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.

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