Sunday, 11 March 2018

Runcie and Palin

Crossing the Line - part 18

I have always loved practical jokes.  Obviously, I like them more when playing them on others, but I even enjoy being the target!

At school there was a tradition of making the most of April Fool’s Day.  It was the one day in the year when the tight cords of discipline seemed to be loosened for a while.  One year our class started small by sitting in the wrong seats, confusing our teachers a little, but when we saw that this was all too easily rectified, we swapped everyone’s desks around instead.  This was more disruptive as our desks contained our books, pens, pencils etc.  After the next teacher made us rearrange them back, we went one step further, co-operating with the class next door to swap over about half our desks between the two classrooms.  This was satisfyingly successful in interrupting the teaching schedule of the day.

As we got older, we became more ambitious. 

The staff room was a prime target.

One year I persuaded the dinner ladies to turn their backs for a moment while transporting the tea urn up to the staff room at lunch time.  I added around 1,000 sweeteners to the urn, making it undrinkable and resulting in a few teachers spraying tea across the room when they took their first mouthful.

A couple of my friends managed to put a chain and padlock around the door handles to the staff room during morning break when they were all there having their 15 minutes of peace.  At the end of break, when they tried to return to their classes they found that they couldn’t get out and the whole school was blissfully bereft of teachers for about 30 minutes while the maintenance staff found bolt-cutters big enough to set them free.

Then there was a school governors meeting on one April 1st.  Our governors arrived in their posh cars and parked them in the quad.  Daimlers, Jaguars, even a Rolls Royce.  I couldn’t resist it. I raided the art room for large sheets of paper and covered their windscreens with huge price tags. Finding a portable blackboard, I put a sign out by the road which said “Luxury Car Sale – Today Only – Come inside!”  There were several enquiries at the school office before it was removed.

My most ambitious plan came to nothing however.  We had a Great Hall with 800 wood and wicker chairs to seat the whole school for assembly.  They weren’t that comfortable, but they were quite old and of some value.  Wouldn’t it be great if one day we all arrived for assembly to find them gone?  It’s not that I wanted to steal them – just store them in a room nearby and lock them in with a chain.  I left a window slightly ajar in one of the corridors and sneaked in at night to case the joint, only to be disappointed.  The only unlocked room available to was so far away that it would have taken all night (and a great deal of hard work) to transport them that far. 

In my part time job as a waiter, I succeeded in tricking my manager with an exploding cigar.  John was very astute, so the only way he would fall for it, was if he was convinced that the cigar was a genuine gift from a customer.   He loved smoking and this was a genuine, quality cigar which I had doctored by inserting 3 explosive caps in the end.  I gave one of our customers the cigar to give back to me as a tip, at the end of the meal. He played his part wonderfully, waiting until John was watching, and then making a fuss of giving me the cigar despite my protestations that I didn’t smoke.    Knowing that John saw this, I waited until he asked me about it, replying, “You know I don’t smoke John – do you want it?”   The plan worked like a dream and a group of us were hiding around the corner outside when John went out to enjoy this unexpected treat.  As it exploded, we jumped out to compound the effect.  That was a night which went with a bang!

University was a target rich environment for such fun.  As we got to know each other, we discovered who was fair game. After arriving at Brasenose, I discovered that among its famous past students were Robert Runcie, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and Michael Palin of Monty Python fame.  What a combination to aspire to!  The faith of an Archbishop and the humour of Monty Python!

At one small party, a group of us took the furniture out of our host’s room when he went to get more drinks. There was a flat roof above his room and we arranged it all on the roof, in the same pattern as it had been in the room.  In our final year student house, hiding several of our alarm clocks in Andy’s bedroom was fun, set to go off at half hour intervals during the night.  Andy did very well to keep his sense of humour, although I do remember being woken up to the sound of an alarm clock being thrown down the stairs with some force!  Being forced into a cold bath, fully clothed, by a group of friends was always a favourite, and I suffered this at the hands of my friends more than once.

One of my favourites pranks was on Jonathan who led the Christian Union in college with me.  Jonathan was always (and still is) very well presented.  Well dressed, close shaved and respectable.  He could also come across as quite serious sometimes, so he was an ideal target.

Using the same window trick as I used at school, I gained access to his room while he was rowing early one morning.  I took his comb and gave it to another friend with the instruction, “Hide this and don’t tell me where.”  When I saw Jonathan later that day, he looked frustrated and told me that he couldn’t find his comb.

The next time he was rowing, I sneaked in again, took his toothbrush and gave it to the same friend to hide.  This time he was more frustrated and was getting suspicious.  When he asked me if I knew where it was, I could reply in total honesty that I had no idea.  A few days later, I took his razor on the morning of a tutorial.  Jonathan was furious at having to turn up to see his tutor unshaved.  Again I could assure him that I didn’t know where they were.   He was confused.  On the one hand, he suspected me but on the other, surely I wouldn’t lie to him.

The grand finale came the next morning.  As Jonathan went to the shower in the next building, wearing only a dressing gown, I sneaked into his room again, this time removing all his clothes and toiletries, putting them into my trunk.  I had also asked my other friend to give me back Jonathan’s comb, razor and toothbrush and I put them in too.  After Jonathan had returned from his shower, I quietly placed the trunk directly outside his door and hid nearby, listening.  He was humming a tune until he opened one of his drawers.  Then the humming stopped and the sound changed to that of each drawer being opened & closed quickly and wardrobe doors being opened and then slammed shut.  There was a strange noise somewhere between a roar and a scream.  After another few of seconds, I heard Jonathan wrench open his door, followed by a clattering noise as he practically fell over the trunk as he stormed out.

By then of course, he knew it was me.  He recognised my trunk and waited for me to ask for it back.  As always, he was gracious, even good humoured by the time I plucked up the courage!

Some of the most Pythonesque moments of college life were in fact, the college traditions.

There were Ale Verses on Shrove Tuesday each year, when formal dinner descended into a food fight with the pieces of lemon that came with the pancakes.  Students would stand on the ancient tables drinking old English ale and singing hastily composed satirical lyrics to well-known tunes, poking fun at the college and its senior staff.  During this melee, the High Table (which seated the college principle and other teaching fellows) would sit there impassively eating their pancakes pretending nothing unusual was happening!

Then there was Ascension Day.  In my first year, when I lived in college, I remember being woken at about 10am by the sound of clattering sticks and children laughing.  When I looked out of the window, I saw 20 or more choristers in their choir robes, each with a long cane pole hitting the wall underneath my room.  This was repeated several times during the morning as groups of rampaging choir boys from Oxford churches descended on the college to ‘beat the bounds’ – an ancient tradition of checking that the parish boundary markers had not be moved, demolished or hidden. 

But the day got even more bizarre.  At lunchtime, a ‘secret’ door was opened between Brasenose and its neighbour Lincoln College.  Students at Brasenose were invited to pass through the door and given Ivy Beer as recompense for Lincoln refusing to allow entry to a Brasenose student who was being chased by a town mob.  The student was killed and Lincoln College were ordered to provide Ivy Beer to Brasenose students on Ascension Day every year in perpetuity, as a way of redeeming themselves.  When we got to Lincoln quad with our Ivy Beer we then witnessed another strange sight.  There were students on the roof heating coins in boiling water, and then throwing them down onto the grass, where children from the town were running round collecting them with handkerchiefs to protect their hands from being burned.  With the rising alcohol level from the Ivy Beer, hot coins raining down from the roof, and children rushing around to collect them, it increasingly felt like a scene reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.  Totally surreal.  I am sure that Health & Safety must have put a stop to that one by now.

The other regular event on the Oxford calendar which can cause amusement or disdain are the celebrations at the end of university exams.  It is now a well-established tradition that you are met out of your last exam by friends who will spray you with Champagne, shaving foam and silly string.  It was actually Pomagne for ordinary students like us – any Champagne was strictly for drinking, not getting wasted on the pavement!    

Apparently, it is now known as ‘Trashing’ and is much more organised that in the 1980s, but the aim is the same.  It is a way of breaking the tension that the exams bring;  of celebrating the end of them, rather than sloping off in a depressed whimper!  I remember being ambushed in college after Mods (1st year exams) by an enthusiastic group of friends and being completely soaked after Finals as I left the Examinations building.

All in all, there was lots of humour, life and fun at Oxford when you didn’t take it too seriously.  My final year was made even more fun by moving into a house just off the Cowley Road with five friends.  We ate together, we laughed together, and watched American Football together every week on Channel 4, which is where my love for the sport came from. 

Soon after we moved in, Andy answered the phone with the greeting “Oxford home for wicked women” only to find my father (a vicar) at the other end of the line!  Nick’s bed was held off the floor on piles of bricks which was fine until they collapsed in the night.  Natalie and Rob were great cooks, which always made their meals very popular, and we held regular dinner parties for friends with several courses of delicious food – a million miles away from student beans on toast.  Anne and I continued to work out how to get a Maths degree.  Anne was much more successful than me, but I scraped through in the end, despite my other full time job with the Christian Union which only came to an end in my final term!   

Dressed up for Finals
When it came to Finals, we each chose songs to play at full volume early in the mornings of our exams, to psyche ourselves up.  Given the formal clothes we had to wear for exams, I chose Smart Dressed Man by ZZ Top on the first day, followed by Back in Black by AC/DC on the second.

These were good days.  They made up for the stress I felt in the often intellectually sectarian Christian world, not to mention the demands of both studying for a degree and spending 45 hours a week in Christian ministry.

They were, I hope, very much in the footsteps of Runcie and Palin.  Thank you both for your inspiration!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The power of the institution

Crossing the Line - part 17

In my second year at Oxford, I moved to live in Frewin Court.   It was the accommodation annex for Brasenose a few hundred yards from the college, just behind the busy shopping street of Cornmarket.  Frewin was slap bang in the centre of things, next to the Oxford Union. My room was smaller but infinitely more comfortable.  It had good central heating and a small shared kitchen.  I settled in well.

Nearby was the North Gate Hall, a large congregational chapel which had been given to OICCU years ago, making it the only University Christian Union in the country to have its own building.  It was huge.  The main hall could hold several hundred people and underneath was a less formal space for refreshments and fellowship.  It now houses Bill’s – a very pleasant restaurant.

I remember the Saturday morning when there was a knock on my door.  It was one of OICCU’s Executive Committee, aka ‘the Exec’ - the group of about 12 people who ran the University Christian Union.  I wondered what on earth I had done now.  After almost being sacked as a college rep the previous term, I was sure it couldn’t be good, but couldn’t work out what the problem might be.  What unwritten law had I transgressed now? 

The North Gate Hall today
To my complete surprise, he said, “Well you have probably guessed why I am here.  We would like you to be Outreach Secretary on the Exec next year.”   

My response could not have been any clearer, or more unplanned.  I fell off my chair.  Quite literally!

I went to the wrong kind of church.  A few months ago, I had been a cause of division and dissent.  I had betrayed OICCU’s Evangelical ethos not only by organising a meeting with Roman Catholics, but then also refusing to back down and call it off.  I went to OICCU but not to the whole range of weekly Bible Expositions, Evangelistic Evenings and Prayer Meetings. Why could they possibly be asking me?

When I asked that question, the answer I received painted a very different picture.  The Exec had noticed how, despite our renegade tendencies, the Christian Union in Brasenose was actually getting on with what we were supposed to be doing.  We had grown, some people had become Christians, and others had deepened their faith.  The current Outreach Sec who sat before me, had come to one of our events – a gentle mix of music, readings and personal stories which we held in one of the Lecture Rooms one evening.  He had liked what he saw (even though a Roman Catholic was one of the people who talked about her faith and sang a song – perhaps he didn’t notice!)  The Lecture Room was full.  There was a good mix of people who identified as Christians and people who did not.  That was why I was being asked to be part of the new Exec and why they wanted me to be Outreach Secretary.

Even after I had got back on my chair, I was still incredulous.  I had been looking forward to handing the college CU over to new Reps at Easter, having more time to focus on my degree and enjoy student life.  Now I was being asked to step up to something even more demanding. 

Each member of the Exec had a specific role.  There was the usual Chair, Secretary & Treasurer, but also the Prayer Secretary, Outreach Secretary, and so on.  The year ahead was an OICCU Mission year.  They were held every three years and it was a huge undertaking.  There would be a big-name speaker and around 60 missioners coming to Oxford for a week of evangelistic events.  There would be events in every college and the main University meetings could attract up to a thousand students some evenings.  The publicity alone was a major piece of work with every undergraduate in the university receiving not just a flier, but a Mission Pack and invitation. The Outreach Secretary was not in charge of the whole thing, but was expected to play a big part in the planning, preparation and execution.  Quite apart from the shock I was feeling, I was also aware of the huge commitment which was being asked of me.  I said I needed time to think about it.

I went a talked to other people about it, mostly people who didn’t like OICCU.  I talked to Jonathan, my co-rep in Brasenose – he really didn’t like OCCU.  I spoke to Jeffrey John, my college Chaplain who had decidedly mixed views about OICCU.  I went to see Philip Ursell, the Principle of Pusey House.  Surely they would tell me what a cracked-pot idea this was?  The problem was, they all thought I should do it!

So with some trepidation I said yes and a whole new challenge began.

It wasn’t long before my trepidation was proved right.  In the lead up to our hand-over at Easter, the new Exec was brought together for training and preparation.

I met my fellow Exec members.  We were a mixed bag of people, from very formal and earnest to people who were more like me, but the centre of gravity was definitely at the conservative, traditional end of evangelicalism.  Some were so Puritan in their faith (and I mean this in a historical context not as a dismissive comment) that there was no church in Oxford where they felt at home.  Every Sunday they travelled several miles out of Oxford to find a church where they felt comfortable.  Given the huge concentration and diversity of churches there was in Oxford, I found this astonishing.

Then we were taken away with the new Cambridge Exec for a weekend of training by UCCF (the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship).  UCCF are a national evangelical charity which support Christian Unions across the country and they had two travelling secretaries who were tasked with supporting Oxford and Cambridge in particular.  As well as offering encouragement and advice, they were also there to ensure we didn’t stray from the straight and narrow.

All in all, the training boiled down to understanding both the ‘opportunity’ and the ‘responsibility’ which we had been given. 

The ‘opportunity’ was presented like this.  The future leaders of this country are among your fellow students at Oxford and Cambridge; politicians, scientists, bankers and business leaders.  If we can ‘win them for Christ’ now, then in 30 years’ time Britain will be a more Christian country. 

Immediately I felt uncomfortable, but it took me a while to realise why.  Today I would now have no difficulty in expressing my discomfort.  The idea of targeting people for their future worth in the same way that trickle-down economics favours the rich in the hope of it tickling down to the poor is just plain wrong.  The disconnect with Jesus’ opening sermon is startling, where he pledged his ministry to the poor and the powerless, not the cream of the crop.  In my eyes, the Christian faith has always been the best offer ever made to everyone, not some kind of web to spin for strategic or political goals.

On the other hand, it was so tempting.  We were being offered a chance to change the world!  To look at some great leaders in years to come and say, “They became Christians at Oxford when we ran OICCU!”. 

If that was the opportunity, the ‘responsibility’ we were given was even more insidious.  Right at the start of our year we were reminded forcefully that we were only being entrusted with OICCU for a season.  We were being entrusted with an old and distinctive organisation which had brought great blessings to many over the years   Our primary responsibility was to ensure that we handed it on to the next Exec in good shape and faithful to this long tradition.  We were not there to innovate.  We were not there to rock the boat.  We were part of a continuum to uphold the traditions of the institution we had been entrusted with.

The effect of this approach can be very powerful, especially on people who are new in role and enthusiastic to do a good job.  It can change your whole outlook to a kind of ‘not on my watch’ mentality which I have since observed numerous times in the Church.

I have seen this in conflict with the Church Commissioners who can become so wedded to their investments on behalf of the Church of England, that the purpose and ideals for which the money is raised can become secondary – or lost altogether.

I saw this in a meeting about sexuality with Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.  We should have been pushing at an open door as he had gone on the record many times before he was Archbishop in support of inclusion for LGBT people in the Church.  What we heard however was very different, as he talked about the office of Archbishop in terms of being ‘the present occupant of the Chair of St Augustine.’  

He talked of the weight of history and responsibility which the occupant of that Chair carries.  He talked about the need to preserve what had been entrusted to him.  He told us that what he thought (as an individual) was irrelevant because his job as Archbishop was to hold together the great responsibility which the occupant of the Chair of St Augustine is given.  We had hoped to meet with an anointed leader for the future - instead we found a guardian of the past.  We had met someone who had been called to leadership because of his great gifts – but then neutered by the power of the institution which had called him.  

The same thing happened to us in our year as the Exec of OICCU. 

I am ashamed to say that we un-invited Michael Green to be a speaker because he refused to sign the UCCF Doctrinal Basis – the Evangelical touch-stone which all CU members and speakers had to sign.  It wasn’t that he disagreed with anything in it but rather he felt, as someone entrusted and licensed by the Church to preach, that he shouldn’t have to sign this piece of paper every time he came to speak.  We black-balled one of the most gifted evangelists in the country on a technicality because we believed that the institution had to be upheld at all costs. 

We had been institutionalised.

There were other ridiculous policies which the Exec adopted during our year.  On a majority vote the Exec decreed that there would be no music or drama at the main Mission events because of a mantra that says, “it is by the preaching of the Word that people are saved and nothing else”.  This was in spite of the fact that the previous Exec had already booked two professional Christian musicians for the whole week. I hope it goes without saying that I didn’t vote for this one, especially as I then had to work out what we were going to use their skills!

My other worry, which quickly became realised, was that the work load was immense.  Just the weekly meetings I had to go to were enough to fill a diary.  First was the Exec meeting each week which could last several hours.  Then there was the Exec prayer meeting at 9am every Saturday morning – which I am sure was designed to mess up any student night life we might aspire to!  There were the regular OICCU meetings for Bible exposition on Saturday night and Evangelistic address on Sunday night.  I had regular Mission Planning meetings to attend and ran my own Outreach group who delivered events around the University.  In the lead up to the Mission, I went and spoke to over half of the 30 college Christian Unions to help them prepare.  The list went on and on.

The Catholic Chaplaincy Chapel
I also made my own life even more busy.  Still coming across prejudice against Roman Catholics, I heard that the University Catholic Chaplaincy were short of a guitarist at the weekly Folk Mass and was asked if I would help.  Wanting to reach out a hand of friendship, I immediately said yes.  I’m sure it was the right thing to do but when I added everything together, I worked out that I was involved in Christian ministry for over 45 hours every week – and then there was a degree to study for.

There were some funny moments too.

I was amused by a very serious visit I received from our UCCF Traveling Secretaries one Saturday morning (why do they always pick Saturday mornings?)  They had been told that I was planning to share a student house with ‘non-Christians’ (their words) and had come to talk me out of it.  When they learned that some of my housemates would be women, they were even more shocked and asked me what sort of a witness this would be to other Christian Union members.  Wouldn’t it lead them astray?  From somewhere in my bleary Saturday morning head, I responded that the problem most Christian Union members had was that they didn’t have any ‘non-Christian’ friends, let alone friends who would trust them enough to share a house with them.  Anyway, I was the Outreach Secretary, so isn’t that exactly the kind of thing I should be modelling?  They left disappointed but never came back for another go.

Then there was the morning when I arrived at the Exec morning prayer meeting, visibly tired and pale.  I was asked if I was ok.  When I said I had been helping with an all-night prayer vigil, there were nods of approval until I mentioned that it was at the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy.  There followed a stony silence until someone changed the subject.  I just smiled.

On another occasion, I was taking part in the Corpus Christi procession of the Blessed Sacrament from Mary Mags Church to Pusey House, and saw some other members of the Exec in a group of protesters objecting to such idolatrous behaviour!  I waved at them but they pretended not to see me.

I learned new skills too, like finding myself having to promote and organise a concert with Christian pianist and composer, Adrian Snell.  It was booked by the last Exec but then I had to make it happen.  This meant advertising, ticketing, sales, as well as the concert itself and making sure it broke even.  As a published artist with a string of albums to his name he didn’t come cheap, but the icing on the cake was when he informed me that he would need a concert grand piano for the event.  Where was I going to get a concert grand for one night?  Amazingly (to me) I discovered that it is possible at a price!  It was delivered from London two days before the concert, tuned the day before the concert when it had acclimatised to its new surroundings, and was collected the morning after.  I think it cost more than the artist’s fee!  Fortunately we sold out of tickets and the place was packed, so we did break even.

Then there were the two musicians who had been booked for the Mission week – Martyn Joseph and Barry Crompton.  As they couldn’t now sing at the main events, I got a small group together who arranged for each of them to go to different colleges each day.  They played and sang in college bars and Christian Union meetings.  For this we needed to hire portable lighting rigs and PAs as well a finding some way of transporting them around.  We were kindly offered use of a vehicle and found it was a long wheelbase Land Rover - the old indestructible type.  It felt like overkill until on the second night of the mission when temperatures plummeted and Oxford was covered with snow. This quickly turned into packed ice on the college back-lanes where we had to deliver the equipment.  I remember praying, “Ok God, now I understand – you knew what we would need!”

On balance, I am glad I did it.  I was able to be a visible alternative to the silo mentality that afflicted so many of the Christian organisations I encountered.   I do regret falling for the institutionalising power of OICCU and I became determined never to allow myself to be suckered like that again.  It was a good lesson to learn and one which would need recalling numerous times in the ministry God was calling me to.  It also taught me to recognise when others were falling for it.

The Church is not an institution.  It is the living, breathing, Body of Christ.  When it allows itself to become anything less, it ceases to be the dynamic, revolutionary, saving grace that the world needs.  It simply becomes another self-interest group.  However uncomfortable it is for those who refuse to be conformed, and however uncomfortable that becomes for the institutional church, their voice and actions are vital in the continual renewal and recreation that the Church needs. 

This was a lesson that I would not forget.

Next week, something a little lighter – practical jokes and student humour.  The things that make life fun…!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Seconds out... Round 2

Crossing the Line - part 16

I went back to Oxford with a plan.

In college, I would go to the Christian Union every Wednesday and the Chapel for the main Communion service each week, which was on a Saturday.  In Oxford more widely, I would go to OICCU (pronounced Oy-Cue) and more importantly, I would find a church that suited me.  There was nothing wrong with St Aldates, the church I went to in my first term.  It was full every Sunday with lively worship and world class preaching, but it wasn’t me. 

I started the term by attending a different church each week.  I went to student churches whose ministry revolved around attracting and meeting the needs of students.  I went to local parish churches which were much more like what I was used to at home.  I went to quirky churches who didn’t really care who came – they just did their thing.  I prayed as I went along and in the end, my decision surprised me.

Worship at Pusey House
Pusey House was a shrine to the Oxford Movement, which had attempted to reshape the Church of England in a more catholic direction in the Victorian era.  There was a team of priests there who celebrated all that was good about an Anglo-Catholic approach to worship and theology.  The congregation was small on a Sunday, often only around 40 or so people.  They had a choir which sang anthems and provided the backbone for much of the congregational singing.  Sermons were short, often by guest preachers, some of whom were famous in the Anglican world.  The use of incense was profuse, with one thurifer feeling he had not done his job if he didn’t set off the fire alarms in the college beyond.  Three priests would robe in elaborate vestments and process surrounded by a phalanx of servers and acolytes.  They celebrated communion with their backs to the congregation.  Everything was very formal, choreographed to perfection, and woe betide any server who put a foot out of place.  It was definitely not charismatic or evangelical and yet something spoke to me in the worship there.

Being in the congregation there was more about being than doing.  However you felt, the worship went on around you, enveloping you in God’s presence like sinking into a deep luxurious cushion.  So much of my busy life was about doing rather than being and this was the balance I needed.  I didn’t have to be enthusiastic, engaged, or even sing if I didn’t want to.  I could simply go and be carried along by a river of prayer and sacrament.

Some of my friends in the Christian Union were surprised by this decision.  Most of the people I was getting to know in OICCU were shocked, but that was ok.  I was not conforming to what was expected.  I could be at OICCU on a Saturday night for the main Bible Exposition of the week and in Pusey House on Sunday morning for High Mass.  I was learning to cross lines and to inhabit both spaces, whatever they thought of each other.

There were also others in college who were attracted to Pusey House.  There were two Jonathans in the same year as me in Brasenose, who were also involved in the Chapel and Christian Union in college and they began to worship at Pusey House.  One became the Sacristan there, living above the chapel and providing the practical logistics for the daily services.  We became prayer partners, meeting to pray for each other every week or so.  The other Jonathan … well that’s the next part of the story.

Then towards the end of my second term, there came a complete surprise.  Each college had two Christian Union leaders and they were appointed by OICCU.  Technically they were the ‘OICCU Reps’ in each college, although the reality was a little more complex.  Our reps needed to find their successors, and have them approved.  To our astonishment, they invited Jonathan and me to take on the role and lead the CU in college for 3 terms, starting after Easter.  Jonathan was a Methodist by upbringing but was definitely discovering a more Catholic spirituality at Oxford.  I can’t remember who we talked to before agreeing to do it, but we accepted the invitation.  OICCU didn’t usually have college reps who worshipped at Pusey House.

Brasenose College Chapel
Our first term was spent largely delivering the programme that our predecessors had planned but we did began meeting with our college chaplain, Jeffrey John, for croissants and pain au chocolate after early morning communion once a week to foster a closer relationship between the CU and the Chapel. 

In the summer break, Jonathan and I met together to plan the term ahead.  Independently, we both came with the same Bible verses in our minds, from John’s gospel where Jesus is praying for all believers before his betrayal and crucifixion.  After praying for his disciples, he continues,

“My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for all those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21)

We both took this to heart, and built a programme for the term around these verses.

When we got back to college, another surprise greeted us. The Christian Union and the Roman Catholic Society had always been a bit tetchy with each other.   The RC Society liked drinking, enjoying life and not bothering anyone else; the CU liked to appear holy, earnest and evangelistic.  There was very little overlap between the two, but now a new RC Committee had been elected with a more open attitude.  In particular, there was Sarah, who was a devout Roman Catholic (alongside enjoying life, a drink and not bothering anyone else).  Sarah also came to Chapel & CU and was now a leading member of this new committee.

Sarah made the suggestion that we should have a joint Christian Union/Roman Catholic meeting in college to set aside any previous animosity and meet each other as equals.  It was a wonderful opportunity and we began to plan the meeting.  We agreed that our college chaplain, Jeffrey John would be a suitable speaker, respected by both groups.  We set a date and started to advertise it.  That is when the shit really began to hit the fan – and in case you are wondering, that really is the only adequate way to express what happened next.

OICCU's HQ - The North Gate Hall
I foolishly mentioned our joint meeting at an OICCU prayer morning, expecting at least some understanding of why this was a good thing.  Quite the opposite!  At the end of prayers, I was pulled aside by members of OICCU’s Executive Committee to tell me why it was a bad idea.  Things quickly went from bad to worse.  After the next OICCU committee meeting, Jonathan and I were told that the joint meeting could not happen; that it would compromise the clear Evangelical identity of OICCU; that we had to cancel it.
When we said ‘no’ the response was equally swift.  If the meeting went ahead, we would be sacked as OICCU Reps in Brasenose and other reps would be appointed to lead the CU in college. 

We were astonished.  So were others. 

Members of the CU in Brasenose started to say that if they sacked us, it didn’t matter who OICCU appointed, we would carry on as before.  We started to get messages of support from some OICCU Reps in other colleges, saying that if we were sacked, they would resign, potentially taking their college Christian Unions with them.  It was all getting out of hand.

Jonathan and I knew that we couldn’t cancel the meeting, even if we wanted to.  The damage if cancelled would create a greater divide than the fracture we were trying to mend.  It would send all the wrong signals to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and further entrench divisions.  For me, this epitomised everything that I had come to hate in my first term and had decided to challenge.

I also recognised that escalating confrontation and further division was not the way forward either.  I began a kind of negotiation with OICCU.  There were some reasonable people on the Exec and we began to explore a way forward.  Eventually after a great deal of shuttle diplomacy, a compromise was agreed.  OICCU would not take action if we renamed the meeting with the snappy title “A meeting for all Christians in college organised by the leaders of the CU and the Roman Catholic Society”.

It was a fudge of course.  OICCU could then say it wasn’t a ‘joint meeting’ and we could go ahead as planned.  The posters were already out around college and the date was only a few days away, so in practise this simply meant me writing the ‘snappy title’ on the blackboard in the porter’s lodge which announced events on college.

The evening went ahead and was a great success.  Some of the old prejudices from each group were challenged or melted away.  Jeffrey John spoke well and we prayed together before enjoying a glass or two of wine together.

Why should something like this be so hard?  I still don’t know the answer to that, except that it usually happens when people become too religious to the exclusion of others.  I find this particularly annoying because it is the opposite of what I read about Jesus.  He constantly crossed the lines of control which criss-crossed his world. Eating and drinking with sinners; calling nationalist zealots and traitors (tax collectors) to be among his closest friends. Going the Pharisee’s house but then letting a prostitute wash his feet with her tears to the disgust of his host.  Healing the centurion’s servant, even though he was part of the occupying army.  Overturning the tables of the free-market capitalists in the Temple.  Talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, breaking 2 taboos in one go.  Indeed, shaming his Jewish brothers and sisters with the story of the good Samaritan who does what their religious and political icons failed to do.  I could go on.

Standing up to such sectarianism can be difficult.  In some places in the world it can put you at risk of violence or even death, but then Christians do follow the man who gave his own life to bring others peace.

Round 2 had been fought and won – but there was more to come.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Dreaming spires?

Crossing the Line - part 15

I arrived in Oxford in October 1982 with my grant cheque, luggage and  music – a collection of vinyl & cassettes, a powerful amplifier and huge speaker bought from my friend Neil who hand-made the speaker cab himself.

My parents drove me down and we went to the porters lodge to find out where my room would be.  I was given 8:2 – Staircase 8 Room 2 – and shown where to find it.  Most of the staircases were in Old or New Quad, but staircase 8 was tucked away between the kitchen and dining hall, up narrow stairs and room 2 was just below the roof.

The view from my window
I was amazed to find that I had been given a suite of rooms!  There was a large living room with a three piece suite, an old fashioned desk & captain’s chair, a welsh dresser and coffee table.  Then there was a small bedroom and a loft room, which would come in handy for storing my kit during the holidays.  There was a pleasant view over the ridiculously named Deer Park (a piece of lawn half the size of a tennis court) and the dome of the Radcliffe Camera beyond.  On a mild October afternoon, I thought I had been granted a taste of paradise.  What is more, there were just two rooms on Staircase 8. With no other bedrooms nearby, I quickly realised that if my neighbour was out, I could turn my music up as loud as I wanted!

8:2 up at at the top
The downside of 8:2 quickly became apparent.  The nearest toilet for students was on the opposite side of Old Quad which meant getting soaked in the middle of the night when it was raining.  Later I discovered the staff toilets for the kitchen which I could sneak into at night, as long as I didn’t mind sharing them with a few cockroaches.  There was a shared sink in a cubby hole half way up the staircase but no bath or shower nearby which meant another long walk for anything more than washing your face, but by far the worst thing was the heating – or lack of it.  For this big suite of rooms I had one 2-bar electric fire mounted on the wall and nothing else.  It was the kind of heater which toasts whatever is within 2 feet of it, but does nothing to warm the air.  Added to that, 8:2 was at the top of the oldest surviving part of the college, dating back to the 15th century with no insulation in the roof above me.  Through the winter it was freezing!

My living room with the useless 2 bar electric fire
During my year in college, I learned how to make the most of it.  I bought a fan heater which sat next to my bed.  I could lean out to switch it on when I woke up and wait for the bedroom to warm up a little before getting up.  Even then it was not unusual to find ice on the inside of the lead lattice windows.  I also decided that, as there was no bath nearby, I was going to find the best bathroom in college to use.  Soon I discovered the sumptuous bathroom in Heberden staircase above the JCR (Junior Common Room).  I had a huge Edwardian bath, green tiled walls and unlimited hot water.  Bliss.

The first week was a whirlwind of new experiences. 

First, I had to obtain a gown and mortar board for matriculation (the act of joining the University).  Fortunately, there was an easy way to do this.  Every student was assigned a scout – an employee of the college who looks after you and cleans your room on the one hand, while acting as eyes and ears for the college on the other.  Writing this, I am amazed to find that the system still prevails today.  Gowns and mortar boards are bread and butter to scouts, and provide a handy income on the side as they supply second hand ones for a fee.  Gowns also had to be worn at formal dinner each evening, at the main Sunday service in the college chapel and at exams, so getting one was a priority.

Students were also required to wear something called ‘subfusc’ to matriculation, celebration dinners and exams.  For men this meant a black dinner suit, a white wing collar shirt and white bow tie topped off by the gown and mortar board.  I felt like a stuffed penguin from a cartoon.  Gowns were also graded by success and ability.  Scholars and Exhibitioners wore full flowing gowns reminiscent of teachers in the Harry Potter films.  Commoners wore something which looked like a half-shredded prop extra for a servant in a Dracula movie.  I was a Commoner, of course. 

The Matriculation ceremony itself consisted of being marched into the Sheldonian Theatre, listening to a few mumbled words in Latin, and then being marched out again.  Was that it, I thought.

Class of 1982

Brasenose was a fairly small college with about just over 100 new undergraduates arriving each year.  That meant that you came across almost everyone in your year – from the public school toffs who didn’t much care for anyone outside their social class to the more ordinary students like me.  I didn’t much care for the toffs and there weren't many, so that wasn’t a problem and I did discover that money doesn’t always make you objectionable.  In my first week, during an evening at the college bar, I had a wonderful conversation with a final year student called Henry.  He put this naive fresher at ease and made me feel welcome and listened to. When the conversation came to a natural end and he moved on, someone else came up to me and said, “Do you know his father owns most of Hertfordshire?”

I got to know my fellow Maths students.  We were a pretty disparate bunch of people but I formed a lifelong friendship with my tutorial partner Anne.  Nick, a friend from Bolton School also went up to Brasenose and through him I got to know the lawyers who were a much more interesting group!  I signed up for rowing, much to my regret at 6am on cold winter mornings in the dark.  I also joined the college record lending library which had two categories of LPs on offer – Classical and CRAP (Contemporary Rock And Pop).  I always borrowed CRAP.

The place where I thought I would feel most at home, was in the huge variety of Christian churches and organisations which buzzed around Oxford.  The Mathematician who had hosted us when we came for interview was also the co-leader of the Christian Union in college, so an invitation quickly came to that and OICCU (the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union).  I went along and met some nice people, but also felt that some were a bit intense.  I went to St Aldates Church which was the biggest Anglican charismatic church in Oxford at the time and had a famous preacher and author as its vicar – Michael Green.  I went to the college chapel where I met someone who was to become a major influence on my life and faith.  He was the college chaplain – Jeffrey John.

I even started going to Maths lectures, although I gave that up in later years.  I found walking into the Maths Institute was a sobering experience; finding myself surrounded by Mathematicians, many of whom were geniuses was quite overwhelming.

The central method of teaching at Oxford is the tutorial.  A couple of times each week, we would meet with our tutors in pairs.  Our tutor would give us work to do between tutorials which led to regular all-nighters for me and Anne before tutorials, to get the work done, fortified by Martini and Death Burgers from the all night van near the college. 

If we had a Monday morning tutorial there was a problem.  Anne’s boyfriend would often come over for the weekend and catch the early coach back to London for work on Monday morning.  Just after he left, I would arrive, so Anne and I could get ready for the tutorial later that day.  Invariably, Anne’s scout, Armando would see her boyfriend leave and me arrive.  He was Italian and although he had lived in Oxford for many years, he still spoke with a thick accent, sounding like an Italian version of Manuel from Faulty Towers.  After a few Mondays, he would pull me aside on the way up to Anne’s room and say, “I know sir, itz-a-right, I know” and tap his finger against the side of his nose as a promise he wouldn’t say anything!  No amount of persuasion would convince him that he had got it wrong.   My scout and I also developed a healthy relationship during my year in college.  I didn’t mind if he didn’t clean the room that well, and he didn’t mind if I broke a few college rules.

My biggest shock however, was the way different Christians viewed and treated each other.  I encountered a culture where Roman Catholics were not seen as Christians; where people were questioned to see if they were ‘sound’; where there were more churches and chapels than anywhere I had ever been and yet most tended to retreat into their own cosy silo, looking down with suspicion or derision on the other silos around them.   I know that Universities are hot houses of opinion and heated discussion.  I know that Oxford is probably one of the more extreme versions of this, with institutions like the Oxford Union embodying polarised debate.  But this ran deeper.  The latest intake of new Christian students seemed to be pushed into choosing an allegiance, then called on to defend it against all-comers, and recruiting more people into their religious silo.  It was more competing spires than dreaming spires.

I felt caught between silos. I was an Evangelical Catholic Charismatic Christian and I didn’t want to pick a side or be backed into a corner.  Coming from a year in the open environment of the Scargill Community where all views were valued and our commitment was to live together in diversity, I found myself way out of my depth amidst a clamour of different voices, vying for my attention.

At the end of my first term I returned home for Christmas and after a few days my father took me to one side.  He had noticed a weariness about me and wanted to know how I was really doing.  As we talked, he said to me “You look like you have lost your first love.”  Knowing the Bible verse in Revelation, I knew exactly what he meant.    In the visions for the 7 churches, the believers in Ephesus are commended for their hard work, perseverance and endurance, but then God says,

“Yet I hold this against you; you have lost your first love” (Rev 2:1-7)

I realised he was right.

While trying to navigate my way through the contesting voices, I had lost my first love of God.  I was becoming more wrapped up in issues than people.  Theological disputes were replacing life-giving faith.  I was becoming infected with a version of faith where being right was more important than loving others.  I had lost my first love and for someone who felt called to be a priest, this was serious. 

Paul’s words to the Corinthian church rung out in my head.

“If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Whatever I did when I went back for my second term, I had to rediscover the love that is at the heart of the Gospel.  I had to resist the divisive intellectualisation of faith which I was encountering.   I had to find a way to be counter cultural.  I had to find a way to cross the lines that were being laid out for me by others.

It felt daunting; I worried that it would be a lonely road; but I knew it was what I needed to do.