Thursday, 27 February 2014

O Tempora, O Mores - Oh Times, Oh Daily ... Mail?

"Paedophile Information Exchange" - that sounds nice, doesn't it? They love children. Aw. Nice as PIE. So nice, that the National Council for Civil Liberties could give them office space in the 1970s. The dates quoted by the Daily Mail are for 1977 and 1979. The years I was 11, and 13. The year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and the year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. In other words, a world away. Not quite so far that many of us - Her Majesty and myself included - aren't still here to remember, but a far off and distant time. When, and where, things were done differently.

There's no co-incidence in this story coming up in the turmoil of the Yew Tree Enquiry which followed the allegations made about Sir Jimmy Savile after his death. And yes, I will continue to use his title, a knighthood, bestowed by a grateful nation in recognition of all the charitable work he had done with and for children in particular. Because that's the kind of world it was (he had a knighthood from the Pope, too). I thought, from the safety of our sitting room and with the television as a screen, he was a creep, everyone who actually knew him says so too (well, they would, wouldn't they? to echo the witness to an earlier moral scandal), but it didn't count enough to stop him being honoured.

The thing that our communications media refuses to understand - because it would defuse a good story - is that we don't think about children now in the way that people did then. Children didn't matter so much. They were much more vulnerable to adult vice (which we generally denied ever happened, and certainly never within the family), because they were also more innocent, they had no name to put on bad things that happened to them. Alas, the only way to protect them from the wrong adults, is to teach them adult things. In consequence, ours is a world of grubbier minds, but fewer grubby deeds.

I have a dim recollection - but I may be making this up - of reading about PIE in the Gay Times in the 1980s. I'd certainly heard of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). If I thought about it at all - and it's not very likely, as I was too plain to count on the one side, and uninterested on the other - I might have imagined it to be about more mature people helping youngsters come to terms with their sexuality; in the case of PIE, that it might even be a self-help group for people who were afraid of their own urges to violate children sexually. That kind of group might actually have been a good thing for a number of people I have known in my ministry as a parish priest. But no, that is, always was, naive nonsense, and whilst you will excuse it in a young man finding his feet in his teens and twenties, you will question, with the Daily Mail, whether a leading Labour politician, Mrs Harman (born in 1950, so only in her 20s herself when these things were happening), should be entitled to the same "benefit of the doubt".

The fact is, children were up for grabs. Quite literally. And nobody gave a damn. We didn't even speak of "paedophilia". We had child molesters and kiddy fiddlers. What PIE was doing was cleverly inventing a grand term as a smokescreen for their real intentions. It is understandable that people were taken in, even right-thinking, left-leaning, liberal types, who would be aghast to think their tolerance of such a group might have endangered any child.

Every generation is convinced that it was better than the one coming after, but in this respect, we are better, and the next will be better still. I detest the word "paedophilia" because it is a lie. The people who do it do not love children. Children were vulnerable in the past because neither they, nor the adults they might have trusted, had words for the crimes committed against them. There is as tremendous a power in words as there is in secrets, and the children are being given those words to expose their abusers' secrets.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
February 2014

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Happy Remembrance of an Old Joke

This was one of my father's favourites.

A chap gets talking to his new neighbour, and notices he wears a wedding ring, but hasn't seen the man's wife, so he gently enquires.

"I'm a widower. Been widowed three times."

"Goodness, that's awful for you, however did you come to have such misfortune?"

"Well, my first wife, she died of eating poisonous mushrooms".

"And what became of your second?"

"Oh, she also died of eating poisonous mushrooms".

"What a tragic coincidence! What happened to your third wife?"

"Oh, she died of a blow to the back of the head with a blunt instrument".

"However did such a terrible thing happen?"

"She wouldn't eat the mushrooms".

RH 26.02.14

Sunday, 23 February 2014

On Telling the Truth, Lies, and Too Much Information

Whoops, they've done it again. The House of Bishop of the Church of England, with its unerring knack for getting everything completely wrong, has mouthed off about how it hates gay people. It's curious. They think this will give them a sheen of integrity. After all, the Bible says that gay people are vile and horrid and naughty, so why shouldn't they agree, and stand up against the Same Sex Marriage Act which becomes active law in March? Only, the Bible doesn't say that, any more than the Pyramids say that marmosets don't exist, or Confucius said that the Welsh sing too much. And we all know this. Lifting stuff from other times and presenting it as eternal truth is a pathetic lie.

And what is the truth? I can't pretend to have the ear and mind of God - only Richard Dawkins has that - but there's a big thing in the New Testament which, more importantly, is borne out in people's lives, that in love we find God, and in love God finds us. For centuries, of course, love had nothing to do with marriage. I don't think - but I could be wrong - that the House of Bishops wants to turn that particular clock back. Some marriages work, some are loving, some don't, some aren't. It's not really sure-fire. The pointy-hatted geniuses have found a way round this, though, which is to say that it doesn't matter whether gay people love each other and make relationships which are just the same as everyone else's marriages, they are nonetheless rather second best, and tawdry, and not good enough, and they can't breed, can they?, so it won't quite do, and NO ONE would want a person like that as their vicar, and they, as bishops, must protect the poor, foolish, silly, uneducated, prayerless, people of the pews from such a horrid eventuality. Even if they say that in this particular case, with this particular person, that is EXACTLY what they want. In fact, especially if they say that.

Because, they are, after all, only lay people. Not very bright, not theologically educated, can't tell one end of the Lord's Prayer from the other in a darkened room. How would they perceive the charism of ordination in a person? How would they be able to tell if God had called a person not only to be a priest, but to be THEIR priest? Goodness, what hubris! Bishops can tell this. They can tell that if a person is really, really, quiet about their sexuality, ideally married in a slightly compromised way, and carries on with a church career without rocking the boat, with their safe pair of hands, that is PROOF that they are called to be ordained, called to minister in all sorts of roles - maybe even to wear the pointy-hat. Some damn-fool poofter who falls in love with another man (or, of course a lesbian who falls in love with another woman, which is really complicated, because there's nothing in the Bible against it apart from something about bum-sex, which most girl couples don't do) and then wants the benefits that the law provides, by securing a marital relationship, well no, he can't have that, that's irresponsible, and unBiblical and greedy and nasty and wrong, and we don't want to think about bum-sex.

No indeed. Well, why not try stopping? Sorry ducks, it is ALL in YOUR mind.

Ah, but there's theology involved, there's all the traditional teaching. Is there? What's that then? Men can't sell their daughters; husbands can't rape their wives. Whoops, what happened to that traditional teaching? Did it get changed? How, I wonder? Common sense and reality bursting through the vestry door? Evil compromise with secular values? Come on chaps, stand up for your Biblical rights - sell those girls to the highest bidder, and if the Missus says No, well No doesn't mean nothing.

What we're up against here is honesty. Honesty is a huge challenge to the Church of England. I should say that I love the Church of England, which confirmed and ordained me, for a ministry which will continue, whether recognised or respected, or not, until I die, and I am a conviction Anglican. I've read all the Prayerbooks, I know the history. Cranmer and Parker and Elizabeth I and Hooker, are my heroes. I told the truth. Most gay clergy I know also did. Even those who didn't, well, the system knew. They ordained us, they used us, we worked for them, and now - do they work for us? No. And on what grounds? Because of some nutters in Africa and some madder ones in Brompton who are hiding behind the black faces that make bigotry acceptable.

The Church worries in every generation about what the young people are thinking. We know what they think about the Church of England on the gay question - they think it's a bunch of lying, hypocritical bigots. They are right.

"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, thou hast ordained strength".

Be afraid, bishops, be very afraid. If not for your congregations, for your pensions. Both of which will in time disappear if you cannot face reality. And that reality is love. And God is love. Goodness, it will burn.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Thoughts on a Walk to Hospital, Through Town, and Home, With Ghosts

Today was meant to be a London day. I bought a ticket a while ago which allows me a dozen discount journeys, and haven't used it yet. I fancied just turning up and seeing what happened. But on Tuesday I telephoned the doctor about my annoying ankle, and yesterday he telephoned me at ten to nine in the morning, and arranged for me to come in and see a colleague an hour later. This was impressive service. But the doctor, muttering dark hints about "osteo-arthritis" told me to go to the X-ray people and see how much damage I've already done to these wretched joints. I toyed with going straight there - I was already nearly half-way - but I was feeling out of sorts, and postponed it until this morning.

So, off to the Churchill Hospital, to the X-ray drop-in, only it's not really a drop in, as you have to have a grand letter from your quack saying "URGENT". It isn't urgent. You have to wonder what the code is for really urgent. Maybe it's just "go now"? This bit of the Oxford medical empire was named in honour of the Prime Minister's wife, Clementine, in 1940. I had to look that up, and it surprised me - Churchill only became PM that year, and no one was entirely confident that he would do a good job (he'd been First Lord of the Admiralty, Home Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and had ballsed them all up, one after another, so he had previous, but it must have been a more forgiving age). My father used to say that the family's scrap yard in Wandsworth in South London had once been owned by the Spencer-Churchill family, and that someone - never knew who - had seen Sir Winston coming to collect the rent. Well, it became ours later.

Arrived, soaked by driving but not cold rain, and waited. The receptionist said it might be 30-45 minutes. I allowed an hour and a half, and rather wished I'd brought Sir Harold Nicholson's biography of George V instead of Private Eye, but no, I was wrong, after 35 minutes I was seen, and within 50 I was on my way back out into the rain. I dimly remember X-rays in childhood being rather a glamorous thing, like firework night, when you light the blue touch paper and retire as far away as you can. This was altogether more high-tech and less scary. One of the people at whose obsequies I was asked to preside in Chelsea was a physician who had worked with radiation at the St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner in the 1940s. He had told his family often that he had absorbed so much of the stuff that he'd never make old bones. He lived to be 96.

And so, suitably irradiated, to continue my journey into town. I had planned to cut across to the London Road to catch the bus, but I dithered, thinking that the cut across would be as long as a walk down the hill to a spot at which I would consider taking the bus ridiculous. So I walked, and avoided the ridiculous bus, in part out of determination that all this arthritis talk was not going to make the slightest difference.

That part of Oxford is annoyingly uninteresting to walk in. All roads lead to the three roads that lead to The Plain, which is the roundabout before Magdalen Bridge, the only entry into Oxford City from the East. There are few interesting alleyways, or shortcuts, you become sieved onto the main roads whether you like it or not. There was a glimpse of the majestic dome of the biggest local mosque in Cowley Road, and only a petrol-bomb's throw away from it, SS. Mary and John, Cowley, where I took my friend's mother's funeral last year, and whose vicar and his wife were so kind to us after our civil partnership, asking us to house-sit during their summer holiday. Undistinguished architecture, but happy memories.

Magdalen Bridge, and its approach to Oxford, is one of the city's best known views. The Tower that looms over it, four or five times taller than the buildings out of which it grows, was Cardinal Wolsey's first attempt at contriving something for his own posterity. He was the bursar of the college at the time, and bankrupted it, fleeing Oxford into the King's service, and doing rather well, and having many more opportunities to make his mark in the years he had left. One of them became Christ Church, my old college, and I decided to make a detour towards its Meadow, to see how the floods had treated it.

It was a lake! The footpath round the Meadow was cut off by officious metal barriers. I went to inspect them, hoping to find "No Entry By Order The Dean", but alas, they came more mundanely from the "Gardens Department". When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, some musical types had tried to move a grand piano in the cathedral (our college chapel, a uniquely cosy arrangement) and one of its legs had caught in the ancient and uneven flagstones, and come off, and the whole thing dropped to the ground and smashed, with what I am told was the most wonderful reverberation through the whole building. At a cost of £20,000 it was repaired, and returned, with a curt note sellotaped to its lid "NOT TO BE MOVED BY ORDER THE DEAN". The soggy Meadow and its footpath seems not to have attracted such lofty attention, so it was left to the gardens department to warn us not to be so daft as to venture onto a windy flooded footpath bordered by a fast-moving over-flowing stream (the Cherwell) on the one side, and a treacherous drainage ditch on the other.

And then the bells of noon chimed. First Merton, then Magdalen, then Christ Church's Tom bell. Not quite in synch, but how dull would that be? When I was first an undergraduate in the autumn of 1985 there was a history programme which played a recording of Oxford in the 1930s, and those same bells chimed just the same, and I wondered what I had found myself in, what cycle of repetition, what sameness and stillness of predictability. And yet, back then in the 1930s, my own families were all striving to find their food for the day, they hadn't yet spawned a child who could moon about in a strange town thinking about bells.

It was time to get to the bank, but as I left the Meadow, a gate that was usually open was shut, and another, was open, and I saw for the first time in years the little stairway to the Old Brewhouse, where John, the Registrar of the Cathedral, had lived long ago. Before him - quite a bit before! - it was where W H Auden (a fellow old boy) lodged at the college when he was in town. Auden by then was becoming something of a drunken bore, and would embarrass people at high table by asking them whether if they had to, they would piss in the sink. He was trumped eventually by the new Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, John Macquarrie, who said "Not if there's an open window handy". Canon Macquarrie (since gone to a well-earned glory) was the first priest for whom I served at the altar. And his successor as professor, Rowan Williams, with whom I lodged for a while with my first boyfriend, well, I can't remember what happened to him.

Through Tom Quad and out past Pembroke College, and memories of another tutor - one whose career as a fellow and chaplain ended in a newspaper sting, seemingly caught trying to sell off places at the college to the highest bidder. They all do it - not often, and not much, but these ancient stones need a lot of upkeep, and there's no one else to help - but you wouldn't have chosen this particular chap as your Arthur Daley spiv if you had an ounce of sense in your head.

Business done, and so to Blackwells for a couple of little items on a book token (a discounted church diary with a lectionary in it, and a learned pamphlet about the Synod of Whitby by one of the nuns at Fairacres (who was my thurifer the first time I celebrated at the high altar and scared the living pants off me), and to the bus back to Barton. It's never a long wait - not a cheap service (£2 for a single) but a brisk and regular one - and chocks away, back through the territory I'd walked through earlier, avoiding the roads the buses use. In Headington the new Sainsbury's has opened, in the premises of what was formerly Peacocks. Now we can buy food there, and at Waitrose, the Co-op, Iceland, and Morrisons, but there's nowhere to buy clean underwear or handkerchiefs.

And then I noticed another passenger, or rather, the Inner Mugger noticed his watch. It might have been a Canal Street fake, but it looked the real thing, much good quality gold, with a mother-of-pearl face. I was a little too far away to see clearly, and as he had his hand half in a jacket pocket on his lap, too close a look might have been taken the wrong way. I found myself becoming more concerned about the authenticity of this bauble, as we powered through bourgeois Headington towards lumpenproletariat Barton. But it was OK, he got off at the last respectable stop, and my fantasy of the foolish Oriental student wearing his thousand pound quality bling in broad daylight was untarnished.

And so into Lumpenproletaria, and after a cheerful twenty minutes or half an hour resting on the bus, struggling to walk properly, and remembering how the day had begun. But what a lot of very cheering ghosts I had met along the way.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
February 2014

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

For the Window, Littlemore, Sunday, 9th of February, 2014

The Window - Sunday, 9th of February, 2014

On The Keeping Of Promises
On Making The Best Of Our Lot

On Thursday the Church of England kept a bittersweet feast - the Accession of Queen Elizabeth II, sixty-two years ago. Bitter because it was also the day her long-suffering and poorly father died; sweet because the nation has been blessed with a public servant of the deepest devotion who has headed the ship of state through tumultuous times, changes and chances, with a steady determination to keep the promises she made before she was even Queen to care for the people to whom she had been given by God. And that is the heart of it - much is made of the Queen's personal faith, which always emerges in her Christmas broadcasts, simple, and strong, and there can be no question that for her it is a religious duty to keep that promise. She is older, at 87, than any of her predecessors as monarch, and yet undertook 344 official engagements last year.

Of course, there is a balance here. There is a plus side to being Queen, on a bad day, there are consolations for the cares of state: she can wear jewels at dinner the rest of us would never even be permitted to touch; she has a string of racehorses others can only watch on television; a pack of corgis that others walk; she has never had to worry about small bills; she gets the best of healthcare. But these are things any rich person can have, without giving anything at all back to the rest of society.

We like to think ourselves free, and yet when we reflect on our lives, it is surprising how few real choices we have. Nothing quite so stark as being born to be Queen, but still relatively few. For Jesus's disciples, the call is to make good of the places we find ourselves, and that includes showing our gratitude for the blessings of this life in service to our neighbours, so that we may truly say with the Psalmist "The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground" (Ps. 16:7)