AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Cambridge University is bragging about the newest QS Quacquarelli Symonds world university rankings. Just released, they show the British university at second in the world, while Oxford, which was in the silver spot last year, has moved down to fourth. But of the making of ranking systems for universities, there is no end. In the famed U. S. News and World Report rankings, Oxford University ranks fifth globally, topping Cambridge and ranking first among both British and European universities. But in the Times Higher Education rankings, Oxford, the second-oldest university still operating in the world, ranks number one this year for the sixth year in a row.
Take that, Cambridge.
Whatever the machinations of the various rankings (and this writer, who spent spring semester of his junior year as an associate student at Oxford’s Keble College in 1995, is not completely impartial), Oxford University is still the British university that continues to inspire a deep reverence among people around the world, especially American Christians. For Catholics and Protestants, Oxford is a place of inspiration. Its health is therefore a matter of concern for them as an indicator of how Christian faith fares in the modern west.
Catholics point to older alumni such as Blessed John Duns Scotus, St. Thomas More, and St. Edmund Campion, as well as modern figures such as St. John Henry Newman, who said that “Oxford made us Catholics,” the great spiritual writer and preacher Ronald Knox, the pugnacious historian, travel writer, and poet Hilaire Belloc, and the brilliant and holy 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, as well as the hymns of John’s brother, Charles Wesley. They look to modern theologians and biblical scholars J. I. Packer and N. T. Wright.
And all Christians seem to look in gratitude and wonder at a collection of modern Protestant and Catholic masters of the Christian tradition and imagination who went to Oxford: Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers.
Yet despite its glorious past, worries about Oxford’s secularization go back to the mid-nineteenth century, when both Catholics and Protestants thought the school had lost most of its Christian character. By 1945, Ronald Knox could speak of the “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 was never given a professorship at the university he is most associated with because of his Christian apologetics and spiritual writing. So what of Oxford today? While it sits at or near the top of world university rankings for its research and its placement of alumni in important positions in the world, does it still have a place to play in cultivating or serving Christian faith and a healthy society?
It is not surprising that the secularization pattern has continued, given that 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 scheduled to be released this month, are 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 ceased to require any theology for students, the end of an 800-year tradition, a final sign. The next year, Balliol College (alums include Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hilaire Belloc), one of the most prestigious of the 39 colleges that comprise the university, forbade the Oxford Christian Union from having representatives at the freshers fair, an event meant to introduce first-year students to different groups at the university, so that the event could be a “secular space” and make everyone feel “welcome.”
The years since have indicated that while Christian dogmas are not very welcome, other dogmas are. Enter an endless string of controversies drearily familiar to Americans, involving whether to topple statues or change the names of buildings connected to figures who were involved in the slave trade, imperial endeavors, or racism of any sort—even if they were unexceptional in their own times or had other virtues, even exceptional ones. The Middle Common Room (a kind of alumni association) at Magdalen College, where C. S. Lewis was a lecturer and tutor for thirty years, took down a picture of Queen Elizabeth II in their space. Music faculty at Oxford contemplated stopping teaching on great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven or the musical notation that they used because of the “great distress” it caused to “coloured students.” (Apparently woke Brits in 2019 had not figured out that the phrase is “students of colour.”)
In March of this year, Worcester College, Oxford, sometimes styled the “People’s Republic of Worcester College,” apologized for allowing a group called Christian Concern to put on an Evangelical Christian conference for students and young professionals on its grounds. It allegedly canceled a future event due to claims by some students that there had been aggressive leaflet distribution and proselytization about so-called “conversion therapy” for people with same-sex desires. No evidence of such aggressive tactics or leaflets were found, and the apology from the college referred to views that were merely stated at the conference about sexuality and abortion. And Worcester administrators claim that they did not cancel any future events for the group because the future events had not been fully booked.
Institutionally, in other words, all the weight seems 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 town had hoisted the cultural Jolly Roger that is the Pride flag.
Yet though the destruction of the Church of England might be a near-certain bet in Britain, it is not clear that Christianity is dead there or in Oxford. For one thing, the colleges still have a great many visitors to their glorious chapels, whose beauty they have largely maintained. For another, there is still a large herd of visitors to Oxford interested in visiting the Kilns, C. S. Lewis’s house north of Oxford, which has been turned into a study center for visiting Christian scholars, one of whom tells me that the work of some influential Christian scholars has opened up a bit more space in Oxford for believers since the scholar’s arrival four years ago. Similarly, the series of buildings in Littlemore, where John Henry Newman served the Anglicans in the little village at the edge of Oxford and then was received into the Catholic Church, is a site of pilgrimage as well as a retreat and study center. Though the movements to cancel the past have the momentum, it’s not clear that the great saints and Christian artists can be canceled.
But the most important reason that one might have hope for Oxford is that Britain’s own secularism is being countered by those in its former empire who have come back. In April, writer and critic Tomiwa Owolade published a very interesting article titled “The Future of Anglicanism is African” at Britain’s online UnHerd magazine. While most people know of the vigorous Christian life in Africa, Owolade demonstrated that its presence in Britain is serving as a counter to the widespread secularization of the country. West African immigrants in London are renovating and re-filling ancient churches, both Protestant and Catholic. They pray, they hold to Christian teachings about sexual morality, and they evangelize. Christianity, a largely urban phenomenon in the ancient Roman world, is so again in once-Roman Britain.
One may be permitted a healthy doubt about Owolade’s suggestion of a complete open borders policy in Britain without disagreeing with his thesis about the effects of African Christians on the nation and possibly its institutions. As they establish themselves in Britain, the children of these Christians will gradually matriculate at schools including Oxford, perhaps putting pressure on Oxford colleges not only to allow Christian opinions, but also give more honor and perhaps attention to the university’s own Christian heritage. They may be the ones to point at the statues, such as the one of Mary and the Child Jesus in Oriel College’s lovely quad, and see not merely a dead faith but a living one to be passed on.
It’s probably already happening. My group’s tour of Littlemore was given by two religious sisters of the Spiritual Family the Work, which runs the retreat and study center. The younger of the two was a beautiful young woman of African origin who was just as excited by the story of the great saint John Henry Newman as I was. To her, Newman’s Christian faith is not only 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 a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast. Follow him on GETTR @davidpdeavel.
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