Thursday Date Nights!
Some people would think it was a very boring ‘date-night’ but we loved it! Some Thursday afternoons while Mike was doing his DPhil, Helen’s aunt babysat our two small children and we were able to go to - wait for it...’a seminar on the Sociology of Religion’!
The seminars, organised by Mike’s supervisor, were led by distinguished sociologists from around the world - each of them studying different religious practices from a variety of perspectives. The other students were also a very diverse group with many searching questions about religion. If there was time afterwards, we would go out for dinner or at least a cup of tea and a browse in Blackwell’s book shop.
On the way home, we would share the questions about our own religious world that the afternoon’s seminar had raised. ‘Hearing him (they were usually ‘hims’ in those days) makes you ask yourself....’ we used to say to each other. Oxford became a place of stimulus and resource – a place where we were confronted with important questions and found our horizons widened and our conversations enriched. We are still thankful for the challenging questions from those Thursday afternoons. They developed in us the sense of quest in the university’s motto which speaks of its religious foundations: ‘Dominus illuminatio mea’ (The Lord is my light).
Yesterday, after the months of lockdown and very few outings, we decided to make our first visit to the city of ‘dreaming spires’ since pre-Covid times. You won’t be surprised to hear that there was a deal of reminiscing going on. And it was Thursday too!
No seminars yesterday – but we were able to take a couple of pictures in All Souls and spend some time (and amazingly, no money!) in Blackwells. After lunch, we visited the University Church – a place where the regular practice of renowned thinkers being invited to deliver sermons dates back to the earliest days of the University. ‘They are occasions,’ says the church website, ‘of focus and exploration for the illumination of the mind in the context of prayer’ and ‘an opportunity to hear renowned thinkers from a range of disciplines and perspectives, drawing together the life of learning, spiritual discovery and the quest for truth.'
On display in the church were excerpts from some of the sermons preached in that questing life during the last eighty years.
Here are three of our favourites:
C.S.Lewis in war-torn Britain (1942): ‘there is no such thing as a ‘mere mortal’. ‘There are no ordinary people.... It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours’.
Desmond Tutu in 1995: “ Let’s say…that the quality that determined whether you could enter [the university] was size of nose. If you had a small nose and wanted to attend the university for large noses only, then you would have to apply to the Minister of Small Nose Affairs for permission to attend the Large Nose University…One does not have to take a God’s-eye perspective to see that this is absolutely and utterly ridiculous”.
Rowan Williams (2004) urging students, no matter what their subject of study, to develop a ‘vigorous sense of good argument’. He encouraged them to develop a ‘sceptical eye for the demagogue, the columnist, the campaigning obsessive, for those who dogmatise beyond their proper skills – and so yes, of course, for the preacher too’!
As we went to take the ‘sacrament’ of coffee and cake in the Church’s fine vaulted café, we were thankful for all the people and places that are not afraid to pose big questions. It will still take more than the Church’s coffee – which was very good – and cake – which was rather ordinary and over-priced – to help us answer them.