Monday, August 07, 2006

No place like home

It's always wonderful to venture forth and visit distant reaches of the world. It's in one's blood, I suppose. My mother was a Gingerich, and members of the Gingerich clan were notorious travelers. Like the Blossers, they came from Switzerland to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, then branched out into the Ohio and Virginia valleys. My mother went to China by herself in 1947 as a medical nurse in Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan (or as it was then written, Chengtu, Szechwan), in China. My Gingerich cousins are currently traveling overland down the Pan-American highway through Central America, headed for South America. At one time they made it up the Amazon River as far as Manaus, where they lived for a time. As I say, travel is in the family blood.

But whatever wonderful regions one may venture forth to see, it is always a great comfort to come home again to one's Hobbit hole in the Shire. And so it was that after a wonderful week in Oxford, I arrived safely home again Saturday evening. But let me tell you just a bit about the trip, focusing on what I consider to be in many ways its more interesting incidental circumstances.

The purpose of my trip last week to the UK was to participate in the Oxford Round Table, a periodic forum on religion, education and the role of government conducted under agreements with certain of the Oxford Colleges (see this page on the History of the Oxford Round Table). Participants include members from academe, government, and religious institutions drawn from the UK, former Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, etc., and the United States. Religious affiliations ranged this summer from Christian and Muslim to Bahai and agnostic. The group of which I was a member was housed in Harris Manchester College (pictured above), where we also took our meals and were treated like royalty. Our papers were presented and discussed in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union during the mornings, and afternoons were devoted to walking tours and free time.

One of the moderators of our discussions at the Oxford Union was Canon Brian Mountford, Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford since 1986. (The spire of St. Mary the Virgin may be seen in the uppermost picture in this post, to the right of the dome of the Radcliffe Camera.) St. Mary's, where John Henry Newman was once Vicar and John Wesley once preached, has during Mountford's time become a center where Christian theology intersects with other academic disciplines and the modern challenge to traditional theology is apparently taken quite seriously. Canon Mountford himself has published a number of books, including Perfect Freedom, which was launched in the United States this July. During one of our afternoons, he treated us to an hour-long discussion of the history of St. Mary's and its role as the parish church of the University.

One thing I noticed again in the discussions (this was my third trip to Oxford), particularly of the various Oxford guides, was a decidedly Protestant textbook interpretation of Reformation history. On the one hand, there was a typically English gentility in the avoidance of any directly negative remarks about the Catholic Church. On the other hand, there was a decidedly one-sided slant in the presentation of facts, whether these concerned the Act of Supremacy or the burning of Cranmer, and a convenient overlooking of other facts altogether, whether it was the exclusion of Catholics from matriculation at the university they had founded in the Middle Ages, their coerced attendance at Anglican services with harsh penalties for recusancy under Elizabeth, or the hanging, drawing, and quartering of Catholic priests under the anti-'Popery' bloodhounds, William and Robert Cecil. One Anglican journalist, William Cobbett, was so incensed by the facts of history he discovered that were not in the standard textbook histories, that he wrote a History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland in which he declared that the English Reformation had been "engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of English and Irish blood" -- not the sort of perspective one ordinarily gets from courteous tour guides. Yet these guides suffered no apparent difficulty in offering nearly hagiographic accounts of the 'martyrdom' of the likes of Thomas Cranmer, about whose darker side there seemed to be an almost complete and convenient oblivion.

My previous trips to England brought me some acquaintance with the wonderful work the Oratorians are doing in that country. Any of you who have visited the Brompton Oratory in London will know what I mean, for the Oratory, founded by Cardinal Newman (after the Birmingham Oratory) along with Fr. Faber, has become an oasis of sensible, traditional liturgical piety, which finds expression in both pre- and post-Vatican II forms of the Mass (see Joanna Bogle's article, "Brompton Oratory Has Lessons for Parishes," Adoremus Bulletin, Sept., 1998). During my last trip to Oxford, a friend of mine, Bill English, who was studying at Worcester College in Oxford introduced me (and my wife who was then traveling with me) to the Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, which had been served since the 1970s by the Jesuits, and in the 1980s by the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and is now served by the Oratorians. In 1993 the Oxford Oratory was established here in this remarkably beautiful little church in which Cardinal Newman preached and Gerard Manley Hopkins served as curate.

Like Newman's University Church off of St. Stephen's Green in Dublin, the Oxford Oratory is hardly recognizable as a church from the street until you come right upon it and look inside the gate (pictured left). Although the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 restored civil rights to Catholics in England and lifted the penal laws, and Catholics were again permitted to build Catholic churches, these churches were typically not permitted to have spires, or bells so as to sound a public call to worship, or to be built in conspicuous places. Thus you will find that nearly all Catholic churches built since the Reformation in Britain and Ireland are in often obscure, out-of-the-way areas, and set back from main thoroughfares. Even Westminster Cathedral in London is set back behind some other buildings. Hannah Arendt might have inserted here a remark about the "banality of evil." Interesting, is it not? Accordingly, in the picture above, you see the entrance to the Oxford Oratory Church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga sandwiched between a store on the left and a building of Somerville College of Oxford University on the right. But look inside the gate, and you see an obvious church building (right).

I arrived in Oxford too late for the 8:00 am Tridentine Latin Mass. In fact, I didn't arrive until mid-afternoon. But the Oratory had an evening service, to which I arrived in time for Benediction (Latin) at 6:00 pm, followed by Mass at 6:30. There were around 45 persons present for Benediction, and I was curious how many would arrive for Mass. After my own experience on two previous occasions during which I taught in England, and after reading Tom Bethell's recent article on the state of the Church in the UK, "Bishops, Nuncios & Delators," New Oxford Review (July-August, 2006), I wasn't all that sanguine. However -- O Thee of little faith! -- there was standing room only! The place was packed! And small wonder. These Oratorians continue to defy the trends and to faithfully engage in the day-to-day work of doing what priests ought to do, and doing it very well. I assisted at daily Mass at St. Aloysius at 6:00 pm every evening, and found the Gospel presented clear as a bell -- in the homilies, in the confessionals open 10 minutes before every Mass, in the cheerfulness of the Oratorians, in the reverent atmosphere and comportment of the priests and parishioners (yes, the altar rail was still used), and -- with abundant clearity -- in the prominence of the Blessed Sacrament displayed frequently for Adoration and Benediction.

But the most telling incident -- one that attests to the secret of the Oratorians' great success -- was one I witnessed on my last full day in Oxford, a Friday, after the 6:00 pm Mass. I decided to have a look around the church, which I hadn't explored in any detail before. It is a beautiful church. The lights were turned off after Mass and most of the parishioners had left. I had crossed the center axis of the nave from right to left in front of the altar rail and was approaching the side chapel on the left side of the church. As I rounded the corner and looked to my right, I stopped in my tracks. There before me were the five Oratory priests recollected in prayer in the side chapel before a picture of the Holy Face. God bless the Oratorians!

On the way home, my flight from Gatwick was overbooked and I was informed that, as I was traveling alone, I would have to be upgraded to first class. I allowed as I could accommodate the adjustment. I had never before experienced such indulgent pampering. I must say that the extra room in the seating and the food service with linen table cloth and china and decent food is extraordinarily nice. But I found the seats unexpectedly uncomfortable, one of the chief difficulties that of being in a perpetually semi-reclined condition so that even in the 'upright' position one is inclined uncomfortably backwards, especially uncomfortable while eating. As a poor academic, I doubt I shall ever find it conscionable to fork over the kind of money needed to garner first-class accommodations ordinarily, but I must say that the experience did expand my educational horizons and was a nice conclusion, all things considered, to an altogether pleasant trip.

But best of all was stepping out of the shower the morning after my late return to find my 17-month old daughter standing at the door, having pushed it open, smiling brightly, with a helium-filled Chuck E. Cheese balloon in her hand and my wife giggling down the hall behind her. It's great to be home.

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