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

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