Friday, 28 March 2014

The English Spirit

"Fall" pregnant, be "reduced" to tears. What a harsh and unsentimental people we are.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

A Memory

An "English" pub in the South Street Sea Port in Manhattan, New York. April 1993, my first holiday abroad. With my college friends Elizabeth (my hostess at the time, at her company's 40th floor apartment on the Upper East Side) and Mark and Alison on holiday from England, not long since married.

Battered scallops. They were huge, but full of flavour. I can taste them now. Bliss.

For food and friends and fellowship, Deo gratias.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

On Authority and Resistance

Barely awake, I overheard a programme on the World Service yesterday at what must have been 4.30. It was about the years in which Brasil was ruled by the Generals, after a coup in 1964, half a century ago. The journalist recalled her father warning her as a child of about ten not to gather in groups around her school gates, and later told of going to interview a retired, and decidedly unrepentant, general about those times. She also interviewed an author who had written a novel based on the disappearance, torture, and murder, of his sister. It was a well-crafted piece, and it made two interesting points about Brasilian culture.

One contributor said that Brasil is essentially authoritarian - from the family, to the workplace, to the military and politics - and that lent it to rule by the Generals. I was very struck on my visits that a tourist needed to produce a passport to buy a coach ticket between towns, and that when I wanted to extend my visa, they docked 11 days off it, because my visit the previous year would make the total more than the permitted 90 (our Home Office wouldn't have had a clue). This must be a legacy of the days in which the state needed to keep a close watch on its citizens. One consequence was "disappearance", something we're familiar with in connexion with Argentina and Chile (although it is an issue in Northern Ireland in our own country too), and the lingering grief of those who know someone they loved has been killed, but will never know anything about it. The retired general said that the reason why some people couldn't be found is that they used fake identification documents. That sounded sly and corrupt.

It was tempting to find a reflexion of this authoritarianism in the way His Lordship deals with the cats, preferring to shout and whistle at them to go, when if you softly suggest they come along, they usually will, but I think that may not really be a cultural difference so much as a lesser affinity with animals. What was striking, though, was the way the journalist, and the novelist, and others in the programme were lamenting that after a general amnesty was issued in 1979, allowing the exiled home, but protecting the military from repercussions, not only is the time of the Generals not discussed, but no one has been punished for what they did, "no one has gone to prison". This was entirely at odds with (at least my understanding of) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, managed by the saintly Desmond Tutu. There, the truth could be told BECAUSE there was no fear of retaliation. And that required sacrifice on both sides, and in a sense the relinquishing of authority, because if the truth was told, that alone would be authoritative. And the truth might set them free.

The other revelation was the flipside of authoritarianism - resistance. The presenter suggested that Brasilian music and dance in particular, which has found such favour around the world, was the product initially of the slave culture (Brasil was the world's greatest slaving nation, a bigger market than the USA, and slavery was not abolished until 1889 under pressure from the UK), and as such, a mark of resistance to oppression. She quoted some interesting lyrics from forty-odd years ago about things disappearing, innocent enough out of context, but with the background, quietly political.

Dilma Rousseff, Brasil's current president, was herself tortured in the time of the Generals. In 2011 she signed into existence a National Truth Commission to look into those dark times. It was meant to report in two years. It didn't start until 2013. I don't hold out much hope for its achieving a lot. The retired General was adamant that the law must be obeyed and those who break it must be punished - and silenced. Another contributor noted chillingly that "the purpose of torture is not to make people talk, but to make them silent".

Brasil is a fascinating and complex country about which I know too little, and this programme was a brief taste of how some Brasilians are trying to reconcile its present with its past. When we stayed there for four months in 2006, I asked His Lordship how long it would be before there was a woman President in Brasil. He laughed out loud. Mrs Rousseff, who was elected in 2010, is living proof that resistance works better than authoritarianism. And our cats would agree.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Feast of the Annunciation and Fear of the Feminine Touch

Listening to the BBC this morning at the just-after-5.30 news, I was reminded that on this day in 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed. They don't bother with these historical reminiscences in the later news broadcasts, which is perhaps a shame. I was also reminded of John, one of our churchwardens at S. Giles-in-the-Fields who used to come to church wearing a tie emblazoned with the £ sign, a fierce opponent of all things European (although he'd picked up an MBE for helping make peace between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar), who pointed out that Europe Union was a Catholic conspiracy which begun on the Feast of the Annunciation.

I bristled somewhat at this, because my Nan was born on the feast of the Annunciation (a century ago today), and named, by her Italian parents, Annunziata, after it. The English registrar struggled with the name, and for the rest of her life she was saddled with a birth certificate which named her Noziate. Which possibly makes her unique. But John's slightly barmy words made me look to the Book of Common Prayer, which was the reason he came to S. Giles, and at the collect for the day, which is this:

"We beseech thee O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Well, nothing to argue with there, but it's rather glaring that Mary's name isn't mentioned at all. In fact, her name doesn't feature in any of the Book of Common Prayer Collects - not even for Candlemas, and Christmas itself, when you'd have thought she'd get some credit for having done all the work. It was a Reformation thing to be rather afraid of Mary's name. In the Middle Ages in this country, devotion to "Our Lady" was so deep that England was known as "Mary's Dowry". The Reformers were quite antsy, theologically butch types, who were worried that she'd been made into something of a goddess, and that if that much attention was paid to a mere woman, well, who knows what would happen? We can forget that in the 16th century all sorts of outlandish ideas broke out, like pacifism and communism, both of which are roundly slapped down in the Thirty-Nine Articles. There were a lot of educated women about - they had reason to be antsy.

When I worked as a chaplain in Cambridge, I had a colleague who used visibly to flinch when Mary's name was mentioned. There's a Eucharistic Prayer which sums up the incarnation of Jesus "giving him to be born of a woman, and to die upon the cross". To my ears that sounded like adding injury to insult - "not only did he have to endure the indignity of engagement with a female's softer parts, but then they killed him". So I substituted "to be born of Mary". And my colleague flinched. What's interesting is that she was a woman. Her roots were evangelical, I'd say she was a "recovering evangelical" because some of them never quite get over it, and I think her objection was a feminist one, that for her the Icon of Mary had been turned into the Impossible Woman - Virgin and Mother, and that this was fundamentally oppressive.

It's certainly true that the feminist critique has an immense body of male misogyny to draw on (men are keen on being immense, but this is not something to be proud of). You find it in Saint Jerome, the learned translator of the standard version of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate, in the days when Latin was a "vulgar" tongue "understanded of the people"), who says that the only good women are nuns and the only good that can come of sex - and only in marriage - is that it might breed more nuns. Which, as a state of mind, is not entirely well in the head. And it echoes into our own times. I was aghast when I was told by Jeffrey John (then Dean of Magdalen College, Oxford, briefly bishop-designate of Reading, now Dean of St Albans) what had been said to him by Gareth Bennett, Dean of New College, when Jeffrey first became a college chaplain. He tentatively asked if Jeffrey had any young lady in tow, and, much relieved that he hadn't, said "they're just walking vaginas". Given that Dr Bennett, who killed himself at the end of the term in which I'd attended his seminars, had almost certainly had no such intimate acquaintance with a woman since his own birth, this was extraordinary. What was less brutal, but actually worse, was his performance in those seminars, in which he would quite obviously and bluntly ignore the women present. I'd never seen this before. He was a fellow of a college which admitted women on equal terms to men, and a member of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England. This was in 1987.

Dr Bennett was a high church man, but it's not just a high church problem. Evangelicals too have an interest in the idea of "headship", that, following sub-Pauline writings in the New Testament, the man is head of the woman, as Christ is head of the church. So, the chap's in charge at home. They will tell you this is not misogyny - "I love and respect my wife". So you do, dear boy, but only while she does as she's told and conforms to your model of what women are for. But is that really love? And if women start to say "I can be and do more than this" and you reply "oh no you can't, get back in the kitchen", isn't that misogyny? It looks cosy, and there are lovely children in the photographs to make it seem cutely OK, but is it kind, is it real love, is it "life more abundant"?

For those of us saddled into the sorry part of Anglicanism that the Church of England has become, some of the arguments about women bishops have had roots in both these psychotic mindsets. And still, in public life, we see far fewer women than the demographics would suggest. John Major's first cabinet in 1990 was the first ever to have more than one woman as a cabinet minister (if you except that Baroness Thatcher had briefly tolerated Baroness Young in the early 1980s). The UK Supreme Court has only one woman. Business, commerce, industry, the city, the civil service, the law, the police, even academia, it goes on and on, all have few women at the highest levels. Men and women still have, in even the smallest roles, significant differences in pay for the same work, even though this is against the law.

We're not put on this earth to be the same, no two people could be, but to be equals. I think in some way the story of the Annunciation, which features so wonderfully in paintings and icons and stained glass and poetry, tries to redress the balance of a world that puts, and keeps, women down. Mary said yes to God, and allowed the incarnation to happen. And more, she raised the Son of God, and made him a home, until he was ready to go out and save the world.

I doubt strongly that men (in general) will ever be as keen or as good at making homes and raising children as women (in general). Where needs must, both usually rise manfully (ho ho!) to the task. But where we can, respectfully and gratefully and even lovingly, co-operate, the task will be done that much the better.

Years after seeing my Nan's birth certificate, I discovered that there is still a tower in her mother's village in Italy of a church dedicated to the Annunciation. She was born on the day; in a strange and often unfriendly foreign country, perhaps her name was also a reminder of home. A feminine touch?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
The Annunciation, 2014

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Saint Augustine, and things Human, and things Divine (from a while back)

A Sermon for the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
28th August 2005, 8.45 & 11 a.m.

Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28

Divine Things and Human Things

We all like to be special. It’s not always the most attractive quality in us, but it’s there all the same. Even those who are shy and retiring and prone to low self-esteem can make a special ness even out of failure - “I just can‘t do anything properly”. None are more prone to this desire to stand apart, the desire to be special, than religious people. So much of our Gospel is about self-abnegation, being the servant not the master, taking the lower place, and so on, and yet Christian people can be alarming in our desire for specialness. A little story exemplifies it. Someone dies and goes to heaven. On his first day he is being shown around by Saint Peter, as you‘d expect with a new boy. They travel round the many rooms of the Father’s house, freely and cheerfully, as you would expect in heaven. Then all of a sudden Peter goes “Sshshshshsh” and tells his guest to be absolutely quiet as they pass a large and noisy room. When they are out of range, the new boy asks Peter “What was that about, why did we have to be quiet?” “Oh, that’s the Fundamentalists Room, they like to think they’re the only people up here”. Incidentally, the story proves that Heaven is managed by Anglicans, surely there could be no more quintessentially Anglican solution to a problem?

Against this tendency to want to be exclusive and special there is a parallel strand in Christian theology which puts the other case. It’s one that can go too far in unhelpful ways - “you are not special” is a dangerous message, especially for those who are vulnerable. We would not want the children we love to be told constantly, “you are not special”. The old Litany from the Book of Common Prayer (which in my last parish we used to sing in its entirety every Sunday in Lent, I think to make us all the more grateful for Easter) begins with four verses whose refrain is “Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners”. The meaning of words can slip and change over time, but to the modern ear that is just too over the top with the self-deprecation. However, that same Prayerbook also has, in its 39 Articles of Religion, a teaching that illuminates the point. No one knows the 39 Articles any more, because few churches have a copy of the prayer book in the pews so that the congregation can read them during the sermons. It’s no great loss, as our church has moved on a long way since then. The language of this Article (XXVI) is brutally direct, in that marvellous 16th Century way: “Although in the visible church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have the chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the word of God and in receiving the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men”. So, no matter how rotten the clergy, the sacraments come from God, not Human beings, they are bigger than us. I’m sure I am not the only priest who has many times given particular thanks for this teaching - that no matter how rotten I may feel myself to be - or in fact be! - Christ may still work through me as a vessel of his grace. Indeed, there is no other way for things to work. On the other hand, this is no recipe for complacency - the same article continues by saying the evil ministers need to be investigated, accused, “and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed”.

So, what has all this got to do with Saint Augustine? Principally that he was the chief architect of this doctrine. Augustine was one of the giants of the Early Church, one of the greatest theologians of what is called the Patristic period, the time of the Fathers. It covers approximately five centuries, and Augustine comes towards its close, departing this life on this day in the year 430 AD at the age of nearly 80, having seen and done many things, as you‘d expect with someone of nearly 80. He was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa - what a lovely title to have, surely second only to Giraffe! - although he is said to have tried to avoid visiting towns that were short of a bishop in order not to be made one! By nature he was first and foremost a scholar, a deep and serious thinker, with a strong ascetical streak, the tendency that makes men monks. I’m not entirely sure I would have liked Augustine; I have a feeling he would have been rather serious, and not a lot of fun at dinner, but perhaps I have not yet read enough to know him.

One of the many theological and practical problems Augustine faced was how to stand up to the Donatists. They were a breakaway Christian group who, like all breakaway groups, claimed to be the True Church. They had fallen out with the church because during a time of persecution, about a century before Augustine was dealing with the problem, some Christians had become collaborators. In particular, when the Scriptures had been outlawed by the Roman authorities, some Christians had handed their copies over, whilst others had hung on to them and been martyred for the sake of a book. The Donatists would not accept the ministry of anyone who had been a collaborator, a “traditor” in the language of the time. Their view was that a pure and holy line had been broken by having a traitor in the ranks. Only right-thinking and right-acting Christians were to be members of the Church, and there was to be no forgiveness. Tainted orders - bishops, priests or deacons ordained by dirty hands you might say - did not count, and sacraments administered by dirty hands did not count; and anyone baptised by dirty hands had to be baptised again. To this, Augustine’s response was very much like that of Jesus to Peter in today’s Gospel - “you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things”. Re-baptising, re-ordaining, re-consecrating, all these were anathema to him. God makes his promise, and Man cannot unmake it. It is God who in the sacraments takes the ordinary things of this world and makes them the extraordinary things of another world. It is almost as if God calls holiness out of things that didn’t realise they possessed them.

The Donatists were the holy huddle, the ones in the secret room, convinced that they, and they alone, were pure enough - and right enough - to inherit the Kingdom. And once you do that, it stops being the Kingdom of God, and becomes a merely earthly Kingdom. It may have the trappings of the Church, its leaders may be dressed up in the veneer of holiness, it may ape the words and deeds of grace, and in many cases it may well produce some good, but anything so limited and exclusive cannot be the Kingdom which Christ came to build. The point about those who want to exclude people from church, those who want to throw people out, is not that they are bad, it is that they are wrong. There are Donatists abroad in the churches today, as there always have been. They are the ones who think they are special. And that everyone else is not. And here they get it muddled. Our modern-day Donatists are not special because of anything they believe, or anything they do, or anything they belong to; they are special because God made them in his image and likeness, and God loves them. The Love of God is not limited by time and space. It is like the love that pours out when a baby is born - there is no less love left for everyone else. There is love for everyone. So, they are indeed special, as special as everyone else in the world! They might find that dismaying. I think it’s rather wonderful. And it is Good News indeed. All we need to do now, is go out and proclaim it in the world. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Assistant Priest

Thoughts on Fathering and Mothering

Walking through the parks and playing fields in yesterday's fine but windily cold sunshine it was striking to see so many fathers with their children. Well, I assumed they were fathers. I suppose they might have been uncles, mother's boyfriends, or strangers just about to achieve an abduction, but I reckon my hunch was right. They were an interesting mix. Some clearly just doing their duty, time-serving, bored, and watching the clock, until they were allowed back home again, or out to the pub, or somewhere else they'd rather be. Others, animatedly engaged in what was going on, playing the games, shouting the rules (fathers do seem to be rather shouty about rules), trying to restrain their need to win. One chap was even fully kitted out as a goalkeeper for his small children, a girl and a boy. I should add, in a spirit of gender justice, that unlike the small lady tennis player the other week, this girl was well-co-ordinated, and had some pretty nifty footwork. It got me wondering, given the divorce rates, whether the value of the park is that it's neutral ground if the parents no longer find one another congenial company. For fathers and children to stay in touch at all, they must go outside and play games, whether they want to or not.

A couple of nights before, I'd been sitting in our nearest park in Barton, in the twilight, after a long walk through this end of town, through Old Headington, and the Quarry, to Risinghurst and the C S Lewis reserve (noisy children about, no kingfishers), and my quiet time before going home to cook dinner was disrupted by loud yelling and screaming. The distance, and the fading light, made it hard to see at first, but it seemed that a woman and some small children with an equally small dog, were shouting about another even smaller dog, that was making a beeline for theirs, and was in turn being furiously yelled at by another woman, out of sight, who I imagined was its owner. I don't think there was any real set-to, but the noise set my teeth on edge. The smaller dog was reclaimed, the mother and the three children kept walking, and with their dog, passed my bench. Well, it's everyone's bench really, but I was feeling really grouchy. "What's that bloody woman doing dragging her children round in the dark on a chilly night?" I was thinking. That was an unkind thought. It occurred to me that, this being a modern world for women as well as men, she might be the only adult at home, and none of the children was big enough to stay home alone. Perhaps she had been at work all day, and just fed them after coming home. Perhaps the dog couldn't be walked until afterwards, because hungry children are more infuriating than walkless dogs. And to get a walk at all, the dog had to go out with the whole posse, and endure all the thrills and spills of shouting and shrieking (which it's possible dogs enjoy quite as much as most children and some adults).

Thinking back to childhood,I can't remember much "quality time" with either of my parents. We didn't have to endure ballgames in the park with Dad, thank goodness, and by the time we got a dog, we could walk him ourselves (just as well as neither of the parents wanted to). It's not a gripe, I'm not a great fan of quality time. It looks rather stressful. I preferred my own time, plus dinner, and occasional journeys to Whipsnade Zoo, activities at which I permitted both parents, in turn, to shine. But we always knew where our parents were. Dad was at work, Mum was at home, sometimes they were both at home. I think that's better than being in the park. And in those days, you could go to the park on your own.

But if called on to choose - playing some daft ballgame with Dad, or going out for a twilight stroll and screaming with Mum, I think I'd go for the screaming. And maybe that's the reason why, whatever the game, Mother always wins.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

Friday, 21 March 2014

Thoughts On Our Basest Nature

Chatting idly earlier today with my friend Laura in Switzerland, we swapped notes about how we missed "The News of the World." The paper was closed hurriedly in the summer of 2011 when the forces of a different Laura, Laura Norda, closed round its editors and journalists - and the cases continue. For over a century and a half it had afforded the masses, and those who like to slum it, titbits and gossip and scurril and rumour, about the great and not-so-good, in politics, show business, sport, the arts, even the church. I used to read it in the pub after church on a Sunday, wearing my dogcollar. Challenged one time "why are you reading that filth?" I replied, "Looking for forthcoming job vacancies".

At first sight, it would appear, like the cheaper newspapers in general, to have appealed to our baser nature - sex and drugs and money and scandal. But on reflexion, I was reminded of something that Tom (N.T. in academic life) Wright, a brilliant New Testament scholar who became a rather less glowing bishop of Durham, said to us at Lincoln Theological College in the Lent Lectures of 1995. He was asked the question - one which we are still asking - "why is the church so obsessed with sex?". He replied something like "because the world is, and we are called to be in the world, and to pay attention to it, and whilst it is in pain about questions of relationships and sexuality, we too must be in pain, as the church, the Body of Christ, in the world".

That's all rather high and mighty, but there's something in it. Anglicanism is the religion of the Incarnation, of the Word made Flesh. And what the flesh does, tells us an engaging and important story about the soul within. Of course, tales of self-sacrifice, denial, and abstinence would be very improving, but they don't shift newspapers. Instead, we are engaged by tales of those with power and influence who themselves are overpowered and influenced by bimbettes in nightclubs, illegal substances, and the heady promise of even more illegal money. There is a part of our reading which wants the powerful to be human, to have feet of clay, to be like us. There is another part that wants to stand in judgement over them, to punish them, even if only by scowling at a newspaper page, for their success, which is so very much more than ours. The latter element, although very human, is not very edifying, and has its roots in self-righteousness, envy, and spite, all of which are just as much sins as anything ever reported in the News of the World.

But for those of us who simply don't have the wherewithal to live the high life, there's something pleasing about knowing that that those who can, do: that princes of the blood spend hundreds of pounds on bottles of Champagne in louche bars with loucher girls, that respectably married MPs have secret affairs with other women's husbands who then become Prime Minister, that someone really did break the bank at Monte Carlo.

Most of the time, the lives of the people we read about are just as drab as our own. Just as our own are only mostly drab. Too much excitement would be enervating. But week after week we can read about the thrills and spills of the glamorati and wonder what it would be like to be like them, and perhaps thank God that we are not, not because we are better, simply because life hasn't thrown us the chance to be.

Flanders and Swann had great fun with this after the Profumo affair in 1963. In retrospect, it was a storm in a teacup, and an essentially good man (as for over forty more years he proved) was brought down by malign forces and his own idiocy. The song they wrote was about gossip and rumour, and contained such lines as:

"No romance, said Juliet, I haven't left school, yet, we're friends, just friends"
"Said Hero and Leander, it's nothing but slander, we're chums, just chums"
"Nonsense, said Bonaparte, she lives on her own, apart, in her own apartment"

And ends with the delicious:

"Such models of friendship are precious and rare;
But the friendship of models ... is not!"

Baser nature? Perhaps. But within it also lie the profoundest elements of human love and striving for excellence, which is why it will continue to fascinate, because there is a little bit of us, when we read the latest juicy scandal, that knows, and even slightly wishes, "there, but for the grace of God, go I".

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Thoughts for Lent: On Giving Up, and Taking Up

If you don't grow up with Lent, it's a pretty odd idea. Easter is coming - which ought to be a happy thing - but no, it's a penitential thing, so we give things up and become unhappy for Jesus. When I was starting out in this strange world, I couldn't think of anyone that Jesus actually wanted, in the Gospel stories, to be unhappy. He said that some would be, if they risked ended up with the worm and the fire and the gnashing of teeth, and the rich young man walked away with a long face, but I don't think that was ever his intention and object - to challenge people's complacencies, assumptions, false assurances, yes, but not to make them unhappy. There's that lovely phrase about wanting people to "have life, and have it more abundantly". It's rather a good test of how Christian the latest Synod or House of Bishops pronouncement is - "how much more abundant is this making life for everyone?"

So, I started off pretty conscious of Christian masochism, and the rather twisted way that it can speak of deprivation as sacrifice (all those lucky old paupers in the third world, without conscience-twisting choices to make about the money they don't have!), and voluntary hunger as some kind of denial of ego, when really it's just denial of the fridge and the waistline. Then one time in Cambridge I'd been preaching at an evensong, I think at Selwyn College, on the first Sunday of Lent, and Ian the Dean had invited me, and a posse of ordinands, including my friend Elizabeth from S. Giles, back for college dinner and port and such. The conversation turned to everyone's Lenten disciplines. The ordinands were particularly savage with one another about their failure to endure hunger. And Elizabeth, who had a very cruel childhood, quietly said "anyone who has actually known what it is like to be hungry, when there is nothing you can do about it, never plays with their food, and to do so in a world where so many are desperately hungry isn't pious solidarity, it's blasphemy".

Which made me think that perhaps I had been on the right track for the previous few years encouraging people to take something on in Lent, rather than giving things up (or do both, as giving things up isn't exactly time-consuming and even chaps can multi-task). An ideal combination would be to give up something that costs money, and take up giving that money to someone who needs it more - the most excellent Lenten discipline of justice. Or we could commit to making a better effort with family and friends we are always meaning to contact, but keep forgetting. But it seems that most of all, Lent is a good time for prayer.

The classic hymn for the start of the season is "Forty Days and Forty Nights", based on Jesus's fasting and temptation in the wilderness in the Synoptic Gospels. It wasn't, in his case, just before Easter, but it does seem to be presented by the Evangelists as a time of closeness to God, of a fixing and focusing of his commitment to what in the end was such an entirely costly ministry. Lent emerged in the early church as a time for new Christians to learn about the faith, in preparation for their baptism, confirmation, and admission to holy communion at Easter, and courses of study are an excellent thing at any time of year. It is instructive to learn what we don't know, both from a teacher and one another, and to discover what we have in common with others in our journey of faith, and maybe what is also distinctively our own.

But prayer, I think is underplayed. There's a lot of mystification about it, a hundred and one fatuous little books, when all that's needful is to take the time, and think of God. My view, which is not universally shared, is that everyone prays, that it's as natural as breathing, and there's no reason why we should force ourselves to be aware of it all the time, that would be rather exhausting. When someone tells you they've had bad news, when an ambulance or fire engine passes in the street, when you see a glorious dawn, or a marvellous thunderstorm, you pray, you can't help it, that's human. And it's a bit divine. You care, because God cares, you wonder and glory, because God does too, and you are made in the image and likeness of that God.

Over the years, I have found three prayers in particular helpful in Lent to remind me of a faith that can become tired and stale - especially for those of us who have been spiritually oppressed by the darkness of the winter months. They are: the Litany, the Angelus, and the Jesus Prayer, and I think I probably came across them in that order.

The Litany, from the old Book of Common Prayer, although there is a very serviceable version in the ASB (and who, knows, maybe in Common Worship too, I don't know how to use it), I like for three reasons, only one of them good. The first is that in its original form from 1544 - it was the very first formal prayer permitted for use in church in the English language - there is a petition which makes me giggle: "From the tyranny of the bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities, good Lord, deliver us". I should very much like to make "Detestable Enormities" the title of my autobiography one day, and to merit it. It's worth pointing out that this clause was removed by Elizabeth I, despite the fact that one of the said bishop's enormities was to have her declared a bastard, and tell her subjects it would be no sin to kill her. Sporting old cove, Good Queen Bess! The second reason is that I used to have to sing it - during Lent - at S. Giles-in-the-Fields. This was mainly so that the season would be solidly penitential for me, and the congregation, equally, but I feel a little (and sinful) sense of pride that I, a non-singer, managed page after page of it, and sometimes even got the notes right. There were four of of them, but it's true what they say, it's all about getting them in the correct order. And the third and only good reason is that it is a prayer which, like the Church of England at its best, is both doctrinal and pastoral. It begins with the Trinity, and the key Gospel events of the life of Christ, and then lists just about everyone who could possibly need praying for. When you finish the Litany, you can be in no doubt that you have left anyone out.

The Angelus I was much more wary of. Despite coming from Italian and Irish Roman Catholic families, and being familiar with paintings and postcards of Mary, my rather dry initial researches into the Christian faith came from historical Reformation texts, where there was deep anxiety about the potential to elevate Mary to the role of a goddess. But I was persuaded by a chapter about the rosary in a little book by the late Robert Llewellyn, that the rosary is itself not a totem, but an instrument like a piano, on which any prayer can be prayed, and in the slow and gentle repetition, deepened. I even sent off to the Julian Shrine at Norwich where Fr Llewellyn served, and asked for a rosary, enclosing a cheque for a little more than quoted price, intending the extra as a donation. Almost by return, I had my rosary and a little note saying "your cheque was enough for a slightly nicer rosary than the one you asked for, so I have blessed it on the altar here, and sent it to you". The Angelus, and the Hail Mary which is part of it, seem quintessentially Roman Catholic, and yet they are a celebration of the Incarnation, just like the canticles we Anglicans use at Evensong, the Song of Mary, and the Song of Simeon: "and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us". I find an affirmation in the Angelus that we, like Mary, are called to participate with God in his Providence and good purposes, and amongst those is the New Testament injunction to pray for one another - "pray for us now, and at the hour of our death". To ask someone else to pray for us is not idolatrous, and isn't about worshipping them, as angry Protestants have so often said, it is entirely natural and normal. And should the veil of death be an obstacle to such a prayer request? Tricky getting Lazarus out of the tomb otherwise. And surely Mary, the God-bearer, of all those who have gone before us, is one we can be most sure is very well-placed to pray with, and for us.

I came to the Jesus Prayer much later, and even more warily. This is odd, as I warm more to the Orthodox tradition, at least in theology (their actual churches in the Holy Land were positively tacky) than to the Roman, but the first little booklet I'd read about it was too lofty and dry to get me anywhere near it. Then I got interested in some little books by Simon Barrington-Ward, a former bishop of Coventry, and as luck would have it, living in retirement in Cambridge when I arrived to work there, and commissioned by the Bishop of Ely to minister to the university, which he did, with great gusto (I have never known a holy person with quite such an immense presence in church services, and such gentle humility in private). The text of the prayer is simple, and the first form I knew was "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner". For those who are interested in breathing during prayers, it works very well indeed, cut into a phrase for the intake of breath, and the next for the outtake. It also works very well with walking. Being pernicketty I sometimes fight with it, and shave it down further "Jesus, son of God, have mercy". And sometimes, if I have people on my heart and mind to pray for, it's pray for "us" not "me".

It seems to me that all these forms of prayer, and doubtless countless others ancient and modern, draw us not only back into our journey with God, of which it is so easy to lose sight, but remind us that we always do it in communion with others. Would that they could become a way of life! Alas, I am not the sort of disciple who can manage too much discipline, and I need this sort of waking up each year. It might be that even those more faithful types might benefit from varying their routines a little, to take longer over them, to use different words, to think and feel them in a refreshed way.

There is so very much to pray for in this broken and wonderful world that even if only for a few short weeks prayer abounds, perhaps there will be life more abundant too?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

It Wasn't A Walk In The Park

Mainly because I was sitting down on a bench. Bury Knowle Park in Headington is one of Oxford's many and delightful public spaces. The house at its heart is a nondescript failed manor house that in a fit of philanthropy was bequeathed to the city council and now houses the library. The grounds were, in its glory days, big enough for a picnic, but not a hunt. Now, they are mainly lawn, with some cultivated gardens and shrubbery, some gorgeous tall trees, a lovely playground for the tinies and the Sunday dads, miniature golf, and four tennis courts. As far as I can tell, these are just open and available to all and sundry as and when you want to turn up.

There are three benches along the wall which overlooks the courts. I usually choose the one furthest from anyone playing. If I am deep in conversation, being alone, the noise and movement is a distraction to all concerned. But my peace, at the furthest distance I could reach from four noisy teenagers, was disturbed by a youngish father of two smallish children. Here things become murky. Because it was by no means clear that he was father to both of them. He was quite dark-skinned, they, obviously mixed-race, the little girl, maybe 8, more so than the little boy, maybe 6. So I was thinking, could he be the father of the girl but not of the boy? Is the boy his partner's child by a previous relationship? In which case, the girl would be his by a previous dalliance too. Or have they just come out different shades, and that's how it works? Or was he just the au pair? How very complicated modern life is, when you have nothing to go on, but the colour of people's skin, and a small boy shouting "Dad" rather enthusiastically (not the au pair, then).

At tennis, the kids were pretty crap. So, actually, was their Dad. He was athletically built, he had the physicality for the game, but three out of four serves hit the net. I know little about tennis and care less, but I had a hunch that's under-impressive. Especially when the children started laughing at him, and he started making excuses. I love the way that grown men just HAVE to be good at sport, even when they obviously aren't. But what was more interesting was how the children, although apparently brought out on an even playing field, played up to stereotypes. Even going there with their father was a stereotype, I suppose. It was half past five, Mum was probably making dinner. Those were the days.

The little girl was very nicely turned out (and she knew it), clearly no longer in school clothes, and petulant with it. She complained that her brother batted the ball too high, threw her racquet on the ground, said everything was unfair, and had to be begged not to mince off in a queeny fit. The real problem was that she had no hand-eye co-ordination. She dropped the ball as soon as she picked it up, tried to bat it in directions it wasn't coming from, hit it sideways, behind her, almost anywhere than where it was meant to go. The boy (still in his boring school uniform), although younger, was poised, and could work out how to bounce the ball before hitting it, and when he didn't do it right, had a clever thing about reclaiming it and lobbing it properly over the net on a second go. I should add that the father was very nicely affirming of both children, no matter how crap they were, even though they didn't return the favour, but that perhaps is one of the sacrifices of parenthood.

And then it was time to go - perhaps Mum had dinner ready - and off they went, and I started to realise that the creeping cold had got into me as well and it was time to finish my shopping for sausages. But it seemed an interesting thing that I couldn't work out the family's relationships - or even that I thought to question them at all - but the thing I should have liked to have changed since my own childhood, the gender-stereotypes of the children, hadn't.

A small sample of course, so you can generalise nothing, but it was an interesting not-quite-walk-in-the-park.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014