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”.
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.