A Homily for Holy Communion on
All Saints Day, 1st of November, 2015, 5.30 p.m.
for the Damon Wells Chapel within Pembroke College, Oxford
Gospel: The Beatitudes, Luke 6:20-31
From Clay to Saint
+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s always a pleasure to be invited somewhere new, to deliver what in the trade is known as a “hit and run” sermon. This means I can stand here, nearly six feet above contradiction, and leave any fall-out to Andrew [the chaplain] to clean up. Neat.
Pembroke isn’t entirely new to me, as I used to come here for tutorials for a couple of terms, nearly thirty years ago, seeking the wisdom of a previous chaplain. Never found it, but he was a nice enough chap. And this reminded me of something in the Alternative Student Handbook when I first came up. It was a bitchy little volume – much funnier than the official one. Of Pembroke it said succinctly – “nice view of Christ Church”. The illustration for Christ Church – my college – showed the statue of Mercury in the fountain in the middle of Tom Quad, with the caption “Mercury beckoning the tourists into Christ Church”. The editors were, I think, even-handed in their insults – “do to others as you would have them do to you”, perhaps?
We’re here to keep the Feast of All Saints, which begs a lot of questions about saints themselves – who are they, how can we tell, what are they for, how do we qualify? A church historian of my acquaintance was fond of saying “the definition of a saint is someone whose private life has been under-researched”. But leaving aside the fact that some of our most cherished saints would unquestionably not have been nice to know, and even some of the nice ones had a dark side (over the road there must be questions now about the future of the recently and lovingly installed Bell chapel, commemorating Bishop George Bell, ecumenist, and pacifist, whose reputation has been undermined by dark allegation of child abuse – is he still a saint? Do we eject him? Or do we keep the light and the shade together?), but it was the question of qualifying which caught my attention. How is it done? In the Roman Catholic Church saints are named by the Pope, after a process that demonstrates their sanctity through a combination of miracles and card tricks. In Orthodoxy saints just grow, like Topsy, in their own localities, and if they have a good story, their fame spreads. In the Church of England we have a committee. Worse than that, it’s a committee of the General Synod. I heard from a former member who had contributed to the process that produced the much-enlarged Kalendar of Saints in the Alternative Service Book of 1980 that it was basically horse-trading between high church and low church – “we’ll give you Dr Pusey, if you give us Charles Simeon”. Now, with Common Worship our Kalendar of Saints is bigger than ever – someone commented “it’s got everyone in it, from Pontius Pilate to Liberace”.
And then my mind wandered to another kind of qualifying which has loomed large in my life lately. It’s about qualifying for visas. Not for me, I don’t particularly want to go anywhere, and couldn’t afford to if I did. But for my husband of eight years who doesn’t qualify for a visa to live and work in this country. He did, but it ran out. And now we can’t run it in again. I don’t know if the film “Green Card” would be familiar to anyone now, as it’s 25 years old. It starred Gerard Depardieu before he became obnoxious. It’s about the American system of issuing that visa, the right to live and work in the country, and the trickery that people would get up to in order to qualify – in this case, through a “marriage of convenience”. The bogus couple must create a life together, and memorise one another’s mother’s maiden names, favourite brands of cereal, bathroom habits, that sort of thing – the sort of thing that genuine couples, if they ever discover them, instantly and purposefully forget. But, if they convince the investigators, then the Green Card is issued, and after a decent pause they can get unmarried and on with their American lives. That’s how the Americans do it – they seek to determine whether the relationship is genuine.
Our Home Office has a different system. It works according to money, and it’s quite simple – British citizens can only be married to foreigners, even ones who might actually support them, if they are rich enough. I am not rich enough, so I am not able to continue my married life in my own country, and last week my partner flew away from home to Brasil, for we know not how long. They are cunning, these people – no one made him go, he wasn’t deported, it was just made impossible for him to work here, and in time when our lease comes up for renewal, for his name to appear on it. They starved him out. If I can’t get rich enough, I suppose I shall be honour bound to let him divorce me – it would raise the eyebrows of not a few of my friends if I were to cite Theresa May as the home-wrecking co-respondent. It might surprise some of hers, too. If she has any.
The money threshold is not immense – less than most undergraduates will start on in their first job. Less even than the pay of a parish priest, the one job I was good at, and which, being married to a man, I can no longer do. So, I don’t qualify to be married, I don’t qualify to be a parish priest, and it seems I don’t qualify for any other work, either. If you no longer work for the Church of England, which is generally, and falsely, assumed to be gay friendly, the supposition is that you must be a child molester. And yes, I have actually been told that by employers.
By comparison, qualifying for the kingdom of heaven, for sainthood, seems a bit of a doddle – by the standards of this society (but not most others around the globe), I am poor; hungry, well no, not really, although it’s amazing how far you can make a couple of quid last in the kitchen if you know what you’re doing – I used once to throw away more and better food in a week than I actually eat now; weeping? Yes, some, but in private, and briefly, as I don’t want to start something I can’t stop, and I belong to the generation that didn’t learn emotions; hated, excluded, reviled, defamed? Yes, all of those – it’s surprising to learn what people are saying about you behind your back - although I couldn’t be sure that was “on account of the Son of Man”. Does love count? It doesn’t with the Home Office.
Kind friends (and I have no other sort) ask “what can I do?” “Well, if you haven’t got ninety thousand quid to tide me over, perhaps you could assassinate Mrs May”. But that wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do because in this xenophobic paranoid age she’d just be replaced by someone worse. And it wouldn’t do because if I am to get my visa to heaven, I have to love my enemies. It says so in the Bible, and I am a simple Bible Christian, so it must be true, and I must try.
It is love, and love alone, that turns clay into saints. I’d venture that without love, we cannot become human at all, and if we cannot be human, we cannot reflect the image and likeness of God within, which is what shines from the saints.
So, at the risk of descending to advice to those younger and brighter than me, stride out boldly, and love, and become human, and risk becoming divine, have a stab at sainthood. Just be thankful that when you get to the “gates of pearl” we sang about in our first hymn, it will be Saint Peter on the door, not Mrs May. Saint Peter was given the keys in the knowledge he would never have the heart to use them to lock anyone out. That is the Good News about All Saints. And some days, amidst the hellish clamour of this life, I can actually hear it.