When we think of University Professors, we think of public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Thomas Sowell, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse-Tyson. These scientific celebrities speak mostly for science and knowledge and not a few present their opinions of religion, Dawkins for example has written whole books regarding the logic of atheist belief.
They are not alone, the list of professors who declare that they do not believe in God is a veritable table of some of the most distiguished individuals including Nobel Laureates such as Nils Bohr, Svante Arrhenius, Sydney Brenner, Francis Crick and S Chandrasekhar. Most universities and university towns may be dotted with church spires, but these churches are usually empty because universities and their faculty tend to be less religious than the average population.
It is individuals like the current Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins and a serious Evangelical Christians or CS Lewis a literary scholar and eloquent Anglican who are presented as weird exceptions to the rule.
In fact science and religion are more often than not presented as enemies of the other.
It’s more than a little ironic when you consider that the whole foundation of the modern Universities system began in monastries and churches.
Religious leaders of a millenia ago belonged to a rare tribe that had access to language skills, back to a time when literacy was a commodity afforded to a select few. They learnt to read so that they could read the Holy Books and intepret the word of God. But access to scripture also meant access to ancient Western knowledge, written and developed by the a Greeks and Romans. And it was the contemplative monks who had the time to devote to reading the philosophy of the ancients, deciphering the learnings of tbe past and asking how they fit in with Christian theology. This made them therefore the most educated of the population and this drew into their ranks the people who if they were born today might be professors, people like Origen Adamantius, Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William Ockam, Francis Bacon to name a few etc…
The same goes for the founding of Oxford University. The church came before the university. The University Church of St Mary the Virgin is the mother church that mythically gave birth to this instituion, and you know so because all the importwnt university sites and buildings are clustered around the church.
Because a church was the most grand part of any city, and the largest, it was adopted for many important parts of university life. The academic congregation met there, the university was administered from there, degrees ceremonies were held there, a St Mary’s Hall was set up that later become what we know now as Oriel College.
But religion was more than the soil that watered the university to its growth. A church because of its centrality to religion, and Oxford specificallybecause of its university status meant that the Oxford Church was the site of important religious-political events. Many of these events have had huge impact of the fate of Christianity as we know it today.
These events began in 1534 when the English Church separated from Rome and event known as the English Reformation.
Christian belief then was not merely something with personal consequences, it had political consequences. What faith you had mattered because it spoke about your politics. Then there was the fact that most monarchs couldn’t fathom different religions under their rule. So things got messy when after Henry VIII brought England out of the Church and his son Edward VI kept them in, Mary I ascended the throne and she was a staunch Catholic instead.
Three men in Oxford drew her ire, three Anglican bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, because they believed in Anglicanism and were preaching it in Oxford. The three men were hauled to the parish Church, tried and burned to death an event known as the Oxford Mary’s of 1555. The religious see-saw of violence coming from the top would soon since Mary I is, till this day, the last Catholic monarch of England.
This Church was also the spiritual home of John Wesley, who attended the church and preached in it while a student and fellow at Oxford. It was the religious laxity, and progressivisn of his day, Wesley was requested to not speak in the church anymore after a sermon railing against the “Almost Christianity” of his colleagues (free speech being controlled in a university, in modern day terms) Wesley would later go on to found the Methodist Church.
In 1823 John Henry Newman took on the role of parish priest of the University. It was during his time and with a few others that the Oxford Movement (a Catholic Revival movement) began. It was movement to change things that the Anglican Church did by going back into History. Newman’s journey in history however would see him, cease to be Anglican and convert to Catholicsm – he was eventually elevated to the position of Cardinal, and the Archbishop of Westminster.
The world renowned university was born from this church its colleges and the people around, some of the most influential movements of Christianity were born in this church. This architecturally normal uninteresting church (humble by ancient church standards) has an outsized effect on the world, strange we don’t really know about it.
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