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…!






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