The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad.
Words from “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the minor disasters which occurred during the summer over-past was that the University of Oxford was ranked behind the University of Cambridge in the league table: Oxford trailed behind its Fenland rival as it had in the Boat Race earlier this year, although that was as a result of Cambridge sharp practice. So it has come to pass that some of us have returned, and some of us have arrived here for the first time to the second-best University in the country for the start of a new academic year. “The way of the ungodly he turneth it upside down,” as the Psalmist has it. These sage words seem as appropriate and applicable outside the walls of Oxford as within them.
Since we met together in this Chapel, some three months ago, much has changed. Her Majesty the Queen has a new government with a new Prime Minister. In these short months of summer, for want of a better word, there have been terrorist attacks on London and Glasgow; such severe flooding that Mr Blair’s last words on the steps of Number 10, Downing Street may well have been “apres moi le déluge.” Foot and mouth disease and now blue tongue disease have struck the countryside; the BBC cheated in the naming of Socks; Brittany Spears lost custody of her children; the Spice Girls announced that they were re-forming: just one disaster after another.
Yet, we may put all that behind us. This new academic year brings with it opportunities and possibilities: it was ever thus. There are new things to learn, fresh scholarship to be pursued, new friends to be made, new interests to engage the mind and the senses. All is laid before you. All the glittering prizes are within your grasp. And, as many possibilities there may be, you can be guaranteed that there will be as many temptations lying in wait of which undergraduate sloth is not nearly the worst, only the most prevalent. Life in the University can be frenetic, trying to pack so much in so short a time. Activity can, however, obscure our higher purposes.
However magnificent Oxford may seem to the outsider, however enticing, however exotic and privileged, not everything is “all glorious within.” The University, as a rigorously secular institution divorced from its foundation principles, no longer provides a context for Christian living. A few tired remnants of a glorious and religious past survive. The constituent colleges offer no more than a pale shadow of a Christian community, or even a religious community. A corporate life once so valued, shared in chapel and hall, has been replaced by the need to placate and to satisfy a different kind of corporate endeavour and members of colleges are evicted unceremoniously early at the end of term to make way for the lucrative conference trade. In this we see no more than a reflection of the wider society in which there predominates a set of secular cultural assumptions.
Within the cultural context of our society, and within the secular context of the University, there is an urgent imperative to witness of Christ. The Gospel this morning reminds us that faith is an entirely free gift from God and that our responsibility is to live out the demands of that faith and to proclaim that faith in season and out of season. We do it in the everyday living of our lives, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We do it as part of our duty as Christians, part of the fabric of our being, as an expression of who it is and what we are.
When Our Lord stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, he proclaimed that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth. We must confront the jesting Pilates of our own day who cynically ask, “What is truth?” We do it by asserting the truth of God made man, of Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection. In the Epistle this morning from S. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, we are reminded, and reminded forcibly, that the followers of Christ, his modern disciples as much as his original disciples, are not to “be ashamed of testifying to Our Lord.” In that we are witnesses to the faith, witnessing to Christ in what we say and what we do, how we live and, when the time comes, how we die. The Apostles entrusted the sacred deposit of faith in Scripture and the Tradition to the whole of the Church and as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, we can do no other than to proclaim the faith handed down from those Apostles who had Christ’s own commission, and more significantly to live it.
This House has enjoyed a long tradition of proclaiming the faith of the Apostles, of witness to the truth of Christ’s universal message, of seeking to instil in those who cross the threshold of the House from S. Giles and enter our fellowship the holiness of living to which Christ call all men and women. Within the tradition of the Oxford Movement we bear sentinel witness to the Catholic Faith as the Church of England received it. That witness did not make us popular then, and does not make us popular now. There has always been a combative edge to the House, a whiff of ecclesiastical cordite. Our witness to that Catholic Faith, to that deposit of faith and tradition, is as important today, perhaps even more pressing and urgent, as it was one hundred and seventy-five years ago. As Dr Pusey, in whose honour and memory this House was founded, John Keble, John Henry Newman and those who followed them sought to recall the Church of England to its Catholic heritage, so we, their heirs and successors in that tradition, remain faithful to their vision and remain a faithful Catholic conscience amidst the folly of the times.
We stand in a similar relationship to the University: apart from it but amidst it; a rebuke to its rejection of its religious heritage and its surrender to worldly, secular values. For us truth cannot be something socially conditioned, something to be taken up then cast aside when inconvenient, something which rests on the shifting sands of contemporary fashion, or on the latest emotional spasm.
At the doctrinal centre of the Oxford Movement is the Incarnation: the Word made Flesh: God made man in Christ Jesus. God’s unique act of love and reconciliation was conceived in the Virgin’s womb, laid in a manger, consummated on the wood of the Cross in his Passion, the ultimate act of self-sacrificial love, asserted in the Resurrection. It is that love which lies at the heart of the call to holiness of living. It is a radical summons to live not to self but to live for Christ and in the service of Christ to others. It means opening ourselves to God’s love, being prepared for our lives to be over-taken and re-shaped, transfigured and transformed. For the Christian, love is not some namby-pamby-lovey-dovey-touchy-feely-squidgy-squeezy feeble sentimentalisation. It is something more demanding, something more radical, challenging, dangerous and risky. That is because Christian living is not some mechanistic, politically prescriptive, social regimentation. It is real people in all their complexity in relationship with other real people in all their complexity. It is a combustible mix.
By God’s involvement in the world, within human creation, in the Incarnation, he sent his Son, he sent Christ into that world of complex relationships to demonstrate the art of living. Christianity is the art of living: the art of living in relationship with God and in relationship one with another, with all the possibilities and risks that entails. It is the art of negotiating our way through the complexities of human living. Living in love with God, in love with his creation and in love with one another, springs directly from the divine initiative when God stooped a little lower than the angels and shared in humanity’s condition. Our relationships, our way of living is rooted in the divine reality of the Holy Trinity. The divine exchange of love within the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, informs and shapes the reality of our existence.
Born out of our love of God, our love of Christ, in return fro the love he showed us, as an expression of our love within the community of the baptised, we come here out of love to meet love, to encounter Christ made present on the altar in his Church in the sacrament of his love, among his people. William Laud, who lies, no doubt uneasily, in S. John’s College across the road, said that “the altar is the greatest place of God’s residence on earth, greater than the pulpit; for there ‘tis Hoc est corpus meum,; but in the other it is at most Hoc est verbum meum.”
There comes a point when words are inadequate, a point of surrender to the mystery of God and of the surrender of our lives for others. By signs and symbols much more than words, the Mass calls us to be attentive to others. Selfishness and the resistance of the ego are transformed by the Mass. We come to the altar as we must, inexorably drawn as we are to the heart of the matter, the sacramental presence of Christ, present under the veil of bread and wine, which are his Body and his Blood, on the altar of sacrifice, embraced in the most intimate, immediate and authentic encounter with the Incarnate God in Christ Jesus, to whom be all might, majesty, glory and honour now and until the end of time.
Pusey House 2007
Father William Davage Custodian of Dr Pusey's Library