Where Are the Evil Dons? Life in Community at Christ Church

If you haven’t see it yet I thoroughly recommend the film Don’t Look Up, a metaphor for our approach to climate change, the film brilliantly and satirically portrays the response of the world to the imminent arrival of a comet which will destroy life on the planet. I was forcefully struck by the experience of the scientists in the film. Their powerlessness, anguish and anger at their inability to penetrate the false narratives spoke to me deeply.

“It must be awful”, a senior priest of the Church of England said to me recently on the phone, “to walk through Tom Quad and know that the Dons have their knives at the ready.” His language was particularly colourful but people say this sort of thing to me all the time. Sometimes they write or email, leave phone messages, or just feel free to say it when they bump into me in the street or at church events.

One of the existential questions I deal with in the face of this barrage is how to respond. I have tried a number of techniques and quite frequently end up saying “I am walking away now.” And do so. That seems to drive the individuals concerned to particular anger. But what am I to do?

Sometimes I hear people talk about theological college as a place of breaking, falling apart, destruction. That was not my experience. I loved my three years at Chichester Theological College. It wasn’t always easy, but it was, until now, the most intense experience of Christian community I have had. Made significant, not least, by the staff who were thoughtful, kind and challenging. I am glad to keep in touch with several of them.

When I was asked to consider applying to be Sub Dean at Christ Church it was with my eyes open. But also with some amusement. There are so many priests in the Church of England so much better equipped for cathedral ministry in Oxford. I have no previous Oxbridge connections. My academic career is professional rather than intellectual. I don’t even know very much about choral music. The fact that my excellent Precentor colleague gave me A History of Church Music as a Christmas present tells you a great deal.

Priests are called to be many things. It is definitely a role for generalists. Among the many things we are called to be, is, I believe to be scientists. Science with its etymology of knowledge, knowing. In education my own views have moved from progressive discovery methods to recognising the importance, the fundamental significance of knowledge. Of truth. This is just as true in priestly ministry. Jesus described himself as the way, the truth and the life. There is truth and the priest, like all Christians must preach it and above all demonstrate it in our own lives. This commitment to truth is the prophetic ministry. Reading the signs of the times and speaking the truth of them. Challenging a community and individuals to see the truth. This is the work of Spiritual Direction.

When I began my ministry at Christ Church in September 2020 I wondered what it would be like here. I had heard many of the myths about the ‘evil dons’. I had read the blogs. I was not immune to the common myths of privilege and elitism that surround Oxbridge and Christ Church more than most.

The science, the truth of what I have experienced over the last 18 months is far different. My academic colleagues are the same wonderful, bewildering, fascinating mix of good and evil as any collection of human beings with whom I have ever worked, and as I am myself. I was worried I would be patronised but am in fact treated with utmost respect for my own professional career and experience. Every meal, every encounter with academics is interesting and rewarding.

Probably because of the difficulties we are in this is the most intense experience of Christian community I have had since theological college. There is great blessing in this and great opportunities for encounters of significance.

Although my job is mainly (80%) directed to the life of the Cathedral and we have a superb College Chaplain, I do share pastoral responsibility with all the clergy of the Foundation for all members of the community. In light of the relentless attacks on my colleagues such as the phone call mentioned above, how am I to minister, to pastor to them? How do I share the good news of Jesus, of being a Christian with people who are constantly attacked by Christians? In Don’t look Up the scientists experience anger and bewilderment at the power of fake news. My own experience is of anger and shame.

Knowledge is at the heart of what I have come to believe about education. Most of the people who tell me what is happening at Christ Church have very little knowledge, or knowledge that is gained from partisan and limited sources. Or simple untruths.

The truth I experience in this community is of kind, generous, fascinating people trying their best. This is an inclusive community that has welcomed my partner and I in ways that put the church to shame. The truth I experience is of people bewildered by false narratives that seem unrelated to day to day life. The truth I experience in the Cathedral is of a community that is faithful to prayer and the search for truth.

Whatever the future holds I am grateful to have been called to this place for this time.

If you are reading this I hope that you will do so with an open mind. A mind willing to admit that what is happening at Christ Church might be other than it is often portrayed as. Most of all, I hope that you will pray for us, and assure us of your prayers without judgement.


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