Off to Oxford: PThU students' blog

10 October 2019

Eight PThU students visited Oxford last March to join the student community of Wycliffe Hall for a few days of theological study. Gert and Annatoli (1 March), Jeremiah and Anne-Maaike (2 March), Rose and Rebecca (3 March) and Alladi and Billy (4 March) wrote their day-by-day experiences down in a blog.

1 March: Sharing lives, passions and faith with Wycliff students

Around 7 AM local time, two Dutch cars drove from the ferry into the beautiful country of England. With two professors, Klaas Bom and Theo Pleizier, and eight students, the climax of  the course Mission Shaped Spirituality was this  trip to Oxford and London. Just before the Brexit could have had challenges before us, we touched the English soil and saw the early spring breaking through and driving on the busy roads we sought our ways to Wycliffe Hall, our home for the weekend.

Underway to Oxford

Meeting the students

Having arrived safely, we directly strode to our first classes and joined some students for courses. We found a diverse group of American, Chinese, Brazil and English students accompanied by a vicar and orthodox priest. The students presented their papers by applying doctrine to their own context and church traditions. One student reflected on the situation in China and which stance the church should take towards the increasing oppression of the Chinese government with the aid of the two kingdoms doctrine of Augustine and Luther. During the break, another student shared his return from Leiden where he joined the local Passion week. From deification to revelation to liturgical challenges in this present context, it was amazing to witness God‘s revelation in diverse contexts and traditions.

Welcoming atmosphere

It was great to join the student community of Wycliffe Hall for a few days. Some Wycliffe students joined our classes later in the day and we shared meals in the common dining hall. In this way, we had the opportunity to share our lives, passions and faith with the Wycliff students. The general atmosphere was welcoming and relaxed. Wycliffe Hall has approximately 150 students and is the largest theological college of the University of Oxford. Of these 150, around 50 have their room at the college itself, others live somewhere else as they have families. The life at college is different from the PThU in Amsterdam of Groningen, but we share the eduroam ;).

Implicit bias - the new buzzword

Before we describe the whole college life, let’s get back to the program. In the afternoon Matthew Kirkpatrick introduced us in the insightful findings of social psychology for the study of theology. One of the key terms, 'implicit bias', was to become the buzzword of the weekend. In the evening, we discussed the ways in which mission could be shaped in the secular west. It came down to the importance of hospitality. In this finding, an American pastor who planted church back home and was on a sabbatical in Oxford for a year, also assured that hospitality is a great joy and missional for God’s Kingdom. 

Exploring the city

After this long day, part of the group went for a stroll to explore the city centre. Theo Pleizier could show illustrious parts of the city which he had explored before during his stay in Oxford in the nineties as a student himself. The unavoidable finish of the day is the pub the Eagle and Child. The place where Lewis and Tolkien met with their writers’ group, the Inklings! A good place for inspiration, and local ale where we had a good dose of theological conversations.

2 March: Lectures at Wycliffe Hall

After a good night of sleep in Wycliffe Hall and a simple but nice breakfast, Saturday started with a lecture by dr. Klaas Bom, titled “Pentecostal Spirituality and the Protestant Tradition”. He started from the question why Pentecostal spirituality is relatively small in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, whereas it is very much alive in the southern hemisphere. Bom explored the differences and convergences of the Pentecostal and Protestant theologies and after that challenged us to connect the theologies with the respective spiritual traditions, in group discussions. In the protestant tradition the mind is the most important orientation. That is displayed in the preference for rational spiritual practices, like sermons, Bible reading and study groups, affirming the truth of faith in songs. In the Pentecostal tradition, a more holistic approach is attested. This can be seen in the spiritual practices: singing as an expression of emotion, praying for the Holy Spirit. After the group discussions we plenary discussed how important the Pentecostal spirituality is for future Protestantism. One of the most important contributions of Pentecostal spirituality is – I would say – the more holistic spirituality. It is not just our mind but also our body and our whole life that matters in living a faith-led life. The different spiritual approaches can at least enrich each other.

Justice in sexual consent and monistic anthropology 

The theme of a faith-led life was picked up in two lectures by (former) PhD-students from Wycliffe Hall. Hannah talked enthusiastically about her research on the role of justice in sexual consent, partly by making use of Augustine’s thinking on marriage and sex. One of the aims of Hannah’s research is to think through how the church’s speaking on sexuality and marriage can be an apologetic one. In church, sexuality is almost only a theme when it comes to extramarital sex or LGBTQ-issues, but there is much more to say. After Hannah’s talk, Matt presented a paper he recently wrote, on the monistic anthropology of N.T. Wright and Michael B. Thompson. Both New Testament scholars do very much appreciate the body in their theologies, but according to Matt this comes at the expense of the soul. According to him, it is good to think and speak about the soul as the entity that carries our consciousness. After Matt’s lecture we discussed the implications of a dualistic anthropology: it does more justice to the immaterial component of our lives, e.g. a feeling of guilt.

Touring the university grounds

After lunch at the Wycliffe Hall cafeteria, we had the opportunity to tour the other colleges and interesting places in Oxford University. One student of the Wycliff Hall was our tour guide as we traversed the University community. We went to the University Park and also spent some time at the Museum of Natural History. The University has countless historical buildings and monumental designs and with the help of our tour guide, we were well informed about these monuments. One of these historical places was the exact spot where Thomas Cranmer, the bishop of Canterbury, was killed by Queen Mary I. It was exciting to relive the history we have learnt in school and read from books. After the tour, we had some free time to explore the city on our own. We visited some gift shops and had some coffee. In the evening we attended the Evensong at the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford after which we had dinner together at a pub, where we had the opportunity to try some British dishes.

Discussing different viewpoints

3 March: First, we go to church

Sunday was quite a relaxed day, and it started by going to church. Our group split up in two: one group visited St. Mary’s Church (in the city of Oxford) and the other group visited Emmanuel Church (a 20-minute drive from Oxford). Three years ago, a revival started in St. Mary’s with the coming of a new pastor. Since then, the attendance rate has more than doubled, from 30 – only elderly – people to 70 people, representing all age groups. The liturgy was altered to be less ‘high church’, but the eucharist is still celebrated weekly.

Emmanuel Church was planted six years ago, as a low church complement to the more traditional church that is situated in the same neighbourhood. The pastor told us the two churches work together in the neighbourhood and representatives have lunch every week in order to keep each other updated on the congregations.

Best part: seeing people resonate with the sermon 

The service was a little different from normal, since the bishop visited the congregation and did the sermon. He talked about pressure that is felt by young people to look good and do well; in order to be relieved of that pressure, we should come to Christ and identify ourselves with Him rather than society’s high ideals. It was about how God brings order from chaos and what that means to a broken life. The best part was to see how many people resonated with the sermon as they lined up in the front to be prayed for. Surely all of us could relate with our need for God to order our lives. I will always remember the sermon I heard on that day.

What struck me was that during the service, little children walked/ran around and no one batted an eye at that. I liked that this made them a part of the worshipping congregation as well, rather than (as I am used to) being sent away to a creche to be separate from the ‘main service’.

In the afternoon, dr. Pleizier gave a lecture on the similarities/discrepancies between church practice and individual faith practice. It was quite interesting to hear from everyone how their day-to-day practice either overlapped greatly with their church experience, or, for some, differed quite a lot.

4 March: Meeting different religious faiths

Around 08.15h we said good bye to Wycliff Hall, Oxford and travelled towards South Hall in two Dutch cars along with student friends and two professors Theo Pleizier and Klass Born. We were warmly welcomed by the guide Peter Tate, the Training Manager (Interfaith) at Kings Centre and tea and coffee with snacks was served. Then brief introduction and activities about Kings Centre South Hall, its cross-cultural nature, mission, theological and secular back grounds was presented by the guide using power point or digital technology. And also presented an overview of the program of the visits to different faiths that integrate with the church.

Visiting a Sikh Temple

We started our first visit around 11.30 to a Sikh Temple named Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha South Hall, we were instructed by our Guide to take off our shoes and cover head by the cloth provided before the entrance in the basket. These are basics and mandatory too to enter into the temple. Inside it was pleasant and calmness that dominates the arena, down we have the place where ‘Lungar’ (Food) is served 3 times a day to everyone who comes, but purely vegetarian and all services were done by volunteers and had an opportunity to see inside the kitchen almost 98% were women, the food is so delicious, its an experience of hospitality in peaceful manner by other religious faith.

We were provided information by the Sikh manager about Sikh beliefs, practices and their relationships with other faiths and observed that he is so sceptical but speaks communal interest and acceptance of the other and acknowledge the other religious faiths are also path ways to reach the God. He elaborates peace in Sikh believers as fighting against the evil practices of the society and always carry a sword or knife with them for protection and also believe that they are born soldiers for the nation.

Visiting a Hindu Temple 

Secondly we visited a Hindu Temple, where devotees were paying homage to their gods on the occasion of ‘Maha Siva Rathri’ festival. It was a complex kind of worship to many gods but depended on individual interest. We had very little time to spend with the pandit of the mandir who shared briefly about the importance of celebrating the festival and their openness and mutual acceptance and respect for the other irrespective of any classifications (gender, race, religion, caste and so on)

Visiting a Mosque

Third visit was to a Mosque, here we were warmly welcomed by the Imam of the mosque and offered greetings by quoting some scriptures from the Quran and briefly shared the information regarding key elements of Islamic faith and their mission in creating awareness to youth on misinterpretation of Quran scriptures that led to terrorist activities. He further added in saying that they also organise some interfaith dialogue programs with other religious faiths to have mutual respect towards each other.

Reflecting on our visits

Finally, we all gathered in the Church at Kings Centre and shared feedbacks regarding our visits and then divided into four groups to discuss our experiences and observations on the questions provided by Peter Tate, the Training Manager (Interfaith). It was a fruitful discuss and provided valuable information from different perspectives.          

The trip to Kings Centre, South Hall was successful. Here, the religious faiths exhibits openness, generosity, hospitality, respect and acceptance of the other, recognizing the other faiths as different path ways to One Supreme God, maintains good communal relationships with each other, happy to share their sacraments or prasadam (food that offered to God) to everyone irrespective of restrictions and exclusions. Among the three visits Sikh religion has more liberal in its attitude and practices where, women were given equal opportunity.

Being an Indian I suspect their existence because it was not the same that they practice in India. Hinduism is well known for its segregation among the people in the name of Caste System which is a dominant evil structure and practice in India till today. Accepting and recognizing the other religious faiths as different path ways to God in India is unseen because every religion predominantly defend their faith as the only way to reach God. But one thing that is common here and in India is offering the religious sacraments (food) to everyone who visits.

Visits help understand the importance of dialogue and respect

It was really a strange experience for me and these visits helped to understand the difference between the native and migrant way of practicing the religion. Only development that should take place in Christianity is the transformation in the traditional structures of the Church that expresses exclusivistic attitude towards other religious faith. Being a convert I strongly say that the Truth is revealed only in the Bible through Jesus Christ, but the practices of the Truth is also present in other religions too. It is good to maintain rapport with other religions and be open to have dialogue with them to build good relationships on the basis of respect and accepting for transformation to lead peaceful and harmonious communal life within the society.

At this juncture, Christianity should be more cautious, in the process of dialogue cultivating a ‘total openness’ could suspend our personal conviction and commitment to Jesus Christ and destroys the credibility concerning the truth of the gospel and also our own integrity as Christians. Jesus Christ is an unique as person and divine in the history, He cannot be and could never be compared with gods of other religion. But the presence of Christ as saviour or redeemer of human sins, moral and ethical teacher, disciplining the self to reach the Supreme God can be acceptable and allows us to integrate with the practices of Truth in other religions.


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