Saturday 24 March 2018


Crossing the Line - part 19

While at university, my path towards ordination continued.

I met with my DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands) in Manchester when I was at home with Mum and Dad and in my second year, I was deemed ready for ACCM (see below for explanation!)

The Church of England selection conference for ordination is a strange animal with many names.  These days it is called a BAP – with apologies to friends in the Midlands and Northern England where this means something entirely different!  In the past it has also been CACTM and ABM.  In my day it was the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry (ACCM).  Whatever the name, it has changed little over the years.  It’s a three-day residential selection panel, that can feel like being in a human goldfish bowl.   As well as interviews with the selectors or advisors, there are group exercises and written pieces of work.  You are observed almost all of the time to see how you relate to others and express your faith and calling.  You are expected to sit at different tables each meal time to ensure that all the selectors get a good look at you.  The only times you are not being observed are in the regular acts of prayer and worship.  It’s a bit like a spiritual version of the TV series Big Brother, with Bishops Advisors instead of cameras.

Before I went however, there was still one thing on my mind that I needed to sort out.

At one of the university Christian Unions meetings I had heard a preacher called George Verwer.  He founded a missionary organisation called Operation Mobilisation (OM) in the 1950’s and was a compelling speaker.  He asked us what Jesus last commandment was, before he went back to heaven.

The answer is found in the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28)

George argued that this last command calls on all Christians to be missionaries.  So the real question is not “Am I called to be a missionary?” but rather “Am I called to stay at home?”   His challenge went further, arguing that unless you hear God calling you to stay at home, your Christian duty is to go into all the world, because those were his last instructions.

This turned everything upside-down for me.  I had assumed that missionaries were the special few, called by God to a special task.  George Verwer was saying that we are all called to be missionaries unless God tells us otherwise.  I felt challenged and began to pray.  Was God indeed calling me to ordination in the Church of England or was he calling me overseas?  I needed to know.

The answer came from one of the few times that I have actually heard an audible voice.  One day at the end of my prayers I heard the words,Read Ezekiel 3.”  That was it.  No burning bush or blinding light.  No clap of thunder or vision of heaven.  Just a simple instruction to read this chapter of an Old Testament book about the prophet Ezekiel.

As I opened my Bible, I had no idea what I would find.  It was not a book or chapter I knew well and although I must have read it at some point, I couldn’t remember anything about it.  I was, therefore, utterly amazed by what I found there. 

“Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and strange language, but to the people of Israel – not to many peoples of obscure speech and strange language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you.  But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate.  But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are.  I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” (Ezekiel 3:4-9)

 It is part of the story of God calling Ezekiel to ministry.  Chapters 1 & 2 set the scene and in chapter 3 was the answer to my question.  There was no ambiguity – it was in black and white in front of me!  I couldn’t believe it.   As I read and re-read the chapter I realised that just as Ezekiel was called to his own people (the people of Israel) so God was calling me to my own people.  The realisation also came to me that this would not be an easy task.  “If I sent you to great nations that spoke difficult languages you didn’t understand… they would listen to you… but your own people will not listen.”  I wasn’t sure what this meant yet, but one thing I knew for sure – God was calling me to stay.

So early one March morning in 1984 I set off for my ACCM.  It was a long journey.  I had to travel from Oxford to Riding Mill in Northumberland.  It took 3 trains, the tube, and a 15-minute walk from the station at the other end to get to the retreat house.

The only preparation I received for my selection conference was the instruction “Go and be yourself lad, you’ll be fine.”  Compared with the way Dioceses prepare people for their selection conference today, that was decidedly minimalist!  So I went as myself, dressed in jeans, trainers, T-shirt and denim jacket, with my Adidas bag slung over my shoulder.

On the last train from Newcastle I noticed someone smartly dressed in his three-piece suit & tie and with his professional looking suitcase.  When I got off at Riding Mill Station he got off too, and started walking up the road to the retreat centre.  When I followed, I sensed him getting a little nervous at being followed up these deserted country lanes by a denim-clad stranger.  He started to quicken his pace and I thought of trying to catch up with him, as I was sure we were both heading for the same place.  Then I thought better of it.  If he was scared now, what would he be like if I started to run after him.  I slowed my pace to allow him to get away!

On arriving at the retreat centre I was looking at the visitors’ book and working out how to register, when I heard a voice saying, “Are you just leaving?”  I turned around and saw another smartly dressed man who had clearly taken one look at me and thought I couldn’t possibly be a potential ordinand.  What a welcome!  He turned out to be another of the candidates, not one of the selectors, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit out of place.

If I am honest though, it didn’t really bother me.  It may sound arrogant, but I knew God was calling me to be a priest, right down to the depth of my being.  I know that not everyone feels that way.  Many go with a much more questioning approach, wanting to test if this is for them, but I knew.  As a result, I wasn’t worried about getting a ‘No’ at the end.  If that happened it was the selectors who would have made a mistake, not me.  I would simply wait the statutory two years before I could try again.  Although this may seem arrogant, it wasn’t.  I didn’t think that I was God’s gift to the church.  I knew my weaknesses far too well for that.  I just knew, despite all my faults and failings, that this was God calling for me.

As the three days progressed I noticed that the other candidates did progressively dress down and if I am honest, I dressed a little smarter, putting a proper shirt over my T-shirt!  We almost ended up meeting in the middle.

The selectors were astute but kind, and they did their best to put us all at our ease.  My interviews went well, although I was a little disturbed by my educational interview because it was far too short.  Almost as soon as I walked through the door, the selector told me, “You’ll be alright; you’re at Oxford” and to all intents and purposes that was the interview.  While reassured to hear I would be ‘alright’, I did wonder if that was a little presumptuous.  Maths and Theology are miles apart and I hadn’t written essays since I was 16.  How had he come to this conclusion without asking me a single question?  It partly stuck in my throat because in those days, the only selector with a veto on recommending a candidate for ordination was the educational selector.   I wondered whether he gave a much harder time to candidates who had not been to Oxford.  It all felt a bit too elitist and cosy to me.

The two other things which stick in my mind about my ACCM Conference were nudity and drinking!

There was a group exercise called 10 minute topics.  Our names were drawn out of a hat at random and we each had to choose card from the coffee table in the middle of the room.  The cards were face-down and when you turned over your chosen card, you read the topic you had been given.  We then had 10 minutes to introduce the subject, then chair a group discussion and sum up at the end.

At 21, I was by far the youngest person in the room, and my name came out of the hat first.  I approached the table, chose a card and turned it over.  It read “Beach nudity – harmless fun or moral outrage?”  I almost burst out laughing.  Looking around the more elderly group I was in, I took a deep breath and launched into the subject.  Why couldn’t I have got one of the easy topics like fox hunting, pacifism, or euthanasia?!

Outlining arguments from each point of view, I opened it up for discussion.  Silence.   It was like trying to get blood out of a stone or discuss nudity at a Church Council meeting.  Half of the room were too embarrassed to speak and the other half were worried about saying something which would place them in a negative light with the selectors – either too judgemental or too permissive.

After a bit of encouragement, one brave soul opened his mouth and began with the words, “When I was in the south of France…”  Thank you God!  Then others chipped in and it went well in the end.

The other memory I have is from the second evening.  We had been told by the selectors that attendance at Compline (night prayers) was optional and we could choose whether to attend or not.  So on the second day, a small group of us took the selectors at their word, missed Compline and went to the pub instead.  After we ordered our drinks and sat down, we noticed one of the selectors was also in the pub, sitting at another table. Was he having some time out too, or was he there to spy on us?  Initially we all felt like we were back at school and had been caught sneaking out, but then we relaxed and enjoyed our evening.  We did swap contact details and promised to let each other know if got through of not – a kind of straw poll on whether nipping down to the pub was seen as a black mark at selection conferences.

The three days came to an end and we all went our separate ways, knowing that the decisions lay with the selectors’ now.

During the long journey back to Oxford I couldn’t believe how tired I felt.  I was exhausted and more than that, a kind of depression set in.  As the adrenaline levels fell away, far from feeling close to God and eager to know if my vocation had been recognised, I felt down, exhausted and alone. 

Working as I do now in encouraging Vocations, I now know that this is common among people who go to BAPs today (Bishops Advisory Panels) but I think it is still underestimated.  Parish priests and supportive friends would do well to know that most candidates will need more encouragement after a BAP than before it. Candidates also need to know what to expect and be allowed to cut themselves a little slack after attending one.

About ten days later the phone call came from my DDO.  I had been warmly recommended with two conditions; that I finish my degree at university, and that I didn’t go to theological college straight from university.  I should spend at least a year doing something different first.

I was over the moon!  It was 5 years since I had first filled in a form to explore ordination and now I had been recommended for training.  I also welcomed the time out before theological college with open arms, having already decided that there were lots of exciting things that I would like to do.  My mind went back to my father who was told the same thing after his selection conference.  It was suggested that he should go and work in a book shop, but instead got himself a job on the shop-floor of a steel works.  What would I do?

With my parents in 1984
Telling my parents was a particular joy.  They had always been very careful not to influence me in any way.  Ever since I told them at 16, they had been totally neutral and had never expressed an opinion, for or against.  Now, as I told them my result, they were openly overjoyed and finally told me they thought God was calling me to ordination all along.

When our little group from the pub let each other know our outcomes, guess what?  We had all been recommended.  In the end, neither beach nudity nor drinking had been a barrier to any of our callings being recognised – perhaps they even helped!

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…!