Monday, 31 July 2017

The Communion of Saints

The Communion of Saints

"The definition of a saint is someone whose private life has been under-researched." So said a former colleague, a church historian.

Since coming to work and worship with you at New Road, I've been teasing the deacons and others in the "hierarchy that isn't" by noting the saint's day on my endless e-mails. I know full well that keeping saints' days isn't a reformed-church thing, but it's something that appeals to the genealogist in me.

As with children, and cats, we're not meant to have favourites, but we can't help it, we do. Mine include John the Baptist, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Seraphim of Sarov. They all make God either surprising, or warm, or both, and it’s the example of their intimate relationship with God that can help to draw us closer too.

And it's not just the ones who made it into the official Kalendar. There was Grace, another mystic, from my first congregation in Romford, who had visions and said at the church door one morning "you know that bit in the service "with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven?” Well, I looked up, and there they all were! Wasn't that nice, dear?"

The “Communion of Saints” is something Christians affirm in the Apostles’ Creed (BWP 424), and by it we celebrate our fellowship not only one with another, here and now, but with brothers and sisters unseen and unknown all over the world, and with all those who have gone before us in the faith, ever since the time of the Apostles (the Orthodox go further, and include the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament). In the Baptist tradition too, those who lived the Gospel and cared for the people are remembered – think of John Bunyan Church in Cowley, or the way that Richard Tidmarsh, James Hinton, and Ronald Hobling are honoured in the rooms here – not forgetting George’s Cupboard.

Most of us would be uncomfortable claiming to be a saint right now, preferring perhaps to be seen as a work in progress, but there are saints among us all the same, and here’s an interesting test. It is from a sermon by Rowan Williams based on the novel (although more of us had seen it on the telly) “Brideshead Revisited”. He contrasted Lady Marchmain, full of good works, endlessly concerned for the welfare of others, most of all her children, and doing her best with some force, to direct them in the right way, with her younger son, Sebastian, who is dissolute, lazy, decadent, gay before it was legal, and yet blessed with a sense of wonder that brightens the lives of all those who know him. “What’s the difference between a good person and a saint? Good people make you feel worse. Saints make you feel better”.

So, you’re bound to know a saint or two. And from time to time, you might even be one yourself.

Richard Haggis

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The boy wasn't turning out right


Sandra and I didn’t have kids of our own. We thought about it, but I wasn’t so keen, and she’d already got two, so I tried to be a dad to the ones we had. They never took my name. They never called me “Dad”. But I did care for them, look out for them, try to teach them rules and manners and riding a bike and stuff. Sandra often worked in the evenings, so I did bathtime and bedtime too. I wasn’t hands-on, Fred was 6, Nikki was 11, when I arrived, I just tried to keep order.

Well, there was no worry with Nikki – she had her plan. School – Uni – Lawyer – Money! Fred was another case. He didn’t much care for school, I understood that, I didn’t either, but he had to do something. I let him be until he started to grow up, and then I got him booked on my card at the gym. Caxton’s great for things like that – there’s even a swimming pool. I guess he was about 12 when I started to make a fuss about it. He was a weedy little bugger. To start with, I showed him how to use the machines. But he didn’t like me there. I guess that’s a kind of privacy thing. I used to check out how his muscles were developing, but there came a time he didn’t like that either.

It was about the time I started to notice a change in him. It’s hard to explain it. He seemed happier than ever in himself, but totally down on everyone else, wanted nothing to do with us. Sandra was hurt. Nikki was at Uni, but I’m sure she’d have got the same treatment.

Then one time I was walking back from the shops across Caxton Mead, and there was Fred in the distance, with some other guy. I couldn’t see clearly, and Fred was leaving – maybe because he’d seen me? – but I think he kissed this guy. Fred had gone, and as I got closer I saw it was an old guy, well, much older than me. My blood was boiling. I just knew something was wrong. He was a scrawny, grey-haired, middle-aged bloke, with a beard. Posh. “I see you were talking to my son”, I said. I always called him my son. Except when he was listening. “Fred? What a nice lad – a credit to you!” “What was he doing here?” “I’m often here after work, he sometimes keeps me company between the gym and home – he’s not in trouble, is he?”. “No, he’s OK”. I walked on.

He was not OK. I had no proof, but this man was taking my boy. I knew it.

South Park: Tonight's film

On the TV for once, but we do have it in the collection.

For music, word-play, and utter filth, it cannot be faulted.

Satan's unrequited love for Saddam Hussain? Genius.

And actually its heart is in the right place - they do stop the bombing of Canada, and the execution of Terrance and Philip ....

I loved every moment.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Another bit of Conrad

“You’ve obviously got questions”.
“Yeah, kinda, hard to express”.
“Just say it”.
“Well, I left my boy when he was five years old. And now he’s sixteen, and he’s with you, and you’re older than me. Did I make that happen? Is it my fault?”
“Is it a fault? I’m not his Dad – you are. He’s not looking for you, he knows where to find you.”
“But …. Why …. You?”
“You’ve got to ask Fred that. I don’t deserve him. And I’ve said he is always free to go, if he comes to his senses and realises that being with this old crock just isn’t working.”
“He’s not going to go. He’s told me that. Not ever.”
“Then you’re saddled with me as your son-in-law!”

Tuesday, 25 July 2017


The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015): tonight's film.

A festival of love and misunderstanding. The characters felt more warmly drawn than in The First, which gave it less edge and more soppiness, but that's OK, I'm getting used to soppiness. The age of most of them lends itself to lines which are true for any of us at any age:

"I just want him to give me more time". "How much time do you have?"


"there's no present like the time".

So, let's receive time like a present, and live in its moment ...

Highly recommended.

Niki's Visit

“And there were ten years between Rob and our Mum”, and I was sorry the moment I’d said it. I was trying to say why we’d not liked her third husband, and here I was walking into a trap with my little brother and his much older boyfriend, in the conservatory of their crazy love nest in the countryside. “I guess I’m not one to judge on age gaps”, Giles said, with a smile. Fred gave me a glare. “Rob was a shit”, he said, “nothing to do with his age”. Giles was far older than Rob. I hoped the other guests would turn up soon.”

The next morning we had a late breakfast. “Brunch” my friend at work would have called it. But really it was just a builders’ breakfast with bloody marries. And bloody good they were too!

I was meant to be packing, but I went down to the conservatory, and then out to the garden, in the rain. There they were. On the beach. Hand in hand. I could see Fred laughing. You can just tell when he’s laughing. And he hugged Giles. And they kissed each other. And they walked down to the sea.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Thank you, Fog

Notes from a Homily for Holy Communion
with the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Tuesday, 19th of July, 2017

Readings: Exodus 3:1-6, 9-12; & W H Auden "Thank you, Fog" (below)

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today's reading made me think of a conversation we had last week at the Baptist Church in town where I work. Someone with a strong sense and understanding of the Jewish tradition had written down "G_d", which I remember first reading in the words of a rabbi in a newspaper - the holy name of God is not to be said, nor to be written, not in full.

Today's Old Testament reading has two names for God and that takes you back, if you've done the course, to early Bible Studies. There's "Elohim", which is "God" and there's, well, we don't quite know. It's the name that's given to Moses in the passage after the story we had this morning, and which doubtless you'll have at mass tomorrow. Interestingly, although Moses wasn't told it until tomorrow, it's used today. The Biblical writers had no problem with this. In Hebrew, without its vowels, it's YHWH, "the tetragrammaton", the original "four-letter word". And this is the name God gives to Moses, and it becomes so sacred that the ancient Hebrews won't use it. They substitute different vowels, and they call him "THE LORD", which is how those four letters are rendered even now in many modern Bibles. It is as though God is reaching out to us, making friends, telling us his name - the name for his chosen people, just as the other peoples round about have names for their gods - and yet we recoil from the intimacy, we don't want it, we'd rather give him a title.

And so English Christianity has related to its God as a sort of minor aristocrat. He told us his name, but we'd rather call him "The Lord".

I used to tell my students that this moment in the history of our religion was more like "call me Stan". My more religious students struggled with this, but the others sort of got it. This is God reaching out to us, being intimate. At the macro level, this is immanance and transcedence. We've tended to prefer Lordly transcendence.

And because of this, we've lost the holy name of God. The ancient Jews fitted it with other vowels, and gradually it was known no more. "Yahweh" is how most modern writers think it should be. The Jerusalem Bible boldly used in the 1960s - and the ASB boldly wouldn't use extracts from those bits in 1980, because it was a theory, or a guess. My Old Testament tutor, John Barton, a friend to this place, I think, and supervisor to Sister Edmee for her thesis, said in a lecture I went to in Chelmsford "it might just as well be "Yahoo", but somehow, that didn't catch on".

This not knowing the name of God I think leaves us free to call God by our own choice of name. The conversation in church last week made me think of a collection of poems I read as an undergraduate - I have it here, not the one I read then, which was in Christ Church library, and signed by the author, but by W H Auden, his last collected poems, "Thank you, Fog". The fact that it's the title for the collection, and the first one, gives you a small glimpse into the depth and breadth of my literary understanding. I don't think it's meant to be a religious poem, but he was a religious man, and I can't be sure. The fog is addressed as "You" with a capital letter.

I love fog and mist. My father grew up in the days of the London "pea-soupers" in the 1950s that got the Clean Air Act passed in 1956. He would walk to school with a white handkerchief over his mouth, and it would be black by the time he got there. Fog and mist are rare in these parts, these days, but we have rain, and the last couple of weeks, we've had some glorious rain for a strange person like me to go walking in, and sitting on a park bench, literally soaking it up. It envelopes you, holds you, shields you from the wider, noisy, busy, demanding, world, it lets you be, all alone, yourself, with God.

When I first read this poem, for me it was about God. And "Fog" has been my name for God ever since. When I say thanks for my evening meal, it's "thank you, Fog". And at its end, Auden speaks of the awfulness of life, and the troubles of the world, and how they've been forgotten in the Wiltshire fog of this joyful Christmas meeting. Today is a day of remembering for me, but instead of dwelling on young lives lost, I shall lose myself in the mist, and for them, and for all the blessings of this life, no matter how brief, echo Auden's last words "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Fog".


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2017

Thank You, Fog by W.H. Auden

Grown used to New York weather,
all too familiar with Smog,
You, Her unsullied Sister,
I’d quite forgotten and what
You bring to British winters:
now native knowledge returns.

Sworn foe to festination,
daunter of drivers and planes,
volants, of course, will cause You,
but how delighted I am
that You’ve been lured to visit
Wiltshire’s witching countryside
for a whole week at Christmas,
that no one can scurry where
my cosmos is contracted
to an ancient manor-house
and four Selves, joined in friendship,
Jimmy, Tania, Sonia, Me.

Outdoors a shapeless silence,
for even then birds whose blood
is brisk enough to bid them
abide here all the year round,
like the merle and the mavis,
at Your cajoling refrain
their jocund interjections,
no cock considers a scream,
vaguely visible, tree-tops
rustle not but stay there, so
efficiently condensing
Your damp to definite drops.

Indoors specific spaces,
cosy, accommodate to
reminiscence and reading,
crosswords, affinities, fun:
refected by a sapid
supper and regaled by wine,
we sit in a glad circle,
each unaware of our own
nose but alert to the others,
making the most of it, for
how soon we must re-enter,
when lenient days are done,
the world of the work and money
and minding our p’s and q’s.

No summer sun will ever
dismantle the global gloom
cast by the Daily Papers,
vomiting in slip-shod prose
the facts of filth and violence
that we’re too dumb to present:
our earth’s a sorry spot, but
for this special interim,
so restful yet so festive,
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog

(W H Auden, 1974, the year after he died)

Sunday, 16 July 2017

"SYLVIA" (2003) ~ tonight's film

The dismal tale of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig.

Unlike Mr Craig's thighs, it lacks depth. We're not given a reason for Sylvia taking her own life, when she has two children in tow (maybe they were part of the cause, this is still left open). She speaks of feeling hollow, and that I can relate to. Of empty unbelonging.

It's good so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.

"I AM MICHAEL" - last night's film

"I AM MICHAEL" (2015) ~ last night's film.

I noticed this in Asda in Cowley a week ago, and was surprised to see it there. Not quite so surprised to see it still there yesterday, when I'd decided to buy it, and walked the three miles to do so.

It's a story of a young man who's a vociferous campaigner for gay civil rights, and lives the dream (not sure it is a dream, more a nightmare, of a threesome with two other guys), and then gets religion. And he converts. Away from his boyfriend(s) and away from the work he's doing. He wanders from Mormonism to Buddhism to something more recognisably Christian. He finds a girl, and wants to become a pastor.

I bought it thinking I'd hate it, but it might be good for me. It felt like it had been made by people who didn't really believe the story, but thought it should be heard. It was engaging. The lead, James Franco, bears a tangential but compelling resemblance to my late father, which was disconcerting.

It leaves us with unanswered questions.

It was a good choice.