Religion at Oxford should be reexamined

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Perhaps more than any other university, Oxford is defined by its skyline: Christ Church Cathedral, St. Mary’s Tower, the Exeter Chapel spire. These ancient towers rise above the University, defending its history and its tradition. Notably, all these landmarks share one thing in common: their religious origin and continued religious purpose.

Oxford’s identity cannot be unwoven from its religious past. Its buildings bear Christian names, its colleges all maintain a separate Anglican chaplaincy, its various charters all bear seals of the head of the Church of England. Even many daily habits and quirky traditions that shape the University, most notably subfusc, originate in religion.

Oxford undoubtedly benefits from these rituals, but only at great cost. In this age of multiculturalism, perhaps it’s time for the University to reevaluate whether religious symbolism should continue to pervade student life. As it does so, the University should carefully weigh the following disadvantages and benefits of continuing such practices.

First, and most obviously, Oxford’s inescapable liturgical tradition connects the present community to its past, for better and for worse. That past spans 900 years with thousands of students participating in the same (or similar) rituals – taking mass, sitting for exams in academic garb, and so forth. Doubtless most modern students do not feel they’ve “arrived” at Oxford until their first formal hall.

That past, however, includes a complicated history of religious persecution and oppression, from the well-known (and fully atoned for) bloodshed of the Reformation to the student body’s eerie silence on human rights violations against people of faith. Many universities in the United States, finally acknowledging their complicity in the slave trade, are changing the names of buildings, mascots, and even school colours – no tradition, clearly, is sacred in the face of that history. Considering its violent past, does religious ceremony deserve any less scrutiny?

Second, these liturgical traditions provide social cohesion for students across the University, building an important ritualistic bridge between students otherwise separated by the particular customs of their college JCRs. Whether at Brasenose College or Christ Church, students can expect to find virtually the same prayers beginning and ending formal hall, the same subfusc – derived from clerical vestment – and the same Evensong. Without these common bonds of ritual, student life at Oxford would become more fragmented; without these touch points of shared experience, what would a Lincolnite say to someone at St Cat’s?

But these religious practices also sharply divide the student body. Oxford University claims to represent the diverse interests and backgrounds of students admitted from across the UK, Commonwealth, and world. At the same time, Oxford pours grossly disproportionate resources into an Anglican structure that is unavoidably white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Many students from minority religious backgrounds must feel underrepresented and under-supported in the quest for spiritual fulfilment; indeed, a two-paragraph blurb for your faith on the University website may come across as more tokenizing than empowering.

Speaking personally as a member of an extremely minority religion (to my knowledge, there are zero undergraduate and fewer than ten graduate members of my faith at Oxford), I deeply feel the tensions that come with full participation in my college’s liturgical tradition while nurturing my own often tokenized faith.

While the University itself cannot be blamed for the degree to which my religion has come to define “me” in the eyes of many of my peers – an experience as degrading as experiencing ethnic or gender-based aggression – surely the University could direct some of its clerical resources to fostering authentic discussion about religious diversity throughout the student body.

And although Oxford provides ample support for every student to meet their absolute religious needs, it should pay more attention to relative needs as well. An analogy with the rhetoric surrounding income inequality may be instructive: economists tell us that societies fracture not because of absolute poverty, but because of widening relative inequality. Likewise, can the University really provide a platform for equal dialogue across different faith traditions when one tradition receives so much more than any other?

Finally, perhaps by maintaining its religious ceremony, Oxford acknowledges the deep irrationalities that make up us all, people who can maintain contradictory identities, if only problematically so. In many ways, Oxford purports to be both a highly secularized academic institution as well as a bulwark of tradition, including religious tradition. Insofar as Oxford can “have it both ways”, it does so the same way that all of us do: full of angst and in need of occasional adjustment.

Perhaps adjustment is necessary: Oxford’s science-faith cleavage, once a reflection of the existential contradiction common to the educated élite, is now itself an anachronism. Whereas 100 years ago most students struggled alongside the University to reconcile their religious commitments with new scientific knowledge, today most students don’t bother. By maintaining its deep religiosity in the face of an increasingly secular humanity, does the University run the risk of dragging out a foregone conclusion?

Clearly, this question, complicated and central to Oxford’s identity, does not come with any easy solutions. That said, it does come with some obvious steps that the University must take in order to make student life more equitable for all.

The most pressing need is for colleges partially to disconnect the chaplaincies from student welfare. At present, many chaplains help manage welfare for students, and often have access to information that students may not have willingly disclosed to a clergyman of an alien faith (or, for that matter, their own). Colleges ought to provide a clearly advertised opt-out option for students who do not want a religious representative making decisions about their welfare.
The spires of Oxford, sentinels of a religious history as historical as it is relevant, continue to dominate the skyline – and the identity – of this University. Should they?

Photo credit: Arminnius