others were off doing something worthy, or in a bar, and I came across this little Church of Scotland chapel of Saint Andrew. Compared to all the other religious nonsense I’d seen so far, it was a breath of fresh air – Spartan, clean, unpretentious, holy in its simplicity. The only colour in the place was a few paintings which a student had given for his lodging, when he had no money. What galleries might the church have now, if the five thousand had repaid Saint Andrew in kind for the small boy’s loaves and fishes! Perhaps the church has always been repaid in kind, somehow or other, and we, poor chumps, haven’t noticed, haven’t made the connexion.

It was on a journey back from St Andrew’s and Edinburgh that I met a woman on a train with whom I got talking. “Oh, if you live in Oxford you MUST visit Fairacres” she said. She seemed to know what she was talking about, so I sent a rather peculiar letter to the convent, and was invited to come to meet one of the sisters, and here we are today. Only connect.

Saint Andrew is remembered principally as Peter’s brother. But if Saint John’s account is to be believed, Peter only came to meet Jesus through him. He was the point of connexion. And he is remembered for his cross – which flies from the steeple at my neighbourhood church in Old Headington – a cross which is also a point of connexion. The details of his own martyrdom may owe more to legend than history, but at their root they link him to that other cross, which I learnt in this place, is the point of connexion between between God and man, between heaven and earth, between time and eternity.

“Only connect” turns out to be a rather more powerful motto than I had thought, those long years ago.

For Saint Andrew, and for all those who have been our connexions to heaven, through love and wonder, thank you, God.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2014

Friday, 28 November 2014

Wonky Vaulting, Swans, Geese, and Monty Python - S. Hugh of Lincoln

Notes from a homily to the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Monday, 17th of November, 2014, 8.30 a.m.

Saint Hugh of Lincoln

[after finding that the Sisters were not in fact keeping this particular feast]

Oh dear! It's such a good idea to check first - I was SO sure you'd be keeping Saint Hugh of Lincoln today. The main reason for this is that for once he is a saint I know something about. I've often come down the hill knowing nothing about about the saint of the day - or rather, nothing until receiving the invitation to come to celebrate on their day, and then swotting up at home - but I trained for the priesthood at Lincoln Theological College, of late and blessed memory, in the shadow of that magnificent cathedral, whose choir is attributed to Saint Hugh's efforts, in the re-building necessitated by an earthquake (and we complain about floods). It's even said that Saint Hugh worked manually on the cathedral - a saint not afraid to get his hands dirty, or to hammer, or break, a nail.

We were shown round the cathedral by one of our tutors who had such an enthusiasm for the place that she wrote a book about it. When we got to the choir, she told us to look up at the vaulting. Fan vaulting is a marvel of symmetry, starting off at the wall, fanning out as it climbs across, then meeting in the middle of the ceiling. Not in S. Hugh's choir. It's wonky. Why might this be?, our tutor asked, and we said the usual sort of nonsense: perhaps it was a very early effort and they hadn't got it right yet? But she pointed out that anyone who can build a wall so high and straight that it doesn't fall over, can easily make vaulting meet. Instead, she suggested, it is deliberate. Look at it, and you will find no pattern - even as you gaze up during the longest and dullest of sermons. "Do not expect to find perfection in man-made things", she said.

It fell to my lot to lead morning prayer at the college on S. Hugh's Day. Normally, anywhere else in the world, this is no big deal, but every service at theological college is an occasion of great earnestness and brouhaha, because each ordinand only gets a go once every few months, and must milk it for all it's worth, and I must have done more research for that 15-minute office than I've done for far more significant things since. During it, I discovered the significance of the swan, which in our chapel window winds itself round Saint Hugh's leg - it was his pet, from a diocesan estate far to the south (in those days, and until 1542 and the creation of the new diocese, Oxford was in the bishop of Lincoln's domain). But one - just one - writer suggested it might actually have been a goose. Now, when someone says that sort of thing in revisionist history, or re-interpretation of the New Testament, our natural response is to say "oh, someone's got to go and spoil it". But it didn't spoil it for me. I like geese. I used to keep them as a teenager - my parents bought me seven goslings when they saw me going mad with boredom, revising for my O-levels (imagine such a thing happening to today's hot-housed little generation!). They thought I was their mother, and followed me in a little line round our nursery and back to their paddock. So for me, that Saint Hugh's swan might have been a goose, added to the story, it didn't take away from it. One thing I can tell you though, swan or goose, it wasn't a male - come spring time, there's no taming them!

Whilst these poultry thoughts were on my mind, I happened across an interesting television programme by accident. These days I tend only to watch television by accident - there are so many channels, and everything is repeated endlessly, that nothing is special any more. This was a film, a performance, not a documentary, about the famous interview of two members of the Monty Python team with Malcolm Muggeridge, and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, just after their film "The Life of Brian" was released 35 years ago. I've seen footage of that interview, and the film was true to my memory of that. The plot revealed - which seems to have been true - that the two old curmudgeons had actually missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which would have made it abundantly clear that it was not a parody of the life of Jesus. How times have changed since then! John Cleese has gone on to become quite possibly the angriest man in the world (that's what forty years of therapy does for you), and Michael Palin, the nicest man in Britain, and a National Treasure. At the time, they seemed young, naive, earnest, rather innocent. The two old curmudgeons seemed lofty, patronising, dismissive, and are of course now dead.

The only bit of "The Life of Brian" that does actually portray Jesus includes my favourite line from it. Far in the distance, Jesus is on the top of a hill, preaching, and in the foreground, a tall person with better hearing, is relaying to those around him what he can catch. This in itself reveals a historico-critical analysis of the New Testament, asking the question "how do we know what they heard, how do we know they heard right, how was it passed on? He repeats to them, "Blessed are the cheesemakers". Says another, "Cheesemakers? What's so special about them?" A third responds, "Oh, I think it can be reasonably inferred to include the makers of ALL dairy produce". In that throwaway line, we have, in a nutshell, 20th century Biblical theology, indeed, theology right now. When our divines look at the question of what marriage might be, aren't they asking whether it's only the cheesemakers who are blessed, or perhaps the butter and yoghurt makers too? I have no idea if anyone involved in the film studied theology at university, but I strongly suspect someone had a very good divinity teacher in the sixth form.

This has been rather a ramble, from swans in Lincoln, to geese in Sussex, from the sermon on the mount, to Fairacres chapel, to the makers of dairy produce. My hope is that, swans or geese, cheese-makers or butter-makers, the kingdom of heaven is big enough for us all, and we shall find Saint Hugh there waiting for us, and pointing up, towards a wonky vaulting, that turns out to be perfect after all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Thursday, 27 November 2014

I Will .... but with a Question

The last few weeks have been on the rancid side of bearable, but today I heard some good news. I had to go out of my way to find it, and it will probably make no difference to us in the longer term, but I discovered that those who go to the register office (or other designated and licensed venue) to "convert" their civil partnerships into marriages will be able to do so free of charge. The charming registrar (who is himself waiting for their anniversary before he and his civil partner convert) explained that Stonewall, the high profile and powerful gay equality pressure group, had argued with the government that as those of us who wanted marriage would have asked for it in preference to civil partnership if it had been available at the time, we had in effect already paid, and there should be no charge. In practical terms, this means that the government (the Home Office, presumably, or maybe the Equalities Ministry?) will foot the bill for the register offices.

Everything has been done in such a hurry, and with so little forethought, that although the registrars know they will be recording conversions from the 10th of December (that's two weeks yesterday) they don't actually know what they will be recording them on, nor for how much they'll be invoicing the ministry. We will get a new certificate, backdated to the original event, but marking that it is a conversion, and changing any details which have changed since (in our case, our address, and the deaths of both our fathers). We will feature in the index of marriages, and the reference will re-direct to the register of civil partnerships. There is no computerisation in place yet for this to happen.

I'm not one to refrain from hurling missiles at the dazzling incompetence, careless talk, and empty promises, of this administration, but that's not what's on my mind just now. Back on the 16th of June 2007 we had rather a special day. It was to have been a quiet one, at the least possible cost (on account of our having the least possible money) but our friends thought otherwise and arranged a whip-round for us which meant we could afford the mark-up for a Saturday afternoon ceremony (most expensive time-slot of the week) and not one, but two, receptions, the first at my old college, Christ Church, the second at the house and garden of good friends just a little way away. There were rings, dressing up, original-design invitations, more guests that we were technically allowed at any of the venues, photographs, even a cake. Everyone called it "the wedding", and referred to it as "getting married". When I mentioned to his father that although the children were hugely welcome, we wouldn't be offended if teenagers thought this sort of thing boring and gave it a miss, I learnt that my godson said he "wouldn't miss it for the world".

So my question is, how do you "convert" or, as many people are expressing it "upgrade", an experience like that? It is irksome to think that the life we have lived these last seven years has been somehow second class. Should we be thinking of the man in the parable at the feast who was asked "friend, come up higher"? Or thankful that a wider world has realised we have had the "pearl of great price" all along?


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Friday, 14 November 2014

Hoadly - the Life & Reputation of a Bad Bishop

The joys of Facebook! Notification of a friend's birthday sent me to my Kalendar and there I saw that Brian shares the day with Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761). Not someone many people have heard about these days, but in his own day one of the most controversial men on the bishops' bench.

At Lincoln Theological College, before the dawn of time, I did a paper for my MA on the bishops of the 18th century. It started off as an exercise in statistics - something it appears no one had done before - but became also a study of class and social change, and the church politics of keeping the peace after the horrors of the previous century, and the schisms of the next one. During all this fact-finding, Hoadly stood out as of interest.

There were 161 men who held office as Bishops of the Church of England (which then included Wales - Ireland was audited separately, and Scotland made quite different arrangements). Of these, Hoadly was one of the 25% who lived to be eighty, but, being a Clare College, Cambridge man, not one of the 14% who went to Christ Church, Oxford; he was the only one to hold four diocesan appointments in succession, and was the only one called Benjamin. He was an unlikely candidate for high office because he came from a smallfry family (his father was a schoolmaster) at a time when the episcopate was becoming more aristocratic; because his wife was, rather scandalously, an artist and a friend of Hogarth; and worst of all, he was "a cripple". We don't use the word now, but the great 18th century historian Norman Sykes (who held the swinging title of Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge) did, as recently as the 1950s. The problem had been childhood smallpox, which meant that he couldn't ride a horse, the best way to get about a parish or diocese - in those days sometimes bishops would perform confirmations from horseback - and he had to preach kneeling down, which must have been quite a sight. But despite these handicaps by the age of forty, in 1716, after a succession of swanky London parishes, he was made bishop of Bangor. He went on to be bishop of Hereford, then Salisbury, and for the last 27 years of his life, bishop of Winchester and prelate of the Order of the Garter.

What interested me at the time was the scornful language used against the little cripple who presumed to accept such high offices - all very political in those days - and with which Professor Sykes colludes. He even contradicts himself, in one book repeating the slur that Hoadly never even visited Bangor or Hereford, and yet in another, noting that he at least tried to reach Bangor by sea, and quoting a letter written on "the eve of his Episcopal Visitation of Hereford". A very good history teacher at school has given me a lasting suspicion of "great" historians. Like most of the bishops, Hoadly spent most of his time in London, and the House of Lords, to which he was appointed because of his skills as a controversialist in the Whig cause. The "Bangorian Controversy" was started by a sermon of his in 1717 about the relationship between Church and State, which staunchly defended the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament over the Church, a situation which pertained until very recently. In 1928 a new version of the Book of Common Prayer was rejected, against the advice of both archbishops, by a House of Commons full of (according to one commentator) "Jews and jobbers". These days it seems, the C of E will pick and choose which of Parliament's laws it wishes to obey.

At the time I was hopeful that I might turn his story into a doctoral thesis, and ideally, a film. Looking at the bibliographies, the former has already been done. Maybe I shall have a crack at the latter some day (film-making is in the family, after all - my distant cousin Paul Haggis got an Oscar a few years ago). If I do, it will end with a long shot of Hoadly in Winchester Cathedral, preaching in full fluent flood of rhetoric, on his knees. He was a man who fought against the odds, and won.

I attach below his portrait by William Hogarth which from time to time hangs in the Tate Britain collection at Pimlico. I think he has something of the look of that other fine-living, modern Latitudinarian, John Mortimer.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014






Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"Brideshead Revisited", and the Malign Influence of Religion on Love

Just finished watching (again) the DVDs of the TV version of this novel, first broadcast in 1981. I'm very pleased with the set - my mother collected tokens from the Daily Mail, got them for free, and sent them all to me. HL loves it.

We've been watching the lot over the last few nights. HL is taken with sets, and costumes, and locations, and scenery, and snobbery. I am too, but I am quieter about that, and pretend it is more about the heaving sub-text of religion pitted against the human soul.

In an inept nutshell, the story is of an English aristocrat, with much land and a magnificent Palladian palace, who falls in love with a Roman Catholic woman, converts, and marries her, and has four children, whom she controls from afar with the pitiless rod of her own faith. Of the four, the most dashing is the second son, Lord Sebastian Flyte. His university friend, Charles Ryder (born into a far more prosaic family), falls in love with the boy with a sense of wonder, and when that all falls apart, falls in love with his sister instead.

They are all unhappy.

It fascinates me that Evelyn Waugh, himself a Catholic convert and a divorcé, should have written something so utterly convincingly against the religion he had chosen.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Saturday, 8 November 2014

If Memory Serves

My memory has been on active service for the last 46 years that I am aware of. I know for a fact that my earliest memories go back to when I was two years old. Obviously, I don't remember everything from back then, nor most since, as that way madness would surely lie, but I have now reached a stage in life where I am less and less sure of my memories. I have passed out of a time in which I knew I was absolutely right, into a time in which I am far less certain; and the time will come when I shall be absolutely certain of things that didn't happen the way my memory presents them.

This is all private and personal, but it can affect nations too, and in this year of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, our national memories are likewise complicated. We find the event being fought over. On the one hand, we have those saying we must cherish this time of "service for King and Country", celebrate bravery, and sacrifice, and duty, and patriotism. On the other, we have those who look at our foreign military adventures right now and wonder whether anything has actually been "remembered" at all. Didn't Victoria's Imperial army have three wars with Afghanistan and lose them all? And hasn't Blair-Brown-Cameron's just done the same?

We speak of them "laying down their lives", and "we shall remember them", but neither is really true. Most were conscripts; many of them spoke of doing their best to get away with their own lives, and not to fire a shot that would end anyone else's. When you listen to old soldiers talking about combat they eschew the language of bravery and heroism "there wasn't time to be afraid" they say. They did what they had to do - they were "only obeying orders". That was the defence that didn't wash for the Nazis at Nuremberg. And do we remember them? How can most of us, born long after those grim times?

The poppy field installed in the lawn of the moat at the Tower of London has been hugely popular - 4,000,000 people have seen it, they say, over four times the number of young men whose deaths are commemorated by it. But that war ended 96 years ago. My maternal grandfather, who died last year at nearly 93, served in World War II, but being born in 1920, knew only other people's memories of the one before. He said three of his uncles died in the Battle of The Somme alone. I have photographs of two of them, kindly-looking, innocent chaps, one almost forty and unmarried, the other more a boy. So, Pop grew up with his Grandma Evans grieving the loss of her sons. It didn't stop him enlisting before the second war even broke out. The perpetrator and victim of a disastrous wartime marriage, Pop came into our lives late; I grew up not knowing him and his family's story, as did my mother, his daughter. War exacts its human cost in many ways.

My other grandfather lost his oldest brother to the influenza epidemic that followed the Great War - he had travelled with the Royal Navy all the way to Australia, to die there in 1919. He had other brothers who enlisted and served, one who served in the Royal Navy for nearly thirty years, but it left him with an abiding suspicion of a country that will send young men needlessly to their deaths. When the second war came, he was exempt from service as he had his own business, and he did his level best to get other people out of war service. In my great-aunt's case, he got her out of military service she'd very much have liked to be in - anything rather than live with her family in dreary Battersea.

They say one of my father's cousins was killed in London during the Blitz. The dates fit, so it's probably true. But that's the extent of the blood cost of that war to our family - and no one alive remembers that cousin (she was a teenager). My father was only two when the war ended, and he too is dead now.

So, who, what, am I remembering? I sponsored (do I really just mean "bought"?) one of the poppies at the Tower, and am looking forward to receiving a piece of history in the post some time after the installation is harvested. I care deeply that 888,246 innocent young men died in that appalling war, for the British Empire alone, and nearly half a million in the next one. I care that there was a next one, despite all the suffering undergone by all parties the first time. And I care that British troops are still in service around the world - in my lifetime, in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya, now Syria, and countless other peace-keeping missions for the UN.

It is not the sorrowing recollection of people I have known and loved. War has not touched my life in that way. It is history, but history with lessons to be learnt for the future.

If memory serves.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"1984" - and all that

On a bright cheerful afternoon last week, in the house of a friend who was away on holiday, I finally finished re-reading George Orwell's "1984". The first time was about thirty years ago - I have a little book somewhere that would tell me precisely (sad, but true), although I know for a fact I will not actually have read it in 1984; 1983, or 1985, but I'm far too contrary to have read it at the right time - and my memory of it from then was favourable in general, but dim on detail. I don't know that it's a particularly good novel, but you might argue that it's not really a novel at all. As political polemic for the Cynical Party it is excellent.

That morning, the 5.30 and 6 o'clock news had announced that the National Grid faced its greatest risk of shortages this winter for seven years. This might lead to what they called "blackouts". Well, I thought, that's a curious thing, I thought a blackout is what you get when you haven't eaten enough and stand up too quickly. But what they meant was "power cuts". This, for anyone who remembers the exciting days of the first Miners' Strike and the Three Day Week back in 1973-74, is a loaded term, redolent of the defeat of government by organised labour. So, the National Gridites had tempered their language to avoid provoking the government, yet, by the 7 o'clock news the government had issued a statement that there would be no blackouts. They gave no reason for countering the expressed opinion of those who knew what they were talking about, simply flatly denied it, without evidence.

It seemed to me this was an exercise in "newspeak" at the very least and possibly even "doublethink". To say that this or that is so, when manifestly it isn't, borders on insanity, but if a government does it, they are not called to account.

The same week we had a warning issued by the Foreign Office - but not by the Foreign Secretary - that the government's recently-adopted policy of drone-bombing in Iraq and Syria would put British citizens everywhere at risk of reprisals (and the purpose of all these interventions in the Middle East has been, since 2001, to keep us safe). This followed the House of Commons debate, and vote, in the course of which the Prime Minister promised us a campaign that might take "many years". It's hard not to see this as "continuous war", another feature of Oceania, Orwell's imagined state. "War on Terror", precisely because it is war on something that does not actually exist, can be precisely that - like the "war on drugs", which, though it has constantly failed, and been shown to by a Home Office report that was instantly dismissed by the government, leading to the minister's resignation in frustration, need never end. The government has a bogeyman to frighten us with for ever.

Oceania is one of three power blocs in the novel, the others are Eastasia and Eurasia, and is always friends with one and at war with the other, and it doesn't seem to matter which is which so long as there's someone to fear. The same week we had the spectacle of our Prime Minister posturing that he didn't know about a £1,700,000,000 bill from the EU, and certainly wasn't going to pay it. We also heard about billions of pounds of investment in the energy supply in the UK by the Chinese government. Are we soon to have new friends, and new enemies?

A little while before, Alan Milburn's report on social mobility was published. In a nutshell he said that in the UK social mobility has simply stopped. There is a class of people who will never rise about their present status; their are sent to school without being educated; sent to work, without being adequately remunerated; aspiration is stifled because it is pointless. Orwell calls them "the proles". They have public executions and Victory Gin - "bread and circuses as the ancient Romans would call them - and that keeps them subdued enough to accept their lot and not cause trouble. We have the television - another element in Orwell's fantasy - the lottery, cheap booze, and cheaper Chinese imports.

The food banks which have emerged all over the country as a compassionate response to the real hardship of the poorest citizens - many of them actually in work - are taken as a sign, not of the failure of government economic policy, but of the success of the Big Society, presided over by the smiling, complacent, slightly flushed, patrician features of Mr Cameron, our very own Big Brother.

Is it entirely fanciful to suppose that all this while the British people have been sleepwalking into Orwell's nightmare?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Four Boxes of Spuds

Outside our neighbours' door. They are members of a local free church, and they were having a worship social (or whatever these things are called) with the bribe of baked potatoes, on Sunday night. I guess we all over-cater if we can, because to run out is embarrassing, but it seems turn-out was slight and these were boxes of leftovers. This isn't a promising sort of area for religion, I fear.

I am not remotely attracted by low church religion, and positively repelled by some of its music and most of its theology, but I found myself feeling sad for my neighbours, who are good and kind young people.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Saint Francis of Assisi - and a Hanging Thread

From a Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Feast of S. Francis of Assisi, 4th October 2014

Today we are keeping the feast of what must surely be one of the absolutely Top Saints of the Christian Church. His popularity was almost instant from his death in 1226, and today the flame is fanned by a fan club which runs from the international network of Franciscan tertiaries (several of whom I count amongst my friends, and none of whom I consulted for this morning, lest I be inundated with ideas), to the very highest rank of the Vatican itself. Francis was clearly quite a special chap.

Some years ago, I think when I was heading off for my Selection Conference for the Church of England priesthood, I was given a book about Saint Francis by the Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis. He wrote a number of other books that got him into a certain amount of trouble, or rather which subsequent film makers managed to turn into trouble, but he's always interesting. The book was called "God's Pauper", and on reading it I was left thinking I might not have found Francis a very comfortable person to be around. Not because of anything sinister or malicious or over-pious about him, no one suggests that, but because he gives the impression of being the sort of person of whom you just don't know what he'll do next. I am a prosaic soul, I like diaries, and rotas, and things happening on time, when they ought to. I do not like surprises. I fear I would have found Saint Francis rather surprising.

Two things that last in my memory of his story are the stigmata, and his affinity for animals. It is said that Francis might have been the first, or the first recorded, person to have experienced the stigmata, the marks of the five wounds of Christ in his body. Our first reading today from Galatians (6:17), however, suggests that Saint Paul might well have understood what he meant. I have found this a fascinating subject, and in exploring it, read a little of the history of the art of the time, and the most striking revelation was that it was in the time of Francis's youth that there was a huge change in the depiction of Christ on the Cross. Until then, he had always been Christ Triumphant, royally robed and crowned, head high, eyes open, and arms wide; the Cross behind him, figuratively, as well as literally. But then a new realism came in, and Jesus was portrayed suffering, and bleeding, and dead. This made a huge impression on those who saw it - about a century and half later, there is much reflecting it in Mother Julian of Norwich's "Shewings", not the famous bits like the stuff about the hazelnut, but a lot of blood streaming down from the cross. One is permitted to be agnostic about such things as the stigmata, but it might just be, if we leave to one side the action of the Holy Ghost (which we do at our peril), that there might have been a psycho-somatic response, so that someone so caught up in prayer before such an image, paying such close attention, lost in a passionate empathy, might produce the signs of the wounds in their own body.

Here I want to connect this part of the story to the second, the animals, and you might consider the thread by which I do so too thin to bear the argument I'm suggesting. That is entirely a matter for you.

I am naturally drawn to anyone who is enthusiastic about animals, and am quite convinced that it was the wonder of the created world that first convinced me of the presence and reality of God. I can't prove it, and Mr Dawkins would disagree with me, but I am entitled to my opinion, and he is entitled to be wrong. When we are children, most of us find animals fascinating, and the popularity, for instance, of "Dr Doolittle" tells us much about ourselves. When we are small, we long to be able to talk with these lovely creatures, because grown-ups are all stupid, and other children are horrid, and surely it would be so much more fun to be able to talk to the animals. I came to caring for animals rather late in life, only a few years ago first becoming a butler to two cats. I had thought cats just go "meeow" and are all the same. Little did I know. My two have a way of greeting me each day which is quite distinct - no matter what time we first see one another. The older one has a kind of "chirrup", which I'd never heard a cat make before. The little one makes a sort of "wow" noise, before hurling herself in a kamikaze dive at the carpet, and swimming across it at full length. She's dark, and svelte, and I call her my little black pudding. But it has taken me a long while to notice this and to understand it.

Animals are drawn to people who are quiet and gentle, and clearly Francis had this in spades (despite his surprises!). We are different species, of different sizes, and necessarily, that is a potentially dangerous thing. They need to know they will be safe with us, that we will be a safe space for them. And when they do, they can relax, and communicate, and be themselves. Now, this is going out on a limb, but is it possible that Francis made a safe space for God? Is this so outlandish - we've only to look around us to see that God is most unwelcome in much of the world that we know. And is this what the saints do - make a safe space for God, and for us, and the animals, to meet, and to mingle, and to be ourselves, and make new things happen? If so, I reckon that is Good News indeed.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
October 2014

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A Dalliance With Somerset Maugham

It began when I was a teenager. We had a little bookshop at my school in Wimbledon, and if you did duty there, you got a staff discount. For someone like me, this was disastrous temptation. We had not long since moved to Sussex, and my father was planning an extension of the house which included more than doubling the size of my bedroom. "How much book shelving do you need?" he asked, innocently. I did the sums, and with a little spare said "67 feet". "Bloody hell! You do know you can't eat books?" But he put the shelves up, all the same.

And the little school bookshop meant I had access to catalogues to root out books that sounded interesting. I think I had already read that Maugham was gay, but more than that, he was called Somerset, which is the county in which we had two wonderful holidays in our childhood (and where I fell in love with a bloodhound called Dominic). His real name was William, and he was known as "Willie" to his friends, but he shrewdly realised his middle name, the surname of a godfather, was a selling point. And one thing followed another, and before long I was wading through the self-pity of "Of Human Bondage" (perfect for a teenager), and then other novels, the short stories, and even the plays. Later, it was biographies - by Ted Morgan, Robin Calder, and Frederic Raphael. I warmed immensely to his cold observation of other people - he had trained as a doctor at St Thomas's Hospital, and it shows at times. I admired even more immensely that he had set out to make a living from his writing, and he did it. In 1908 he had four plays running at the same time in the West End of London. This had never been done before. No one even remembers he was a playwright these days. In the 1930s, he was the highest-earning writer in the world, and edging into Hollywood. With his loot he made another fortune investing in art he actually liked and which, when he sold it, proved his judgement.

Some years later, I was commuting to London again, from Oxford this time, and the outfit I was working for took on a new manager, who was rather fun. He had tried to make it as an actor, fancied his chances of becoming a priest, claimed to have made a marriage of convenience to a famous American commedienne, and was effortlessly gay in a way which people of my own age at the time rarely managed. He was somewhat on the bald side, and coming back from a haircut one lunchtime, proudly announced he'd spent thirty quid on it. "Blimey, I never spend more than a fiver". "Yes dear. It shows." And briefly this banter turned into a little fling, during which I discovered that Andrew had many years previously had a similar one with Robin, Second Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset, and son of the First Viscount who was briefly Lord Chancellor in the 1930s. I was reminded of that innocent song "I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales".

Some time later, and much more innocently, when I was working in Chelsea, I was summoned to meet someone who wanted me to take his mother's funeral. Always happy to oblige, of course, this is the Anglican Way. She turned out to be the second wife of the first husband of Somerset Maugham's only daughter, Liza. Maugham was a complicated old cove, for a gay man, having married, during the First World War, Syrie, the daughter of the original Dr Barnardo. She was a distinguished interior decorator, and there was a blue plaque commemorating one of her homes just round the corner from where I was then living. They named their daughter Elizabeth Mary, but she was known as Liza, after "Liza of Lambeth", Maugham's first novel, which was quite well-received, and which reads well even now, especially if you have family reasons for being interested in the poor in that part of London at the beginning of the 20th century. Syrie was still married to someone else when Liza was born, and Liza herself went on to have a complicated life, marrying twice. The first husband went on to marry the lady I was being asked to cremate, herself previously married. So, there were brothers and sisters and steps and halves all over the place over three generations. One of the grandchildren (after I'd mentioned, during the service, the obvious human cost in a complicated family tree) came up to me afterwards and said "there are eleven of us in my generation, and we have nine different surnames".

It was quite an occasion - there was an earl (son-in-law, he a second husband, she a third wife), and Andrew Parker-Bowles (godson, first husband of the more famous Camilla, now Princess of Wales), and, the icing on the cake, two of Maugham's grandchildren, who bore a strong resemblance to him. In particular, they both reminded me of the Graham Sutherland portrait that hangs in the Tate Gallery which some naughty critic said made Maugham "look like a madam in a Shanghai brothel" (you may judge from the picture below whether you consider this a good look for a man, or a woman; I thought them both handsome). They were absolutely charming, and delighted that I had an enthusiasm for their grandfather's work, and had read the biographies. I even told the grandson (Nicholas Paravicini, father of the now famous musician Derek) a story he said he didn't know, or maybe had forgotten, about Lord Maugham when he was Lord Chancellor, slapping a 100-year secrecy rule on the paperwork pertaining to an embarrassing incident involving Somerset's boyfriend, Gerald Haxton. This incident was the reason they moved permanently to France, where such incidents were not against the law. The two brothers were not fond of each other, but this was, if not a kindness, at least a gesture of family loyalty.

A few nights ago I finished "Here and There", a collection of Maugham's stories re-published in 1948, and containing one of my favourites "The Verger". It must be thirty years since I last read them, and I have since parted with almost all of my paperback library, but they were just as absorbing all these years later. I noticed now, which I didn't then, a more pointed harshness in his observations about women, and wondered if he might have been a misogynist. His mother died when he was eight, and he kept a photograph of her in his bedroom all his life - something of a gay male stereotype of the time. But he seems also to have had many women friends. One, on a visit to the Villa Mauresque, in company with Noel Coward and Beverley Nichols, famously turned from gazing at the gardens, to her host and fellow guests, and said "oh, Mr Maugham, this is fairyland". Looking more closely, I think he is just as rough with his male as his female characters. The difference is that, a generation later, I am different, and read differently.

Maugham died in 1965, before I was born, a Companion of Honour, but not a member of the Order of Merit, which he had yearned for, and far short of the Nobel Prize (although it would be hard to make the case that John Galsworthy's work, which did win, was worth more). By his own account he was in the first division of the second rank of English writers. By then, he had alienated his daughter by adopting his secretary as his son (possible even with an adult in France, apparently) and trying to winkle her out of his will. He also wrote some spiteful things about his ex-wife in a memoir. In his latest years - he was 91 when he died - he had started to show signs of senility, and had long since given up writing stories.

I like my heroes with feet of clay. Maugham was uninterested in saints, and would find a person foolish if they tried to make him out to be one. But as an observer of sinners, he has few equals. And whilst I never got to sit at those feet of clay, life dealt me a little hand which almost adds up to a dalliance with the not-quite-great W. Somerset Maugham.



William Somerset Maugham,CH, painted by Graham Sutherland, OM


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014


Friday, 26 September 2014

The Hare

One of the nicest parts of central Oxford is the Covered Market. It's by no means the cheapest emporium in town, but it is full of interesting things, like butchers' shops, which in the killing season are festooned with the hanging corpses of game, and the only fishmonger in town (there used to be two) and Cardew's the tea and coffee shop (twice the size it was when I first came here in 1985), and a greasy spoon caff, some smarter eateries, and twee little shops for the tourists, and I could go on. One of my favourites is a tiny little shop that sells things made from wood.

I've bought a few things there - a walking stick with a cobra's head handle, a little holding cross for a Christening present to a child from a family so low church he wasn't actually being Christened, a fruitbowl with a handle carved out of one piece of (sustainable, of course) teak, and a clever little mystery box with sliding panels and a hidden key (because HL didn't like the rather more rustic fruitbowl). And there was much else to be tempted by. But one thing I couldn't understand was the hares. I'd only seen a wild hare once, before last year, many years ago shortly after we moved to Sussex - I could take you to the precise spot, on Angmering Park Farm Estate which belongs to Lady Herries, the daughter of the 16th duke of Norfolk, the heiress who could inherit a couple of ancient baronies, but not the dukedom and Arundel Castle. Here in this little shop, hares abounded - recumbent, howling at the moon, a trio dancing round a mirror, and in all sorts of sizes. What sort of person buys a wooden hare? I wondered.

That was last Spring (2013), and at the end of May my mother and I and her friend Sylvia went on a great expedition to the wilds of Lincolnshire. This is not something most people would choose to do, but both my mother and Sylvia had ancient parents in the county, and it made sense to kill two old birds with one stone, as it were. It was a drizzly, miserable sort of day, the sort I love to go out walking in, rather than being cooped up in even the most comfortable car, and it was something of a trepidatious undertaking, too. My mother had not seen Pop for well over a year, since my father had fallen ill and died. I had not seen him for even longer - maybe twelve years. He had only returned from Australia in 2006, after 43 years in Perth, and chose to settle in Lincolnshire where he has a niece, with his daughter and son-in-law. Lincolnshire is not easy to get to from Oxford, and no invitation was ever forthcoming. This didn't bother me unduly, as for the whole of my childhood - and my mother's - Pop had been a stranger to us. He left my grandmother before my mother was even born, their wartime marriage (Friday the 13th of February 1942, not that Christian people believe in omens) unable to sustain the pressure of peace. Grandparents are an acquired taste, one best acquired in childhood, when one is at one's most forgiving. I knew my other three grandparents well, and loved them, but I don't know that I would have selected them to be my friends in adult life, if I'd not known them as a child. Pop excused himself from that duty, and what may perhaps also have been a pleasure, just as he denied himself the responsible and joys of fatherhood until he met his second wife, who arrived with one daughter from her first marriage, and then they had a child of their own, my half-aunt. But I don't know that children ever particularly interested him. He liked cars, dogs, and the war.

This was a duty call. We had been told by my aunt who was provided round-the-clock care for her father, that he was failing. Curiously, apart from "vascular dementia", there was nothing actually wrong with him, but somehow he qualified for palliative care nurses to give her a tiny bit of rest from time to time. He was coming up to his 93rd birthday, and until the last couple of years, had been in entirely good health, and mentally as agile as he'd ever been. So this was to be the last time we would see him. I went to support my mother, and a little out of curiosity. My sister has no time for men who neglect their children. My now-dead father was of like mind. I am more tolerant of the past and its complexities, and certainly I'd regard actually being married to either of my maternal grandparents as a living hell. They chose badly, back in 1942, but over seventy years later that was not to be held against a dying man.

Despite the rain, and the inevitable traffic rain causes, the journey had its compensations, one of which was a stop-off in Ely. Mother and Sylvia wanted tea. I wanted to drop in to the cathedral, to see if I could take a photograph of the wonderful memorial tablet which speaks of the departed having "exchanged time for eternity". And somehow I drifted into a bookshop, and found a slim volume on East Anglian genealogy, which as I have roots in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, and had a book token in my wallet, was just the thing.

Then it was back to the big smart car - Sylvia very gamely drove all the way, despite not long since having had a hip operation - and off along smaller roads through Norfolk. "Very flat, Norfolk" people are fond of quoting from Noel Coward, as if that's a criticism. I rather like it. Also the rich soil, which produces vegetables rather than cereal crops, and which only gets better as you turn the corner into Lincolnshire. And then, through the drizzle, sitting on the back seat, looking across a field of cauliflowers, I saw it - a hare. It was a slow windy road, so we weren't going fast, but even so, it was the most fleeting glimpse, just a few seconds, but long and close enough to know for sure from its size, its ears, and its gait, that it wasn't a rabbit. For some reason that utterly delighted me, and I started to have a good feeling about this trip.

Arriving much later than we hoped, Sylvia dropped us off at the inn nearest to our cousin's village, and went off to see her mother at her nursing home, where there were rooms for family to stay overnight. We visited Cousin Barbara, whom I'd met only once before, in London, with Pop and my aunt, and met her husband for the first time - a man who'd lived all his life in that little village (Pop's family all came from Lancashire). Pop was not well enough to be visited, so we postponed that ordeal to the next afternoon, after lunch in Boston, with Sylvia, and her mother, Margaret, and Barbara. I'd never been to Boston before, nor seen it's famous "Stump", which isn't a stump at all, but an implausibly tall tower on an already enormous church. It was drizzling like anything yet again, so after lunch, I left the grown-ups to it, and went exploring. I was using a postcard of the Stump as a bookmark last night. I rather liked Boston, its church, its market, and Margaret, who, although nearly 95 and deaf as a post, had taken the course of always smiling, so although you couldn't have a proper conversation, you felt that if you could, you'd have liked one another. Shrewd move on her part - or perhaps merely the end result of an always-sunny disposition.

And so to see Pop. We were greeted warmly by Lynda and Mal, with tea and excellent home-made carrot cake. Clearly they were both worn out by the ordeal of looking after the old man for so long. My step-grandmother, Jean, had died suddenly in 1999 (of lung cancer - she was one of the ones who'd never smoked and die of it anyway to spite the statistics), and so it fell to Lynda to look after her father. Thinking about it later, he'd been looked after all his life - by his mother, by the army, by my grandmother, by his mother again, by Jean, and now Lynda. It wouldn't have occurred to him that it could be any other way. He was not blessed with immense powers of imagination.

Mother went first, and then invited me upstairs to see him. There had been a faint recognition of her. Bear in mind, there would be relatively few long-term memories for him to draw on - he never knew her as a child, nor me, so I didn't have great expectations. I have to say he looked good, I've never seen a dying man look better, with his familiar mop of wavy white hair, and his rosy cheeks. He'd evidently lost weight, and clearly had deteriorated since my mother's last visit, but I had been prepared for a shock I didn't get. Mother introduced me - "Do you remember Richard, your grandson?" "Not really". Well, that was a pretty lucid reply! And then he drifted off to sleep for a little while, as I stood by the window, looking at the lengthening shadows of the few tall trees edging the adjacent potato field in the afternoon sunshine. Then he perked up from his drowse, and looked right at me, and said "Richard". How's that for short-term memory? Despite my low expectations, I was chuffed, and the more so because it pleased my mother, who, like most mothers, has always cared infinitely more for her children than herself. We had done our duty, and Pop had risen to the occasion.

On the journey home - they dropped me off in Cambridge, so I could take the cross-country coach back to Oxford, rather than fiddle through London, or back from Sussex - I kept thinking of that hare I had seen in North Norfolk. I had a feeling, which I was fighting both with my faith and my logic to resist, that it had been a good omen, because what could have been a solemn and dark journey of resentful duty was redeemed. Pop died three weeks later to the day.

When I got home to Oxford, the next time I had an appointment in town I went to the Covered Market and to the little shop of wooden things, and bought myself a hare. We were in the throes of moving to a new flat, and much in need of a bit of luck. Now I knew what kind of people buy wooden hares, and rather surprisingly I turned out to be one of them. We have been very happy in the new flat, and a week or so after we moved in, on a walk into the countryside, I saw a couple of hares in a meadow.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

You know you're getting older when the police officers look young ...

.... but the flashers? Because that's what happened to me on Sunday afternoon, in broad daylight, in the alleyway that leads up from our flats to the church at the top of the hill. The culprit of this indecent exposure was about eight.

It's not something I've ever experienced before, and I can't say that at other times in other places and with different personnel, it would have been remotely upsetting, but this was rather different. I was walking up to Headington to the shops with my friend's dog, Sandy, who was staying with us for the day, and saw two small boys on the path ahead. One was standing rather oddly in the middle, as if about to have a pee, which was curious, because it was the middle of the path, and that's not what most chaps do, and it was also uphill, and you don't need to be wearing sandals to know that's daft. A few paces after I had passed them I heard "Oi, Mister!", and turned round to see the boy with his trousers and pants round his thighs, gesturing at his evidently very prepubescent genitals, who then shouted "Wanna suck on this?" My primary instinct was to get fast away, so I shouted a rude retort (a friend suggested "I've sucked on bigger peanuts, ducky", but that might not have been entirely kind) and Sandy and I continued our walk.

But it rankled. It was just two boys of a certain silly age being silly, one, with his willy. But why me? Do I look gay? Shorts and sandals are eccentric except in high summer, but not exactly camp. I'm no Elton John, and I'd audition badly for the Village People. Or was it the dog? Sandy is a bichon frise, which is by no stretch of anyone's imagination a paragon of butchness, and having been forcibly shampoo'd by HL that morning, she was at maximum fluffiness. Was she the reason? But so what? Shouldn't anyone be free to go about their lawful business unaccosted by small boys and their smaller penises? And I started to wonder what it might be like for an older generation of gay man, going home alone, or, worse, to his mother, after such an incident. Or what if it happened to someone who didn't have a clean CRB certificate in the filing cabinet, and lived in fear of persecution and the rattling cage of ancient sins? And where did the kid learn the language from? A friend suggested the internet which, given that I virtually live on it, it's absurd I didn't think of. But what if it had been from home? Aren't we meant to say and do something when children report or display untoward sexual behaviour?

So, I did. The next afternoon I went into our local CPSO office here on the estate (we say "on Barton" here, which is very amusing and peasanty), and said I wanted to report an indecent exposure. They were remarkably calm about it - to be honest, I was expecting to be laughed at, or put on a register myself. The lady officer said I could make a formal report, but it seemed to me that would make a big and possibly lasting deal out of what was only passing silliness. Then the male officer asked "what was he wearing?" I couldn't honestly answer, as I have no memory for people's clothes or haircuts, or cars, or all the things they hold most dear, and have caused much offence thereby. "Might it have been blue shorts with a white T-shirt?" "Not impossible, but you really are leading the witness!". "I think I know the boy, and his family. I'll have a word about not making a fool of himself in public".

Well, well. I was deeply impressed that the officer knew the patch so intimately, that I was listened to, and taken seriously. I doubt anything like it will happen again. And I get a tiny buzz of satisfaction from the fact that years ago when I was working with the Lilac Project in the West End of London, we reported back to the Home Office that much though we appreciated that the police enjoyed doing "intelligent policing" (which is not actually a contradiction in terms, I've seen it done, and it is most impressive), the local residents wanted to see uniforms on the beat. We were not, I'm sure, the only committee to make this recommendation, but that is how the Community Police Support Officers came about. My first suggestion that, given we had the headquarters of Equity (the actors' union) in our parish, out-of-work actors should just be issued with uniforms was quietly ignored.

Civic duty done. A rather peculiar experience. One I very much hope never to experience again. But I do hope that officer does remember to have a quiet word, because there are people round here who would not respond with caustic words, but with a good belting. Maybe they chose their victim well.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Take The Wood Away

A Homily for Holy Cross Day
for the Sisters of the Love of God
Convent of the Incarnation
Fairacres, Oxford

In twenty years of doing this sort of thing from time to time, I cannot recall ever celebrating or preaching on Holy Cross day, so I hadn't thought about it much before. This is lax on my part because when I was first at vicar school in Lincoln, and on placement in St Botolph's church, there was a very good question about the cross. This church is one of relatively few St Botolph's churches - another is the Boston Stump, also in Lincolnshire - and rather high, with much to look at. Archbishop Michael Ramsey's great-uncle was vicar there in the 19th century. One morning the vicar had invited a class from the local school, and we three children from the theological college, to look round the church, and then ask questions. One small boy asked - pointing at the rather splendid figure of Christ crucified on the rood screen - "why do you always show Jesus like that? It can't have been a very happy time in his life".

At first sight, a naive, innocent, sort of question, but you've got to admit he has a point. I have a friend who can't stand the Eucharistic Prayer we are presently about to use (B, in Common Worship) because it speaks of Jesus opening his arms wide for us on the cross. She said "the cross is an instrument of torture and execution, not some kind of cosmic cuddle". Were King Louis XVI by some extraordinary chance to become a cult, it would be like choosing as his symbol the guillotine.

But how else are we to represent Jesus, what other symbol could we use? An incarnation, a baptism, an empty tomb, miracles, healings, exorcisms? Yes, all vital parts of the story, and true, and glorious in art and iconography, but you can't put them round your neck or in your pocket.

One of the things the cross does is to make us look up, which it seems to me is a fundamental religious instinct in all people. Our readings today pick this theme out - the bronze serpent that Moses made and lifted up so that by looking on it, his snake-bitten people in the wilderness would be healed, and in John's Gospel we read that Jesus likewise must be lifted up - on a cross - to bring about eternal life. Listening to the obituaries of Sir Donald Sinden in the last few days I was struck by how his interest in churches was sparked by a grandfather who was an architect - "always look up in churches, that's where the interesting things are". This was true of the first church I got to know - Christ Church Cathedral, as an undergraduate - which is a fascinating enough place, but on a first visit you can miss the most marvellous windows in the spire. I have no idea what, if anything, they depict, they are far too high up, but the colours are glorious, and when they catch the sun, their glory is reflected on the stonework opposite.

And looking up at the cross, what do we see? The figure of Christ crucified from your refectory here comes to mind, which once was in the prioress's office, but seems so very fitting presiding over a larger space, one from which it can be seen from different angles. It is a haunting and compelling carving in wood, originally, I believe, from Africa, and over the years I have seen many things in that figure. At first, more often the dereliction of death, and the brutality of humanity. Later, the possibility that through suffering and death, there can be hope, and new life. Even at times the possibility of a shy child opening his arms to be hugged, and asking you, and me, if we will be the ones to do it. All are images of a vibrant vulnerability.

This figure has no cross, just Jesus, and we can imagine the rest. Take the wood away, and the cruciform Christ is free to embrace us all.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Motes, Beams, and Humility

Notes from a homily not delivered to the Sisters of the Love of God on Friday morning, owing to a diary cock-up.


Luke 6:39-42

"He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye."


Our New Testament lecturers, many years ago, used to engage in the entertaining game of trying to identify the "authentic" sayings of Jesus. All I can remember now is that the answer was usually "anything embarrassing, and nothing from John's Gospel". However, I think this morning's Gospel reading qualifies on two grounds - it is marked by humour, and it coheres with a deep theme in other teachings of Jesus.

Because religion is controlled and extolled chiefly by po-faced people, we tend not to see much comedy in the Bible, and yet it's definitely there. It's unthinkable that Jesus can have achieved the following he did without making people laugh, and you don't get the reputation of "a wine-bibber and a glutton" without being able to tell a good story. Even Mahatma Gandhi, with his solemn and steely charisma, had bursts of humour. The one I remember reading was his answer to the question "what do you think of Western Civilization?" "I think it would be a very good idea".

And here we have Jesus illustrating his point with a ludicrous image - someone clattering about with a log over his face, telling everyone else how to do things, and "the trouble with you". When I was doing A-levels and applying to Oxford long ago, I met my Great-Uncle Peter at my Nan's flat one afternoon, and dismissing my academic prowess, he said "what you need, son, is savvy". "I haven't read that in the university prospectus, Uncle Peter, they tend to prefer A-grades", I coldly and sniffily replied. In retrospect, Uncle Peter was wrong about Oxford, but probably right about life, and a bit more savvy might have protected me from a litany of foolish errors of judgement and put me in a better place now. On the other hand, it is highly questionable that Uncle Peter was much blessed in this respect himself. When he grew old and even more eccentric, answering the door to the postman in the nude and so on, no one really thought he was much different from how he'd always been, just more so.

So, besides the humour which speaks of authenticity, there is in this passage a coherence with so many other teachings which are levellers - not, I hope, levelling down, although Jesus does call us hypocrites if we've no powers of self-examination and continue to sit in judgement - but levelling up. He sets us impossible standards of behaviour - equating desire with adultery, and anger with murder - which are surely intended to humble us from our thrones of judgement on one another, knowing that none of us can attain the perfect standard.

If the consequence of such an awareness is a gentle kindness towards our fellow human beings, knowing them to be no more frail than we are, and perhaps in humility, learning to help one another with our specks and logs, that must make the world a better place, and be Good News indeed.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Respecting the Worker

To the Labour Exchange to discuss my stately-as-a-galleon progress towards work that doesn't exist. My new minder was rather self-deprecating - "I'd be quite good at this job if I didn't keep losing paper" - but I think she's rather good. She'd picked up an application pack for a potentially interesting job at a some sort of bunfight the other day, and put it in the post for me (on Monday, it arrived on Friday) and even found, but lost, a flyer about tour guiding. It was rather a nice feeling to be thought of in my absence, so that counts for something, even though I privately consider her task impossible.

And then a leisurely stroll through Oxford's busying streets, slowly crowding with shoppers, tourists, and students, until I'd had enough of them, and headed back to the bus stop. I prefer the back streets, for their charisma as much as their quietness, and was rather unexpectedly accosted by Mormons in New College Lane. Two of them, plainer than usual, and implausibly, given their youth, marked with the badge "Elder". One was German, I think, the other American. I've noticed before that it's rarely any use saying you're a Christian priest to these people, but I did it anyway. They wanted to talk about baptism and seemed very intense that there is only one correct way to do it, as it says so in the Book of Mormon. You could talk about symbolism, the authority of books, diversity of style and practice, and all the rest, but it would be like water off a full immersion. There was absolutely no respect for the fact that I knew abundantly more about the question than they did - obviously they weren't going to agree with me, that didn't matter (although of course, it does to people with that cast of mind), but a little respect would have gone a long way to prolonging the conversation. In its absence I went to find my bus.

Alighting in Barton, at the top of the hillside with the park, and playground, and the view over the fields, there was lawn-mowing in progress. I well remember when we first got a ride-on mower for the lawn in my parents' half-acre garden in Sussex, over thirty years ago. It was red, and replaced the big green petrol mower we had before, which, as it weighed a ton, was quite good exercise when you had to spin it round at the end of each stripe. But the new red toy was enormous fun, and quite clearly the chap in the park was having a ball too, whirling like a dervish.

But I didn't tell him how to do his job.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Just Making Up Numbers - What A Liberty!

Some thoughts from a little homily for Saint Bartholomew's Day, at Fairacres Priory, Oxford

When I was, briefly, a student of Social Work at Ruskin College, we had a case study about a child whose father refused to name it. It turned out there was a cultural or religious reason for this, there had to be a ceremony, when the family had been gathered, and the name would be given then. The social workers didn't understand, considered not naming a child to be cruelty, and it was taken into care. Names, and the power of naming, are big themes in our cultural and religious history. The ancients thought that Adam and Eve must have been immensely clever because they were able to name all the animals. Names in the Old Testament - and, like the Saul who became Paul, in the New, too - change, when a new role or vocation arises. Popes take new names. Parents ponder and dither about the right name for their newborns - do they reflect the past, do they "name after" ("for" in American) or do they strike out and choose something original?

The response to "and who are you?" is very likely to start with your name. That's a pretty random thing, really, as you have sixteen great-great-grandparents, and bear the surname (usually) of only one of them (and with no guarantee that you are genetically, as opposed to legally, entitled to it). We come to a feast like Saint Bartholomew's and ask "and who are you?" and the answer is rather thinner. The "bar" part of his name suggests a patronymic, so a sort of surname, but who was he? He was one of the Twelve that Jesus chose. There's a theory that he might have been Nathanael, who appears only in Saint John's Gospel. If you add them up - I tried it once, before I had been taught to read the Bible less literally and with more intelligence - and found fifteen of the Twelve. The determination to identify Bartholomew as Nathanael reflects the desire to tidy that record up, to make it neat, to be sure that there really only were twelve, and we know who they were.

But the attempt fails, and we don't know. Saint Bartholomew is said to have been skinned alive (well, alive for a time) in Armenia. Nathanael, in John's record, had a taste for figs, and sardonic humour ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). But that is John's Gospel, and so, in the best possible way, not to be trusted.

What matters about Bartholomew is not who he personally was, but the group of which he was a chosen part. This goes against the grain of the modern mind. We are individuals, we matter, we strive for identity and self-fulfillment, and here's someone who only matters because of the number Twelve. If you or I were invited to a charming dinner party and in the course of it a fellow guest asked our hostess "were't you thinking of inviting those delightfully amusing So-and-Sos tonight?" and if your host said "Yes, but they were otherwise engaged, so we've got Muggins here to make up the numbers", well, we might be rather miffed. We'd rather be chosen for ourselves, not to make up the numbers.

But maybe there is a liberty in this. There is a madness in the modern world about choice and opportunity and that means we have 101 ways to succeed. But also 101 ways to fail. And that weight of failure, lost opportunity, personal diminution, is clearly implicated in the depression, and anxiety that afflicts our age. How liberating NOT to have to be ourselves, to be chosen, not for our wonderful skills and talents and reputation, but just to make up numbers!

And maybe it's in just making up numbers that we will be free to be ourselves, because in God's sums, we count, whoever we are.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

Thank You, Fog

“Thank You, Fog”

This is the title poem of a collection by W H Auden. The poem isn’t long, it’s about a foggy and very cordial Christmas in Wiltshire, being cut off from the world by impassable roads and reluctant travellers. He contrasts the pure, clean, English countryside Winter fog with the New York smog, which he lived with most of the rest of the time.

But I don’t need the rest of the poem. The title is enough. The weather has always spoken to me of God, and most of all the air itself. “Breathe on me, breath of God” we sing, and in the fog, the air does just that. It envelops us, touches us, damps out all distractions of noise and light, and makes itself known.

The poem ends “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog”, and ever since I first read it, I have thought it was addressed to God. It is my daily prayer over food, and in myriad other circumstances:

For this food, and the wit to cook it;
For friends to love and share the table, and the silence, with;
For the cat that leaps on me to be cuddled and to dribble;
For the aspidistra who lurks quietly in her pot, knowing she will survive empires;
For the music that makes me think of something, and of nothing;
For the view of England’s fields and woods;
For the mother who stands tall, proud, and purposeful, over the devastation of widowhood;
For the things I’ve seen, the doors that have opened (including Mr Auden’s!);

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2014

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ten Books

The New Testament Gospels
W H Vanstone "Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense"
Austin Farrer "The End of Man"
Giovanni Guareschi "The Little World of Don Camillo"
Jane Austen "Persuasion"

Isaac Deutscher "Stalin"
William Cobbett "Cottage Economy"
Mario Puzo "The Godfather"
S. John of Kronstadt "Counsels on the Christian Priesthood"
H A Williams "The True Wilderness"

Saturday, 23 August 2014

I'm Depressed - But Is It Allowed?

"He didn't die by suicide, he died from depression", said quite a few people on the social media networks this week about the actor and comedian Robin Williams. One pointed out that when a person dies of cancer, we don't identify the embolism, or morphine overdose, or cardiac syncope, that was the precise and immediate cause of death, we blame the whole disease, not the immediate presenting symptom.

A very great many people suffer from depression, and thankfully few of us suffer it as badly as Mr Williams, and with fatal consequence. But many need, and some use, medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, silence, music, yoga, meditation, walking, and other ways of keeping what Sir Winston Churchill, who suffered it badly, called "the Black Dog" at bay.

I notice more and more the casual idioms of our culture - "you all right, then?" "cheer up" "chin up" "worse things happen at sea" "never mind" "it'll be all right" "it's all for the best" "smile for the camera" - all designed to squeeze away any possible space for admitting things are not OK, and happiness is for the time being unthinkable. And that most uncomfortable thought for the healthier mind - that it might be OK not to be OK. After all, if my unhappiness is reality, might not your happiness be illusion? It's all rather threatening.

In a culture geared up to maximise the possibilities of success - and therefore of failure - the chances of depression which is geared in part to external circumstances are enhanced. You take a job, it's rubbish, you get crushed by it, you have to leave, you're unemployed, earning nothing, worthless, the spiral spins downwards. It can happen as much to the high achievers - the intensity of expectation that last time's triumph will be trumped again, and funders and backers and fans and all who thrive on other people's success, will be so dismayed if you fail. The pressure is intense. Even just being a parish priest, as a custodian and messenger of the Good News, to sit there at the front of the church with a long face, is to have failed in your ministry.

There is no cure. Some depressives hit good times that never end, and bravo for them. Some live always conscious that below the plank are crocodiles; and some fall off it. But if I have a plea it is for it to be OK not to be OK. That bad days are no one's failure, and if someone in answer to your kindly question says "actually, it's a bit rubbish", that's no reflexion on you, nor a challenge to make it any better. In fact, by just listening, allowing your friend to tell the truth, and by being yourself - because it's their life, not yours - and then making, or accepting, coffee or tea or whatever, you may be making it better. Just allow it. Be a friend. It's OK to be not OK.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014

Work, Rest, and Play

Work's A Curse - Or Is It?

"On the seventh day, having finished all his work, God blessed the day and made it holy,, because it was the day he finished all his work of creation" (Genesis 2:2-3, REB). "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it" (Ten Commandments, Holy Communion Service, Book of Common Prayer.)

I quote these two passages because they present subtly different versions of what "the day of rest" is meant to be about. The modern Bible translation doesn't actually say anything about rest, it just says God had finished his work of creation. The implication might be that he rested, and that is clearly what the later tradition in the Old Testament Law became, later installed in the Prayerbook, which is the version most of our English ancestors will have heard since 1549. But to finish working, and to rest, are not quite the same thing.

What prompted these thoughts was a rather incoherent broadcast from Gloucester Cathedral last Sunday morning on the theme (why must we have themes for Sundays, when there is a lovingly and laboriously crafted lectionary?) of "Sabbath Rest". It was a sort of anthology of all the mildly religious references to "rest" that Google could come up with. And it was most unsatisfying.

The item I found most irritating about it was the notion that Sabbath Rest is all about recuperation so we can go out and do the work of the Gospel in the rest of the week. But that isn't what God's Sabbath was about. He had finished. He had no more work to do. He was free. There's something rather Puritanical about resting just so that you can do more work. It's like those ghastly pills and potions advertised on the London Underground for things to give you more energy when quite clearly, if you need them, you're over-stretched to the point of being ill, and you need to be stopped from hurting yourself any more with over-work. Likewise, the Puritans whose heyday was in the 17th century but whose shadow is long in our culture, made Sunday a Sabbath not of rest, but of joylessness (and had obviously transferred the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday, an interesting early example of the inability of Fundamentalists actually to read Scripture). Rest, oh yes, but make your inactivity a virtue - in fact, don't quite rest, fill it with God-bothering prayer and reading and hymns (if the Puritans allowed them) and, of course, going to church. All good Puritans would turn in their well-deserved graves if one pointed out that they had made keeping the Sabbath into "a Good Work".

What was entirely missing from the broadcast was any remembrance of God's curse on the Man, just before he and the Woman (and presumably the serpent) were thrown out of the Garden of Eden: "on your account the earth will be cursed. You will get your food from it only by labour all the days of your life ... only by the sweat of your brow will you win your bread until you return to the earth" (Genesis 3:17-19). Flanders and Swann were more honest about this in their rather unlikely song "The First & Second Laws of Thermodynamics"

"Heat is work and work's a curse
And all the heat in the universe
It's gonna cool down as it can't increase
Then there'll be no more work
And there'll be perfect peace."

Our society is caught up in contradiction between these attitudes. On the one hand, we do indeed see work as a curse. Look at the way, alone of all welfare claimants, old age pensioners have been ring-fenced against both "Austerity" and inflation. The pension is to be paid - alongside, if they are lucky, other privately-funded ones - so that old age can be enjoyable, at least for a time. The Sabbath rest of the elderly is a reward for work done, and often felt by its beneficiaries as such - "I've worked and paid in all my life for this". Well, they might have worked, but what they paid into was the expenses of the generation before, now they are living off the present working generation; there never was a fund they paid into. All too often that turns out to be true of private pensions, too, alas. But this is not how the old age pension first came about. In 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, recommended an allowance of 5 shillings a week for single people, 10 shillings for couples, who were over seventy, and destitute. In other words, they had no other income, it was means-tested, not universal, and only payable if you had lived twenty years after the age at which most people were dead. I'm not suggesting we should return to those times, merely be mindful of them, and how our attitudes have changed.

On the other hand, there are those who see work as dignified and noble, and that to be denied work, by a mismanaged economy, disability, illness, or bad luck, is a terrible thing - or a disgraceful one. We saw this in the "Post-War Consensus", haunted by the Great Depression and the Jarrow Marchers, that there must be "Full Employment", which is a term from economics which means not that everyone is in work, but that there must be as many vacancies as there are people out of it. This was about ensuring the dignity of work for the greatest possible number (and was pretty good for the economy and society, too). We see its dark side now, with the punitive measures of the Austerity Regime to pressure disabled people off benefits and into unemployment, and all unemployed people to search like headless chickens on pain of reprisal, for work that doesn't exist. This is the "scroungers" mentality, one which condemns the "culture of entitlement", and sits a little uneasily with a government unusually heavily populated by millionaires who have done nothing but inherit their riches, and others who have made them without ever having, in the words of my late, hard-working, father "done a real day's work in their lives".

There is a perverse economic reality that all the best jobs are the best paid. You'd think, being heavily-subscribed, they would be low paid, and that the jobs no one wants, the dirty, and dull, and demeaning, and dangerous ones (ever noticed how many negative words begin with the letter D?), should be the highest paid, with short service and early retirement. But no, because economies do not operate under simple supply and demand, but through rackets and smoke and mirrors and anything to ensure the illusion that those who have lots have earnt it, and that they work very hard indeed. I don't personally believe the average cabinet minister works much harder than my postman. But I do think it must be a lot more fun being in the cabinet, never mind getting six times the money, and subsidised lunches and booze (and, if you're canny, a free house from the taxpayer).

And there's the key. The best work is really play. When we are enjoying our work, we are lost in it, we don't count the hours. It was only when I was really hating one job I had that I counted them - 72 hours one week, 84 the next - and this after my oldest childhood friend had died (and I wasn't burying grief in work, I was working with people who couldn't see how it mattered). This work was a curse indeed. Vicaring is an example of work as play. Many vicars boringly complain about how busy they are, which is a sort of defence mechanism because they know they are gloriously unregulated, and can, if they wish, do almost nothing. I've only known a couple of them who achieved this. But the work is a wonderful combination of tedium and thrill. For some, writing a sermon or doing the accounts, is the tedium, for others, the thrill; for some it is pastoral visiting, or teaching, or calling into schools and hospitals, community centres; or sitting in the study, reading, and learning, and deepening their wisdom for the next foray in the pulpit or the Bible class. The blend of toil works for so many different kinds of people because there is an element of the right kind of play for everyone. What is Sunday, if not dressing up, play-acting, learning lines, and giving a performance? It's more than that, but it is not less than that.

When children come out of school - their work - they don't, generally, want or need to rest, they want to play. They want the freedom to engage with the world and their friends on their own terms for a while, to make up stories, live in imaginary worlds, to make things, to be energetic, to strive to win - play is full of striving, and it's fun. And the modernists tell us that children learn more from play than they do in their lessons, and when you look at their concentration at a game, or the intensity of their knowledge of the different kinds of sharks (for instance), their attention to details and rules, you can well believe it.

This is why the Puritans - ancient and modern - got it wrong. Sabbath Rest isn't about holy indolence and God-bothering, it's about play, and for those whose work is dull and drear, that play is the most important part of their day or their week. Of course we must rest if our minds and bodies are tired by our labours. But what will refresh us is our playtime. Play is what frees us from the curse of work.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014