Oxford and the future of Christian Britain – AMAC

AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel

Cambridge University Boasts Brand New QS Quacquarelli Symonds Global University rankings. Barely out, they place the British university in second place in the world, while Oxford, which held the silver spot last year, is demoted to fourth. But of making ranking systems for universities, there is no end. In the famous US News and World Report rankings, the University of Oxford ranks fifth globally, overtaking Cambridge and ranking first among British and European universities. But in the Times Higher Education rankingsOxford, the second oldest continuously operating university in the world, ranks number one this year for the sixth consecutive year.

Take that, Cambridge.

Whatever the machinations of the various rankings (and this writer, who spent the spring semester of his first year as an associate student at Keble College, Oxford in 1995, is not completely unbiased), the University of Oxford is still the British university that continues to inspire deep reverence among people around the world, especially American Christians. For Catholics and Protestants, Oxford is a place of inspiration. His health is therefore a matter of concern to them as an indicator of the state of the Christian faith in the modern West.

Catholics point to older alumni such as Blessed John Duns Scot, St. Thomas More and St. Edmund Campion, as well as modern figures such as St. John Henry Newman, who said “Oxford made us Catholics”, the great spiritual writer. and the preacher Ronald Knox, the pugnacious historian, travel writer and poet Hilaire Belloc, and the brilliant and saintly Australian Cardinal George Pell.

Protestants look to Oxford men such as Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. They rejoice in the preaching of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley and George Whitefield, and the hymns of John’s brother, Charles Wesley. They look to modern theologians and biblical scholars JI Packer and NT Wright.

And all Christians seem to look gratefully and marvel at a collection of modern Protestant and Catholic masters of Christian tradition and imagination who went to Oxford: Evelyn Waugh, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers.

Yet despite its glorious past, concerns about Oxford’s secularization date back to the mid-19th century, when both Catholics and Protestants believed the school had lost most of its Christian character. In 1945, Ronald Knox could speak of “Egyptian darkness”, referring to the plagues of Egypt recounted in Exodus, engulfing the place. Despite his academic accomplishments in Medieval and Renaissance literature, C. S. Lewis never received a professorship at the university with which he is most associated due to his Christian apologetics and spiritual writing. So what about Oxford today? While it sits at or near the top of the world university rankings for its research and placement of alumni in important positions around the world, does it still have a place to play in the culture or the service of the Christian faith and a healthy society?

It is not surprising that the pattern of secularization has continued, given that the data from the Church of England before Covid showed only about one percent of the population attended church services on any given weekend. The 2021 UK census, the first results of which are expected to be released this month, is widely predicted to show that less than half of Britain even identifies as Christian. This societal secularization has had an effect on the university.

In 2016, the university itself stopped demanding all theology for students, the end of an 800-year-old tradition, a last sign. Next year, Balliol College (alumni include Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hilaire Belloc), one of the most prestigious of the 39 colleges that make up the university, banned the Oxford Christian Union from having representatives at the freshman fair, a event intended to introduce freshmen to different groups at the university, so that the event is a “secular space” and everyone feels “welcome”.

The years that followed have shown that while Christian dogmas are not very well received, other dogmas are. Enter an endless string of controversies sadly familiar to Americans, involving toppling statues or changing the names of buildings linked to figures involved in the slave trade, imperial efforts, or racism of any kind – though not exceptional in their day or had other, even exceptional, virtues. The Middle Common Room (a sort of alumni association) of Magdalen College, where CS Lewis was a lecturer and tutor for thirty years, took a picture of Queen Elizabeth II in their space. Oxford’s faculty of music was considering stopping teaching about great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven or the musical notation they used because of the “great distress” it caused “students of color”. (Apparently woke Britons in 2019 didn’t realize the phrase was “students of color.”)

In March of that year, Worcester College, Oxford was sometimes called the “People’s Republic of Worcester College”. apologized for allowing a group called Christian Concern to hold an evangelical Christian conference for students and young professionals on his land. He reportedly canceled a future event due to claims by some students that there had been aggressive leafleting and proselytizing of so-called “conversion therapy” for people with homosexual desires. No evidence of such aggressive tactics or leafleting was found, and the college’s apology referred to views that were simply stated at the conference on sexuality and abortion. And Worcester administrators say they have not canceled any future events for the group because future events had not been fully booked.

Institutionally, in other words, all the weight seems to be on the side of the secular religion of Wokism with all its shibboleths, dogmas and destructions. When this writer was in Oxford earlier in the month for a visit, many of the colleges and institutions that make up the glorious city had hoisted the cultural Jolly Roger which is the flag of pride.

Yet while the destruction of the Church of England may be an almost certain bet in Britain, it is not clear that Christianity is dead there or in Oxford. On the one hand, the colleges still have a large number of visitors to their glorious chapels, the beauty of which they have largely preserved. On the other hand, there is still a large flock of visitors to Oxford interested in visiting the ovens, the home of C. S. Lewis north of Oxford, which has been turned into a center of study for visiting Christian scholars, one of whom tells me that the work of some influential Christian scholars has opened up a little more space for Oxford for believers since the arrival of the scholar four years ago. Similarly, the series of buildings in A bit more, where John Henry Newman served the Anglicans in the small village on the outskirts of Oxford and then was received into the Catholic Church, is a place of pilgrimage as well as a center for retreat and study. Although movements to undo the past have momentum, it is not clear that great Christian saints and artists can be undone.

But the most important reason one might have hope for Oxford is that Britain’s own secularism is being countered by those of its former empire who have returned. In April, writer and critic Tomiwa Owolade published a very interesting article titled “The future of Anglicanism is African” to Britain online A herd magazine. While most people are familiar with the vigorous Christian life in Africa, Owolade demonstrated that his presence in Britain serves as a counterweight to the widespread secularization of the country. West African immigrants in London are renovating and filling old churches, both Protestant and Catholic. They pray, they stick to Christian teachings on sexual morality, and they evangelize. Christianity, a largely urban phenomenon in the ancient Roman world, is again in once-Roman Britain.

One can be allowed to have healthy doubts about Owolade’s suggestion of a fully open border policy in Britain without disagreeing with his thesis on the effects of African Christians on the nation and possibly on its institutions. As they become established in Britain, the children of these Christians will gradually enroll in schools, including Oxford, perhaps pressuring Oxford colleges not only to allow Christian views, but also to give more honor and perhaps attention to the university’s own Christian heritage. Perhaps they are the ones who point to statues, like that of Mary and the Infant Jesus in Oriel College’s pretty quad, and see not just a dead faith but a living faith to pass on.

It’s probably already happening. My group’s visit to Littlemore was given by two nuns from Spiritual Family the Work, who run the retreat and study centre. The younger of the two was a beautiful young woman of African descent who was just as enthusiastic about the story of the great Saint John Henry Newman as I was. For her, Newman’s Christian faith is not just the past. It is the present and the future.

David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: a journal of Catholic thought and culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of Deep Things Podcast. Follow him on GETTR @davidpdeavel.

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Andrew B. Reiter