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


  1. I remember the first time I heard you on the radio ,Richard. It was on either Beyond Belief or The Moral Maze. You mentioned you were about to enter one of the new civil partnerships. You said you were therefore expecting to be out of a job.
    I thought, 'Now there's a man who puts his money where his mouth is.'
    It is a quality I have always admired.

  2. It was the Moral Maze. I think the inevitability of it all makes it rather less admirable, but I'm not one for secrets and lies and skulking in shadows.

  3. It was the Moral Maze. I think the inevitability of it all makes it rather less admirable, but I'm not one for secrets and lies and skulking in shadows.

  4. Richard, sometimes biting our tongue is the only way to go, before we harm others. In this case, you stuck by your principles and committed self harm.

    I'm not for one minute condoning what the Church has done for you, I judge it to be cruel and unusual punishment as they say in the criminal code somewhere.

    You've done nothing wrong apart from being honest - and being honest in the Church doesn't pay - and is costly, as you are living out.

    I still think that you could form your own church as the former Vicar of one of our Churches in Bexley did after the gulf war and he is now an Arch Bishop of some sort - and he gets a good living out of appearing at secular weddings, funerals and all sorts.

    He even won money from a daily rag that slandered him, saying that he was a made up Arch Bishop, by proving his position and his ordination as both bishop and arch bishop.

    He still lives in his family home in Bexleyheath and gads about for all the world to see, wearing his dog collar, purple shirt and crucifix.

    I believe that he married Jade Goody than officiated at her funeral.

    I can't see why you can't do something similar - all you need is to get Arch Bishop jonathon to ordain you bishop and you will quids in - mind you, he might need a few quid to do it.