The Great Hall in Christ Church College was the inspiration for the set for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, its wooden walls almost obscured by so many portraits of famous sons (plus one daughter, and the Queen), its lengthy dining tables adorned by impossibly long, starched white linen runners, glowing lamps and smart place settings. In real life it looks magical too.
For those of us who attended the two-week Oxford University 2018 Theology Summer School, the Great Hall was where we gathered for breakfast and dinner, got to know each other, and established friendships across the globe.
The traditions of Christ Church Dining Hall were firm – no one enters before the gavel is pounded three times and dinner is announced, and no one sits until grace (in Latin) has been intoned. The food, at the peril of all waistlines, was excellent.
I come from the rare three tikanga context of St Columba Church in Grey Lynn, Auckland, a place of worship, healing and significant community outreach that is enriched by the languages and cultures of Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha.
As I approach the last papers of a Diploma in Christian Studies through St John’s College, the thought of studying theology at Oxford University, living on site in student accommodation, partaking of Eucharist daily in the Cathedral, and exploring Oxford as an ‘insider’, sounded like a dream come true.
And so, I set off with some trepidation to join the theologians and clergy who comprise the majority of attendees, as ‘a lay person who wishes to continue studying theology at tertiary level’. I was glad to have just completed the Old Testament paper through the University of Otago, as that dovetailed nicely with the topics I had chosen.
The Christ Church surroundings are magnificent. Tom Quad, across which – to our delight because of the tourists - only students may walk, was parched from the extremely dry, hot summer, creating visual harmonies between grass and buildings.
Entering the quad was breath-taking whatever the time of day – in the 6am freshness when setting out for a walk along the tow path of the Isis, in the middle of the day returning to afternoon classes in the overbearing heat, or in the cooler temperatures of the evening on our way to Evensong. The shadows cast this way and that, highlighting different angles and archways of the 16-17th century buildings. At Tom Gate, the main entrance, porters managed security, the tourists, and residents’ queries with courtesy and patience.
Opposite Tom Gate is Christ Church Cathedral, which has the unique dual role in the Church of England as both the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford, and the chapel of Christ Church College. It was there my day started at 7.15am (prayers then Eucharist) - and often ended as well, with Evensong. These services provided welcome contemplative bookends to the day’s intense study.
At many other times it was a joy to simply be within its walls, learning from snippets of history inscribed on flagstones or walls, taking photographs of the extraordinary stained-glass windows, or just listening for God in such a place where thousands have been before.
All the attendees enjoyed the thrill of being resident at the college, of walking past the No Entry signs into the ‘Residents Only’ areas. We relished walking across Tom Quad where only we could pass and wandering around the other colleges within a small radius, courtesy of our Student IDs – although unfortunately there was actually little time to explore outside our study commitments.
It was a particular delight to visit the Merton College Chapel the day before it was scheduled to close for repairs. Because Thomas Merton, though not born in New Zealand, was the son of renowned New Zealand painter Owen Merton, I have a special interest in him nurtured by my reading about his life and theology. The ‘chapel’, cavernous and sparse, was a holy place - one of many, each unique and beautiful, dotted around Oxford and providing an enjoyable past-time during our lunch breaks.
The physical surroundings were as impressive as the classes we attended. Throughout each of the two weeks, there was a different topic morning and afternoon. The four I selected were Towards A History of Holiness, Holiness in the Psalms of Israel, Recovering Baptism for the Church and the World, and Conversations with the Fathers. The other topics were:
- Becoming less through the new asceticism
- What happens when we pray
- New explorations in Natural Theology
- Reclaiming the sacred in Paul
- Ageing: blessing or burden
- Renewing Creation
- The case for God
- Seeing the sacred: place, space and art
All the classes were fascinating, intellectually rigorous and stimulating - I could have chosen any topic - and the tutors were a delightful and stellar cast, each the author of multiple books. Space does not permit a listing of their various achievements and accolades.
Amongst them were Fr Henry Wansbrough, a youthful 83-year-old monk and well-known biblical scholar from Ampleforth Abbey in York, whose knowledge is unsurpassed after a lifetime of living in Christ.
Our text was his latest publication, the Revised New Jewish Bible (New Testament and Psalms), 2017; the Rev Dr Edmund Newell, chaplain to the Queen, and Principal of Cumberland Lodge; the Rev Canon Angela Tilby, who brought the Desert Fathers alive and whose specialist topic is the less well-known Evagrius; Professor Dr Keith Riglin who immersed us in Baptism with much humour and depth; the Rt Rev Dr John Saxbee, retired Bishop of Ludlow and then Lincoln, in the Church of England; The Rev Canon Dr Jenn Strawbridge, Associate Professor in New Testament Studies at Oxford, and Caird Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College, Oxford.
Each Tuesday evening, we attended lectures by a visiting theologian, neither of whom needs any introduction. Firstly, the Rev Professor Alister McGrath spoke on ‘Christian Apologetics in Oxford: reflections on C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and (New Zealander) Austin Farrer’. He focussed on the power of using narrative to tell the Christian story.
The following week, Professor Frances Young - whose God’s Presence, A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity was the set text for one of our classes – spoke about ‘Sacred bodies: how the physical and material becomes sacramental in Christian Thought’.
The diversity of attendees was fascinating – a predominance of Americans, a handful each of Kiwis, Australians and English, a couple of Europeans. Mostly ordained, each in this ecumenical group is involved in fascinating aspects of ministry and there was an extensive and valuable exchange of ideas during our time together.
Their ministries include working with children or violent offenders, feeding the hungry, easing the horrific conditions to which illegal immigrants are subject in the USA, including the separation of children from their parents, and being key players in transforming the communication amongst multiple agencies in large cities.
This was a trip of a lifetime and, like many other attendees, I will return to Oxford to enjoy again the amazing historical context, excellent scholarship and teaching offered, and the new friendships that are forged in such a special place. The 2019 information will be released around October, but for detail on the courses offered this year, use this link: https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/theology-summer-school.