Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Perils of Pruning

From a Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford

Wednesday, 6th of May, 2015, 9 a.m.
Eve of the United Kingdom's General Election


Gospel: John 15:1-8

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-dresser. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

+ May I speak in the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost

There's a lot of nice, positive, stuff in this passage, but what it made me think of was excommunication. It's not something, in nearly twenty years of ministry, that I've ever done to someone. There's a line in the film "Priest" - controversial at the time, but I doubt it would be now - on the subject, in which an older parson says "I always figured they had more right to receive it, than I had to give it", and I pretty much go along with that. But, although I've never excommunicated anyone, I've been there when someone very nearly excommunicated himself - by accident.

It happened in the parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields, which is a lovely place, but it was peopled by fundamentalists. Not the kind you see on the news from America - or Iraq - they were fundamentalists for the Book of Common Prayer. It is a rare condition, and meant that almost everyone in the congregation was there because they were cross with some other church for NOT using the BCP. Rather a challenge, pastorally. There was one young man - and he was younger than me, back then, so he really might have been young, not just by comparison with everyone else - whose name I think was David, who delighted in writing long, detailed, letters to the clergy about our failings, and especially our failure to conduct the liturgy properly. What really got his goat was the words for the administration of communion. I'm sure you've heard them - rather wordy, almost a paragraph really, which sometimes get muttered over two or more communicants to save time. Well, we didn't do that. Every communicant got the same words, but not the full words, for the practical reason that my senior colleague the rector was also an archdeacon, so in the nature of things, he had to gallivant about to all sorts and conditions of churches in the course of a couple of months, and he simply couldn't remember the full words. So we abbreviated them. Much to David's fury.

One morning, David came to the altar rail carrying a book. I'm sure the sign is familiar to every church-goer - you carry a book, or the order of service, if you wish to receive a blessing, rather than communion. I thought to myself "well, it's a rum deal if he's not prepared to receive communion from me, but still wants my blessing, but hey-ho" and promptly did so, whereupon he said in a panicked voice "you can't excommunicate me without telling the bishop!" "I thought you didn't want communion - why are you carrying that book?" "To say the proper words". "So, you do want communion?" "Yes". And it was so. But, poor thing, by this time his hands were shaking so much he'd lost his place in the book, and he couldn't remember the pesky words - which was the whole point of our not using them all in the first place! By misadventure and confusion, he had almost excommunicated himself, pruned himself out of the vine, and risked being left for burning.

And I got to thinking, when I saw this reading, about what it means to be in the vine, to be pruned for good, and to be pruned out for ever. Much is going on in the world at the moment. In this country tomorrow, we get to cast our votes for the first time in five years on the fate of the nation, the Union, the European Union, even the earth itself. Yes indeed, there are weighty things for us all to think about. But what's bothering me is my aspidistra. The thing is that it has outgrown its pot and it's time to re-pot and divide it. But this isn't such an easy thing because the aspidistra is of immense sentimental value to me - it was a most unexpected birthday present when I was 45. I'd wanted one ever since I read George Orwell's book years ago, and all the more since hearing Gracie Fields singing her song. This is a most cherished pot-plant. But, if it divides into three, as I think it might, which bit will remain the original? Which will be the gift? And if one of those bits ends up with a friend in Liverpool - which is a very long way away, so far that I've never been there - will the gift remain somehow symbolically, sacramentally, present, in Liverpool, as well as in Barton? Will it continue to be the whole, true gift, but in more than one place, or will a part be pruned away, and consigned to the fire?

Well, we have more important things to think about than aspidistras, and this is a celebration of Holy Communion, so we must find some Good News. I think it lies in those words at the beginning of the Gospel - "My father is the vine-dresser". It's God who does the pruning. And it might be no bad thing should certain persons in the wider church bear in mind that it's none of their business to prune the vine - lest they find themselves the chopped off bit, and fit only for the fire. If the vine is in God's hands that is Good News for us all. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015


  1. I think one gift has grown and become three gifts. There's another sermon there,perhaps.

  2. Yes, I think you are right. I do hope so. But I realise the part of me that is fundamentally conservative frets about clinging on to the "true bit"! We have a peace lily of which I am less fond which has already become at least six plants, and is set, when it's finished flowering, to become nine.

  3. In genealogy is there such a thing as a 'true bit' ? All family trees in this country have a strong chance of going back to Charles II and from thence upwards to make us part Scots, Welsh, French and much more. Did those who supported the mainly Italian Bonnie Prince Charlie really see him as a true Scotsman ? There are still people in Europe born in 1947 or earlier who can claim British Nationality under the 'Sophie rules' : are they true Scots too ?
    From biology lessons I remember that an amoeba reproduces asexually by binary fission or encystment. There is no parent and offspring as such. Is the root of your aspidistra doing something similar ? If the parts were able to move away from the pot and go their own ways, would they each be a true bit ?
    On the other hand, has a main root sprung two additional ones ? If it has, then I'd suggest the one in the middle is true. If it's a single root that's grown so big you need to divide it manually, then I'd assume the part that appears to be the heart is the part that's true.
    I suppose if you could tell from the label where your aspidistra had come from, you might be able to trace an even truer bit. That would be interesting.

  4. Ultimately, all aspidistras come from the far east, which makes it all the more remarkable that they survive maltreatment in this country, and even, sometimes, outdoors. The genealogy question is a good one. I've been studying it so long that when someone says "my great-grandmother ..." I'm instantly thinking "which one of the four?" I have roots - apart from extensive English ones - in Italy, Ireland, and America - but I choose my Italians ones most because that's my favourite family, the one that actually works. But I never tire of teasing "my fellow Americans".

  5. My father had a cousin - or it may have been his father's cousin - who fled to America after committing bigamy. I suppose considering the spectrum of people who made up the populace of the Americas before they got fussy whom they let in, we must all have got a few relatives over there.
    One of my great-grandfathers and his father, grand father and great - uncles had a penchant for setting up micro-businesses in one small area of a growing city. One who witnessed a will gave his or her occupation as 'nail-straightener'. When we were first at war with Germany and toy-repairers couldn't get parts from the Steiff factory,my relatives expanded their little pottery and made dolls' heads. They also ran the local pubs and lodging houses. My granny used to talk about polishing ancient aspidistras in parlours. I have a photo somewhere of her with her aunt and one.I have also a photo of her grandfather driving his cart, with an advert on the side. parked outside his mother's pub. We've no record that any of that side of the family emigrated to the USA, but it's possible if there was a bob to be made. One of them was on the Titanic, most likely running a dressmaker's shop on board. She ended up in Canada. I have one of her mother's sewing machines.I agree it's hard not to have a favourite branch of the tree.......