Thursday, 30 April 2015

On Being Nearly Blown Up

I wasn't of course. Not even hurt. Nor even rattled, until a while after the event. But three died, many were injured. There was chaos.

Sixteen years ago today a bomb exploded in the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street in London's Soho. It was a friend's birthday, and I was waiting for her, and my boyfriend at the time, with her husband in a pub (the Three Greyhounds), just a couple of blocks away. Although it's really not far from the Thames, and can't be far above London's water table, Soho is full of cellars. Some of these are the lower parts of bars and restaurants, shops, and loucher establishments. Some are quite literally cellars - full of beer and other booze for the partying people of that noisiest part of town. On a Friday or Saturday night, the population can rise to 250,000 souls. This was a Friday night.

My only previous experience of bombs was very much at second-hand, from schooldays, when the IRA had bombed the house in which our English teacher lodged. Their target was Sir Michael Havers, attorney-general, and MP for Wimbledon, who also lodged there. Mr Miles woke up covered in broken glass, but arrived at school unscathed, and bearing two bottles of Champagne to celebrate the payout on the insurance. For some time after, if a pupil left his satchel or briefcase unattended on the desk, he would ask in a solemn tone "does that contain a bomb?"

We'd chosen this pub because we intended to head south to Chinatown later (all of two streets away) and it was easy to find, and for Jez, not too gay (unlike the Admiral Duncan). We were standing with our drinks when it happened. The first thing was rather remarkable, which is that we felt the explosion through our feet. That's why I mentioned the cellars. The force reverberated underground just ahead of the sound which burst overground, and laid waste that landmark of gay London, and so many innocent people who were planning, like everyone else, to start a cheerful West End evening there. After the "bang" came the smell. I have to be honest, I don't now remember it, but I have a feeling that if I were to smell it again, the memory would return at once.

Within moments, there were sirens, people rushing to help, people being pushed back from helping, people shouting and general commotion, the mobile telephone lines went down. I remember it happening at 6.29, but the newspapers said 6.34. My watch is rarely slow, but maybe that was when the emergency services got there - there is a fire station in Shaftesbury Avenue, literally a block away. In that astonishing way the British have, police, ambulances, fire officers, had the site under control in no time. There was nothing to do but pick up our drinks and carry on with our evening.

And start to think. A few weeks before there had been a nail bomb - as this proved to be, a vicious, nasty, cowardly, weapon - in Brixton, a part of South London with a high proportion of Afro-Caribbean citizens. Then there had been another just off Brick Lane in the East End, with a similar proportion of citizens of Asian descent. When this bomb went off, we knew who it was for. He'd hit the blacks, then the Asians, next it would either be Golders Green or Soho, the Jews or the gays. Obviously, he hated gay people more than Jewish people. Or maybe we were an easier target.

So, although it didn't harm me, that bomb was personal. The bomber wanted me dead. And all the rest of us in Soho that evening. Gay people and their friends, and those who didn't mind either way.

What can you do in the face of such insane hatred? We finished our drinks, found another pub, waited for our partners, and went out for Yvette's birthday celebration Chinese meal together. Just like we had planned.

You don't forget a night like that. But many others have had to live, bereaved, maimed, or wounded, with its terrible consequences ever since.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2015

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Urchin - An Unexpected Icon

Church is a tricky sort of thing to me at the best of times, and this isn't one of those. Like a moth to a flame, I am drawn to it, yet as I walk through the door wounds that might have been healing become raw again. Maybe they aren't really healing. So, I prefer to creep quietly in to an open church and light a candle and chat to the aumbry or a statue - there's a particularly nice statue of Saint Andrew in Old Headington church, who is a very good listener.

But sometimes it's time to face the throng, and Easter is one of those times. S. Andrew's provides an 8 a.m. Book of Common Prayer Service which suits me fine. It was done with the charm and elegance I have come to expect from our parish priest, and about 20 of us made our Easter communion accordingly to (mostly) the old rite, and didn't have to shake hands or be nice to each other or drink bad coffee.

That was a treat in itself. But there was an even greater one on the walk to church. We are down the hill in Barton, and Old Headington is up, and the main up-road is the largest in the village (if village it is), a grand avenue, suggestive of slightly delusive designs by an over-ambitious town-planner. It was quiet, a little misty, overcast, almost no one about.

And then there was a hedgehog. The first I have seen in Oxford for several years, and certainly the first since we moved to Barton. How often do we see any mammals alive these days? It looked in fine fettle, presumably lately out of hibernation, and dithering across the road in a way that couldn't but make you fear for its future. I hastened my walk, in case my presence on the pavement was daunting it from getting off the road. And then it disappeared under a (parked) car and I carried on to the solemn mysteries of Easter with a sprightlier step and a decided sense of joy and wonder.

"Icon" is perhaps an over-lavish word, but I did think a rolled-up hedgehog might be a sign of the oneness of things. I realise this raises the natural history stakes for Trinity Sunday somewhat.

Spring is sprung, Christ is risen, and the hedgehogs are out and about.

Happy Easter to all and sundry.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2015

Friday, 3 April 2015

Signing-on, Written off

It was inevitable really, because Thursday is my signing-on day, that on Maundy Thursday, the day the cathedral has its Chrism mass for the diocesan clergy to renew their vows, I'd be signing on in the morning and pondering the meaning of being ordained and unable to be a priest. The cathedral was full of preparations for the service - at 11 - and the place I usually light a candle, a stand by the Bishop Bell altar, was gone. So was Bishop Bell. Christ Church is admittedly the smallest cathedral in England, but even so, it sometimes manages its space very poorly, and with little sense of God. Of course, Bishop Bell wasn't God, nothing like God at all, but his story, of condemning the British saturation bombing of German civilians in the Second World War and being banned from the mother church of his own diocese (Chichester) in consequence is a story people need to know. He stood against those who said "it has to be done this way" and argued that the end does not justify the means; that sin is sin.

It reminded me of an oldish man in Romford where I was first a curate. Ron had been in the RAF during the war. I'd delivered a bland sort of sermon about sin and forgiveness, and at the church door he said "your generation doesn't know what sin is". He had taken part in those bombings Bishop Bell condemned from the comfort of the House of Lords, and had lived with his conscience ever since. He had been "just obeying orders" but, at Nuremberg, that was no defence for those who lost.

I couldn't stay for the service. It might have made an amusing point, amidst my be-cassocked and sequinned peers to stand up in my hi-vis donkey jacket and cloddish workman's boots. But they are not my peers any more. I am less than them. I have the paperwork, but not the actual work. Bishops' hands have been laid upon me - the first time when I was confirmed in that very cathedral, and then as a deacon and finally as a priest - I have offended in no matter "lawful and honest", which are the terms on which we must relate to our bishop. But I have no bishop, no licence, no permission to officiate, no place on a parish electoral roll, I am no one. Irrelevant and discarded for being honest about what was being made lawful - back in 2005, that was civil partnerships for gay people.

The acting bishop for the diocese - we have a vacancy since the retirement of John Pritchard last autumn (some would say we had a vacancy long before) - was there, rehearsing his steps. I had lately asked him about my status as a parsonical non-person having been invited to preach at a Christening in the Cathedral. He acknowledged it as a grey area, but passed the buck to the Dean and Chapter. He left it grey.

I don't have a problem with grey - I came to terms with my hair long ago. But sometimes leaving things grey isn't the right thing, because it's not the way they are meant to be. If you are a priest, while you have health and strength for the task, you also need to do vicaring. You need to take services, preach, and teach, wear the collar and be seen amongst the people God has entrusted to you, baptise the babies, marry the betrothed, bury the dead, remind people of God in their lives. There's a lot of cheerful talk about how the modern world sets too much store by doing rather than being, but to be unable to do is a severe handicap.

In Chelsea - not a place I wanted to go to, but I had nowhere else and made the best of it - I worked with a man who had been a bishop. Of course, he still was a bishop. They almost never un-make bishops - or priests, come to that - and even if you renounce it yourself, you can come back without any need for re-ordination. But something glitched in his career and he was never a proper bishop again. It was an immense loss. I won't say a sacrifice because it wasn't voluntary, he made do with what he was offered. He made the best of it - and it was a very good best. But it wasn't the fullness of what he was called to do.

That morning, I had been expecting a review of my unemployment situation, but the chap was new, and we spent most of the time waiting for the computer to work, and for irrelevant bits of paper to be printed on the other side of the vast office. I'd have said "I haven't really wanted any of the jobs I've applied for, but I'd have made the best of them if they came my way". But I didn't get the chance. At other times, I've been told to make my CV "less interesting", to play down my education, not to be "too clever". In other words, the only things I have to sell in this vulgar market, are against me.

I've spent too much time amongst the princes and barons of the church to find their prizes "glittering". I enjoyed being a parish priest, and I enjoyed being a parish priest to ordinary people (and we're all ordinary when someone dies), I enjoyed explaining the mysteries of the Scriptures and making sense of the idiocies of the church.

I find, like Luther, that I can "do no other". But they won't let me. And for why? Not even for loving the wrong person. It's the speaking out. But you cannot marry another person without speaking out, it is a public occasion, a legal one, and I've officiated at many myself, and twice put right and made legal and regular marriages that would otherwise not have been because others weren't paying attention to the law. The law matters. And ours is "the Church by Law Established".

In the Cathedral yesterday I met a friend from college days - we spent a very uproarious New Year's Eve with his family just lately - and got chatting about a mad project I have at the moment (we dole scroungers don't just lie on the sofa eating crisps and watching Jeremy Kyle) linking together all the members of the Tudor Court. It was prompted by watching "Elizabeth R" recently, and listening to the sainted Glenda Jackson in the title role referring to rather a lot of people as "cousin". And so they were. All of them! The day before, I had got John Donne and George Herbert into the tree, or perhaps trellis would be a better word. What strikes me most as I add their names is how many were dead by 40, or even 30, and certainly most of them never made my age (49 in July, donations, but no flowers, please). They had to get on with things pronto because they might soon be dead.

Our church, the Church of England, which used to be Anglican and is now something far odder, has committed itself to "conversations" about sexuality and marriage and this and that, and these conversations are to take several years, involve no one who is able to tell inconvenient truths, and report back to bodies as yet unconstituted, for them to dither for years more. These days we live a long time, compared to our Tudor ancestors; one of my grandfathers was 92, one of my grandmothers was 95, but even if I have inherited their genes, by the time it has come to a decision, by the time it has resolved to make the grey black or white, I might be dead.

As Archbishop Lang sanctimoniously said after Edward VIII abdicated for publicly loving the wrong person, "O the pity of it".

And that is my pitiful daubing for today.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2015