Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Dad's Schoolmaster's Joke

National anthem of the country now known as Thailand:

Wha Ta Nar Siam

You have to say it out loud. I think he said his geography teacher told him this in the 1950s, at Sir Walter St John's Grammar School in Wandsworth.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Rainbow Grey Alliance of the C of E

Here's a thing: an old college friend invited me to preach at the baptism of his third child (I preached at the same for his previous twins). Our college chapel happens by chance also to be the Cathedral church of the Diocese, and as the dean is doing the baptising this time, I thought I'd best ask the authorities. I asked the acting bishop (we have a vacancy-in-see) about the status of a clerk in holy orders without a licence or permission to officiate.
He said it was a grey area. He has pontifically concluded that as I have done this pastorally for the family before, and have connexions with the college, it is a matter for the dean and chapter, and the grey area can remain grey.
And this is how we embrace our glorious rainbow 21st century ....

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Of Virgins, Queens, and Making Announcements

It was a curious thing on opening my personal Kalendar of dates and anniversaries and such, to see just after we'd finished watching the final episode of the classic BBC production "Elizabeth R", that it was the very anniversary of the great queen's death in 1603. Glenda Jackson's performance as that most spellbinding of English heroines was utterly engaging. That she managed it over a period of several hours on the telly, and half a century of Elizabeth's own life, was all the more impressive.

Elizabeth is famous for having said she did not "desire windows into men's souls" - a phrase which found its way into the TV series - and this makes her, for me, an archetypal Anglican. She would pity a Church of England which at present agonises over windows into people's bedrooms, and seems to care little for its public worship and dignity.

When I was a schoolboy, in the sixth form, we read a theory that the idea of "Gloriana" was a psychological triumph for the English people who had lost their Virgin Mother (they say England was once referred to as "Mary's Dowry" but the reformers would not even allow her name in the Prayerbook collects for Christmas or the Annunciation, or even the Purification), and now, whether by chance or design, their ruler had offered them a Virgin Queen. I tend to believe that more happens in this world by accident and cock-up than planning, but there is a flavour in what one reads in the history books, and sees in the film portrayals, and in Elizabeth's own writings, that the myth might have worked, that Elizabeth, unable to marry and have children because of the upheaval that would cause for her people, made virtue of necessity and claimed them as her wedded half instead.

The timing is strange coincidence, as the day after the anniversary of Elizabeth's death is the Feast of the Annunciation, when Gabriel told Mary she was to have a son for God. And I also noticed that Elizabeth was born on the 7th of September, the eve of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. I doubt she chose the date of her death, but the date of her birth she can't have failed to notice, in a superstitious age. The Incarnation is the central mystery of the Christian faith. There have been many other deaths and resurrections, but none involved the incarnate Son of God. Mary's role is essential in all this, and yet has been hijacked by the Romish anti-sex brigade. They call her "Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin". This, despite having given birth to at least seven children, according to the Gospel record. The Orthodox call her the Mother of God, the God-Bearer. It strikes me as a far greater accomplishment to co-operate in God's grand design of revelation and salvation, than merely to be a virgin.

The date has personal significance because it is the date of my late Nan's birth in 1914. She was my late father's mother. The fourth child, third surviving, and second daughter, of illiterate Italian immigrants in Battersea, of the sort that UKIP would wish to keep out. I wonder how the annunciation of her birth was taken?

Congratulations, it's a girl!
We've got one of those.
Well, it's healthy anyway.
We've got two of those, as well.

And yet, though she went on to have three more sisters and five more brothers they say our Nan was the favourite. I can't presume to say why - I can sing the virtues of all of her siblings that I knew (and three are still with us, and long may they thrive!).

Maybe it was because she was born on a holy day, and named Annunziata after it. By a mangling caused by her parents' illiteracy and the registrar's confusion, her birth certificate renders this lofty, gracious, and holy name "Noziate". I have searched the records and this makes her unique in this country - and maybe the world - though that would have been thin consolation. But she knew the meaning of her name, and much, much, later, after her death at 95, I discovered that there was a church with that name, whose tower is still standing, in her mother's village of Minori in Italy. Perhaps in the accident of the timing of her birth, there was the happy and comforting recollection of home, for this tiny, impoverished, migrant family in a strange land.

And maybe that's what Mary is about, reminding us (or those of us who enjoyed it) of the security and safety of childhood, reminding us that anyone born of a human mother will know gentleness and compassion, and deal with us accordingly. Maybe that's what Gloriana was about - the Virgin Queen reassuring her people that they were safe with her, that she would not betray them with foreign powers or ways.

Mother of God - Gloriana - Nan : all are totems of reassurance and comfort, but more, they shine with the light of the numinous in the mundane realities of the world. There is a hint of God here, in the ordinary.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2015

Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Thought About Mrs Cranmer

Yesterday was the anniversary and memorial of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, burnt to death in 1556 in Broad Street, down the hill, here in Oxford. His reputation is controversial, as is everyone's in the Tudor period, although no one questions his skill as a liturgist, creating glorious and lasting prayers for us to use nearly five centuries later.

Cranmer was hired for his theological acumen - he was a scholar of both Latin and Greek divines as you can see from his book about the eucharist - by the monstrous King Henry VIII, in his dispute with the Pope about the validity of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and later, his declaration of his own supremacy over the English Church. Cranmer was one of the very few of Henry's chief advisers - or wives, come to that - to outlive him. When Henry died, Cranmer never shaved again, as a sign of mourning for a man who, despite lifting quite a few palaces and their estates off him, nonetheless did him many favours.

One of these was tolerating his marriage. He had married in Germany when he was a priest but not a bishop, and when he returned to England, he kept his wife and children secret, although it was a secret the King knew, and both of them knew that it was illegal for a priest in England to be married - and remained so for the rest of Henry's reign. When the new king, Edward VI, took over, Cranmer changed the rules to legitimise his own relationship, and the English clergy have never had to be celibate since. He even included it as one of the 39 Articles (no. 32) that priests are free to marry at their "own discretion".

There is a story that when Canterbury Palace was on fire one time, Mrs Cranmer had to be rescued from the building in a trunk, to keep the secret safe. It's probably made up. But there are a great many gay clergy in the church today who can identify with having to keep their Mrs Cranmers in a trunk, or face the consequences of the ire of a monstrous hierarchy if they do not.

Bear in mind, though, that to change the rules, Cranmer broke them first. Compare and contrast with the pusillanimous pointy-hats of our times.

Will the day come when Article XXXII is finally enforced for us, too?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2015

Sunday, 8 March 2015

I Know All About You - a sermon for Fairacres

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 9th of March, 2015, 9 a.m.

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

John 4:5-42

I Know All About You

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

How do you feel when you hear these words “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about you?” I’ve known some people who positively glow at the thought of recognition, but the more usual response is a rather sinking feeling that whatever reputation has gone before us, it probably isn’t good. What is it they’ve heard? The time I dropped the baby in the font? Or forgot the name of the person I was cremating? Or told a Max Miller joke in chapel? Oh dear. It is not a comfortable feeling, to be known, because knowledge is power, and not to know what the other person knows is for them to have power over you.

But imagine a person saying “I know all about you”, and feeling so confident of them that instead of feeling uneasy, you relax, and think “then there’s nothing to explain”, that you have been given permission to be yourself. Not the shiny-shoes-and-Sunday-best front you want others to see, but the scruffy reality, slobbing about, warts and all, in your second best gardening hat. This is what Jesus does to the woman at the well. She’s a foreigner, from a tribe that Jesus isn’t meant to like on principle. Worse than that, she’s a woman, and so not fit company for a respectable rabbi. And, although opinions differ about what precisely her marital state is, we can at the very least conclude it is decidedly untidy. Yes, knowing all that, knowing all there is to know, Jesus will share a drink of water with her, in the heat of the day.

The Psalmist (139:1) says “O Lord, thou has searched me out and known me”, which seems at first a fearful thing – it’s hard not to hear it is “thou hast caught me out”. But the Psalmist’s point, like the meaning of Jesus’s gesture, is that there is nothing to fear. In fact, it’s only when we’ve got our fears out of the way, when we’ve accepted being accepted, that we can relax and enjoy that living water from the well.

Imagine if our churches were like that? Did you hear about the “ashes to go” business on Ash Wednesday, when clergy in various places brought ashes out to the market place and ashed anyone who cared to be called dust? Personally, I’d have thought Ash Wednesday just about the hardest thing to sell to someone outside the church – “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – and yet it was hugely popular, even according to a university chaplain acquaintance of mine, with the unchurched young, that holy grail catchment group of mission. But on reflexion, it’s not so absurd. Because it’s not just in church circles that our hearts can sink when someone says “I’ve heard all about
you”. The mental health of our nation is more fragile than it’s ever been, and for every person who ends up on antidepressants or the psychiatrist’s couch, there must be a dozen who soldier on with their sense of failure, unhappiness, futility, and guilt. “I know all about you – and it’s OK” is the Good News from the Well.

When I was a curate we had a mystic in the parish – every parish should have one – and one of her visions was of the living water. She was carrying it in a basket in her lap, but it didn’t leak. What was remarkable about it was the smell, the glorious freshness of the water, better than the best-mixed cocktail, the most perfectly brewed pot of tea. It was the water of life.

When strangers come into our churches, do they hear the message “I know all about you – and it’s OK”? If not, we’d better wake up and smell the water, because that’s a whole lot of Good News someone’s missing out on.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2015

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Thoughts on the Arranging of Funerals

When I was first ordained, the most scary thing of all about parish ministry was the prospect of having to take funeral services. I had been to quite a few by then - big family in the grandparents' generation - and had seen them done well, and seen them done badly. Your biggest dread was doing them badly. And then finally you have to go solo, and as it happens my first was not an easy one at all. The old lady was a cantankerous old bag. It was a miracle her niece and great-nephew had put with her to the end. I said so. They relaxed. But I discovered there was a reason why the iron had entered her soul - a life with much loss, including a daughter she was forced to give up. It was a world I knew from ear-wigging on family tales, and whilst I sympathised with the people in the front row before me, I sympathised too with the lady whose mortal remains were in the coffin to the side of my lectern. It was a good introduction. I cannot say it was preceded by a good night's sleep.

Over the years I have taken or spoken at many funeral services for "all sorts and conditions" of people, from the big and glam for a former duchess, to a lonely funeral on the rates for someone who had no one, and nothing, and just me, the undertaker, and the cemetery manager there; suicides, and maybe-suicides; friends, relatives, relatives who were also friends; loved parishioners; complete strangers; nice people, nasty people, people you couldn't tell were one or the other; timely deaths and untimely; thankfully, never (so far, D.V.) a child, nor anyone murdered. All are different.

This last week I did something new. Two things, in fact. The first was to celebrate the funeral in church on a Saturday, and to keep the committal at the crematorium until the Monday morning following, first sparrows. The method behind this radical madness was that Saturday is an easier day for everyone to come to, and if the funeral is to be in a church, and the reception after, nearby, then it is hugely disruptive to break the occasion with a visit to the crem in the middle. My friend wanted her friends and family to stay together, from the church to the pub, and not to lose themselves on the Oxford ring road. For her, that was the service - not just in church, but to the pub too, and everyone being together. Togetherness - theologians call it "communion" - was the key to the sacramentality of what we were doing.

On other occasions I have gone alone to the crematorium - especially when working in central London - after the funeral in church, assuring the family that everything was completed in the service we shared, and it was better for them to stay together and talk with fondness and hilarity about the person who had died, than to traipse up to Golders Green or Mortlake, for a five-minute prayer of dispatch. When my father died, we had hoped to keep the crematorium service to a very few closest family but, quite understandably, those who had been in church wanted to see it through, to pay their respects to the end.

This time, two days later, I wasn't alone. My friend's son came, and the two of us presided over music and prayers for a few minutes, and finally closed the curtain. He said he felt he was just tidying up, that everything had already been done. And then we walked back to the Little Palace for tea.

Which brings me to the other new thing I did. Well, not quite new. I tried it once before in Chelsea, when faced with a posse of friends of the co-owner of a local hairdressing salon who'd dropped dead at 37, and whose funeral was to be in the West Indies the next day. They asked for something in church at the same time. When it came to it, I said "I didn't know Terry at all, but you all did - so maybe you'd tell me something about him now?" And I walked around with my microphone like Jerry Springer. And it worked like a dream - wonderful contributions of good stories from kind people. I told my friend about this, and she said she'd love it for her funeral. So, I tried it again - but this time, knowing the person, so unable to feign ignorance. Her son kicked it off with a perfectly nuanced and moving few words, and an invitation to add to them. After a hesitation, the congregation took up the challenge, and we heard some marvellous stories, infinitely better than anything even the best parson could cobble together after a family meeting.

Thinking about it all now, it strikes me that the funeral is not all about the body, but about what the body once had, and which now rests in the hearts and memories of those who loved the person who has died, and in the eternal heart and memory of God. And that's why the Monday morning obsequies, though prayerful and respectful, were not the real thing - it had already been done, the drawing together at the funeral itself of family and friends to celebrate a life well lived.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2015