Thursday, 31 December 2015

An Unexpected New Year

Tonight, which was New Year's Eve and I suppose is now technically New Year's Day, I walked back from the kind friends who'd wined and dined me and given me company. But I left before midnight, as one was ill, another tired, and I wanted just to check on the little dog I was meant to be looking after, that the lodger had returned and had let her into the garden for less festive functions. And I passed my parish church, here in Barton, which is an ugly barn of a thing. It's meant to resemble an ark, but only an aardvark would think it bijou enough to book a cabin. And the lights are never on. But they were tonight. Not for the "normal" Anglican congregation (I shall stifle my own giggle whilst the grown-ups amongst you pretend there is either such a thing, or you'd ever want to be part of one), but for a mainly African congregation of no denomination known to me, and quite possibly not to them. Other lights were on in my friend's house, so I knew the dog was OK. I returned, and sat at the back.

It was very loud. Everyone who spoke had a voice big enough to fill that church unaided, but they used the microphone all the same. I caught about one word in seven, which is what W H Auden says is all you need to follow an opera. The people at the front loudly told us what we were just about to agree with, and the pew-fodder equally loudly agreed. They liked allelluia, and prosperity, and mercy, and joy, and Amen. They were all for 2016 opening the floodgates - seemingly unaware that it's done that for many of our brothers and sisters in the north to rather devastating effect. It was naive, simplistic, hard to follow, shouty, and crass. But the people smiled and were nice.

Then there was a bit where it went quiet. I couldn't tell what was going on at the front, because we'd been told to stand up, so obviously, I didn't. I thought it was time for our own prayers, and there was a babble of noise. And I thought, OK, these guys are genuine, I'll send mine in on the back of theirs, whether they like it or not.

As I was leaving, a nice young man in an ill-advised suit (he should have gone with my sister) shook my hand and asked my name, and we got to talking about prayer and I said mine was for my husband to get a visa and come home. "But perhaps not all your friends here would be OK with that." He said "Who are we to judge? May God grant you your heart's desire in this year to come".


And Amen, to that.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2016

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Life in Tension: I struggle with the idea of "good disagreement". I grew up in a world which was much more binary than this. If you won the argument, you were right, if you lost it, you were wrong. And then you all shut up. That maybe is a masculine, and perhaps schoolboy, way of looking at the world. But we're in this discussion because we're thinking about the hows and the whys of the way we think about things, and how and where we start that thinking is a big part of it.
I grew up blissfully without religion. If I'd been born straight, my life might have remained that way. But that God who loves us unconditionally, well, I really liked that God. My family had told me that the way I was was unconditionally bad. Jesus seemed to say I could be loved, and might not be bad at all. No one taught me this - I read the New Testament in the sixth form. On my own.
My father could have stomached my religion if it didn't come with being gay. But for me, the thing about being loved by God was that it freed me up to have a go at loving other people too. I wasn't a great chooser. But God stuck by me.
And then there was the long slow, dreary, battle for ordination, and the fact of it, and the joy of ministry, mainly to people who had no idea what my sexuality was, and couldn't care less, and why should it have even mattered?
And now? I've done the research, read countless commentaries, I know where I am. I am a gay man, and married to another. The C of E can't cope with this. I'd say "that's their problem" but actually if it weren't, it would solve a huge problem for me.
If you tell me I'm a sinner, disordered, confused, I sha'n't listen to you. I've read all that stuff. And you don't tell the truth about love.
If you tell me I must respect the views of those who think my marriage is wrong, perverted, a freak of nature, a mistake, I sha'n't listen to you. You're not listening to the truth about love.
If, however, you will go to the altar with me, to Holy Communion, then I shall go with you, no matter the view you hold about me and my kind. Because in that pilgrimage we will both risk becoming bigger and better people than we were at the outset, because we go to engage at the deepest level with what it means for us mere human beings to be made in the image and likeness of God. The God who is love.
Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2015

Sunday, 6 December 2015

You & Non-You: On Being A Public Minister Of Religion


Despite appearances, these thoughts have nothing to do with Nancy Mitford’s mischievous categorisation of Upper and Non-Upper class vocabulary and manners. It is about distinctions, but not about separating people into tribes.

When we feel the call to ministry, perhaps to ordination, to readership, to be a churchwarden, or to serve at the altar, or to read the lessons, or arrange the flowers, something we are sure that God wants us to do, and we will do for God, even if at the time we’re not sure we really have the appropriate skills and personal qualities, well, that’s “all about me”. You can’t help feeling it that way. A vocation within the life of the church is akin to the vocation to be married – it matters very much who you are, because that determines what you have to offer, and why you are wanted.

Most us start out with a strong sense that we are “called to serve”, and then the church starts to harp on about leadership and power and a whole lot of things we weren’t expecting. But they are fair questions – if we stand up to lead worship, to preach, to teach, even to read lessons, in the name of the wider community of faith, then we are leaders, even if only (at first) at the time we’re actually doing it. And there is power in that. The power to enrich the faith of our brothers and sisters, or the power to be a stumbling block and trip them up. We might all want to be “servants of the Servant King”, but there’s no questioning the power that Jesus exercised in his ministry. And he expected his disciples to use that power too. He even gave one of them the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Have you ever had a door slammed in your face? Have you ever had a door opened to you unexpectedly, and been welcomed in? The power of the keys is a lot of power.

You probably don’t want it any more than Peter did, but you don’t have an option.

We arrive at ministry, whatever kind it is, with our gifts, ready to serve. And one of the first things we start to experience is sacrifice. When I was on a placement from vicar school I went to talk to the vicar of a neighbouring parish (he was also a psychotherapist) about an article he’d written about the clergy wearing black. He said, “It’s a sign and symbol of the death of the self”. He didn’t mean that we have to throw out all those marvellous gifts we arrived with. But the death of selfishness. When you are leading worship, preaching, it’s no longer all about you. One of the sacrifices of leading worship is that you don’t actually get to do much worshipping yourself – how can you? You have to make things work out OK. They’re all singing the hymn, but you’re wondering where the next lesson-reader has got to.

And there are other subtler, and perhaps stranger, sacrifices. God calls a lot of intraverts to ministry. That means being hauled way out of your comfort zone. After a morning service, especially if you have to preach, you’ll be exhausted. Those with no understanding will say (or at least think) “but you only said words”. That person in the pulpit isn’t really you, but it is the person you’ve been called to become, at least for the time being.

And this is where it gets mysterious. Because the permission to serve in these special ways brings with it the grace of being able to do it. We can find ourselves becoming eloquent when we’d normally be tongue-tied; confident when we feel timid; inspired to words – or to silence – in a pastoral situation, that are just right. These things are given because of what we’ve sacrificed. You could say we’ve let the Holy Spirit in. So maybe my words were wrong – “Non-You”. It is you, but more than you.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Advent, 2015