At home: Freshers’ Week Sermon 2021


Christ Church Cathedral

10 October 2021

Proper 23 B  (28B) Eucharist

Fresher’s Week

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Who founded the Church of England?

A recurring irritation for Anglicans is the accusation that our church was founded by Henry VIII.  Most of us would prefer to think of our founder as Jesus Christ. And if one were to choose a monarch Elizabeth the first probably has as much claim on foundation as her father; not to say Charles the second making a not insubstantial claim after the interruptions of the Commonwealth.

If the question turns to Who founded Christ Church? at least frees us from looking back to our Lord and Saviour. Henry’s claim here is stronger, but of course Thomas Wolsey is a very close second. Dean Fell after the Protectorate can surely place a stake for re-foundation. And we must not forget Prior Sutton Augustinian builder of this church whose tomb lies at the edge of the Latin chapel, and probably none of us would be here, of course, without Frideswide before even him.

Like the Church of England it is easy to characterise Christ Church as an anomaly, a random historical accident, an English eccentricity. All of that may well be true, but the gospel we have just heard includes two words that make that historical accident, that random eccentricity important for those of us here who are Christians.

Fourteen months ago when I arrived at Christ Church I could have had no idea of the year ahead. What a year it has been. That long year ago I had no experience of Oxford, the university or even of working full-time in a cathedral. But I am now convinced in a way I could not have been then of the blessing that our joint foundation can be to the church and the importance for the academy of this meeting of higher education and a faith community.

Good teacher, Jesus is called in today’s gospel. It is good to have some of our academic staff here with us this morning. I am not in any position to judge whether they are, like Jesus, ‘good teachers’, but the fact that they are teachers is important to us.

Jesus is addressed directly as teacher 45 times in the gospels, 12 times each in Matthew and Mark, fifteen in Luke and six times in John.

As someone who has spent most of my life as a teacher it puzzles me that this designation of Jesus as teacher has been so neglected.

Puzzling too because it ignores Jesus own command to bring the children to him, or the Deuteronomic imperative, prayed three times daily by Jews in the Sh’ma to teach the Torah to children and write it on our hearts.

I have been observing teaching for over twenty years. Judging the quality of lessons and the progress that children make. I am fascinated by pedagogy, the art of teaching, how we learn. And I am fascinated by pedagogy in this university, by the tutorial system, lectures and the work expected of graduates and undergraduates. The requirements to teach and supervise others that comes so early in academic careers. Fascinated too by the limited interest shown in pedagogy and relative lack of reflection on the very systems of teaching being used.

On holiday last month one of the books I read was Amartya Sen’s memoir Home In The World.  An economist and mathematician, but really a polymath he reflects on his childhood in what is now Bangladesh and the interaction there of religious communities Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist. Sen takes the title of his book from Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World. The fundamental question for Sen, for Tagore and, surely for all of us is how we can be at home in this world.  We can try and force ourselves to be at home by creating what is comfortable for us or we can be at home by valuing the diversity and difference of the world.

This week has been my first real Freshers’ Week. It has been good to see – because of Covid spacing reasons – all our freshers here in the Cathedral for many of their induction talks. Becoming ‘at home’ here in the House.

It will be good this coming week to welcome Oxford’s High Sheriff and his team, a first, of chaplains from many faiths. And after Evensong is finished to hear each of them read a short text from their own tradition.

On this Safeguarding Sunday we all know that religions can be forces for bad as well as for good. Fundamentalisms exist when there is a failure to bring academic scrutiny to claims to truth. The church, all religions need to be examined by the academy. We need the rigour of departments of theology, academic scrutiny from the inside; and the challenge of knowledge in all academic fields.

The academy too needs its practitioners to include people of many faiths, to bring the experience and practice of faith into its life, which is, of course, anyway unavoidable.

Jesus the Good Teacher. He is a good teacher because his method, his pedagogy is rarely to tell. His method is so much more like a good tutorial, he asks questions, he causes his hearers to think and to reflect.

Amartya Sen describes a world in which religious traditions mingled with mutual interest and mutual enrichment. 

Our joint foundation means nothing if it is simply a sharing of a building, a parallel existence for this building as college chapel one minute and cathedral the next. 

It has been a very beautiful thing to see the Freshers in this building this last week not just at the induction events but also in the evenings when the chaplaincy team opened it up with candles and lights and music. To see our undergraduates coming to be at home here in their chapel, their cathedral.

Over the next few weeks I hope that all of you who are regulars here will visit the restored Chapter House. It too is a beautiful building.  A Chapter House is, of course, a place for discussion, conversation.  A space for encountering others.

One of my hopes is that it will allow us to be even more a place where people of many faiths and of no religious faith encounter one another and can feel at home together.

The encounter of the world’s religions is still in its infancy. I can think of only one living systematic theologian who takes this encounter seriously in every area of his theology.  

Christopher Lewis, the last Dean of Christ Church edited a book on Inter Faith Worship and Prayer with the subtitle “We Must Pray Together”, one of its contributors is the Muslim Imam who is now the High Sheriff of Oxford.

The joint foundation is an opportunity not just for the academy or for us as a Chapter, a congregation; but an opportunity to encounter good teachers and to demonstrate that we can be good learners.

In the Preface to his memoir Amartya Sen writes:

“From the Crusades in the Middle Ages to the Nazi invasions in the last century, from communal clashes to battles between religious politics, there have been tussles between varying convictions, and yet there have also been forces for unity working against the clashes. We can see, if we look, how understanding can spread from one group to another and from one country to the next.  As we move around we cannot escape clues to broader and more integrative stories. Our ability to learn from each other must not be underestimated.”

Dear Christ Church freshers here we are at one of the world’s leading universities. You will be taught by great people, you will have many good teachers, but you will learn much from your friends too. We hope that you will be at home here in Christ Church, at home in this your cathedral your chapel and most of all that you will never underestimate the ability we human beings have to learn from each other.


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