Nourishing Memories Chap 5: Theology and Christianity at Oxford
by Graham Kings
Date added: 26/07/2022
“Why do you have that unusual photo of C.S. Lewis on your table?” I asked in my first tutorial in theology at Oxford, in October 1974.
“I was the priest at his wedding in hospital in 1957,” came the reply.
Peter Bide was the chaplain at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH). My college, Hertford, did not have any students studying theology and so, having changed from law after my first year, he became my Director of Studies.
Bide explained that he had been taught English literature by Lewis at Magdalen College from 1936 to 1939 and had stayed in touch with him after World War II, while serving as a parish priest near Hove in Sussex, which also had a hospital where he was chaplain.
He told me that the year before this Christian marriage Lewis had helped Joy Davidman, a divorced American student of literature, to remain in the UK by taking part in a civil marriage with her in 1956. This token, platonic arrangement concerning a visa then developed into profound love. Tragically, she was admitted to hospital with inoperable bone cancer.
The Church of England, at that time, did not allow the remarriage of people who had been divorced, and the Bishop of Oxford and clergy friends of Lewis in Oxford would not countenance it.
At Lewis’s request for prayer for healing, Bide traveled to Oxford. On arrival he was surprised to be asked by Lewis if he would also consider conducting a wedding service at Joy’s hospital bedside. After an hour’s reflection, he did so. Astoundingly, Joy lived for another three years.
Bide also told me:For your biblical studies, I’ve arranged for you to be tutored by two young scholars, who have just finished their doctorates at Keble College. They are not well known at all, but in future I think they will be.
I remember arriving for my first tutorial with John Barton and reading out my essay on the book of Isaiah. It was seminal for me for, in writing it, I accepted the critical consensus that chapters 1-39 (“First Isaiah”) and 40-55 (“Second Isaiah”) and 56-66 (“Third Isaiah”) were indeed written in different times and contexts. Contextual theology, which later became so significant for my thinking, became real for me in my first essay in biblical studies.
Similarly, accepting a second century B.C. date for the book of Daniel — which involved seeing the book as applying the stories of the Babylonian captivity to the vicissitudes of the Syrian dictatorial regime in Israel — helped me see the multi-layered depth in the Scriptures. Themelios, the evangelical journal for theological students, had two articles at that time on the date of Daniel: Gordon Wenham gave an early date in Babylon and John Goldingay a later date, and I have appreciated the latter’s scholarship ever since.
I had heard from another student that John Barton was setting the Old Testament paper for the preliminary exams in theology in 1975, and so I also read his doctoral thesis in the Bodleian Library which was on the subject of sin in First Isaiah. Sure enough, a question came up.
I have stayed in touch with John. We met again on the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England, when he was a consultant on the lectionary, and he kindly wrote a back page commendation for my Nourishing Connections.
My first memories of John Muddiman are of being part of his class working through the Greek text of Mark’s gospel. He showed us the significance of textual criticism when we looked at Mark 1:40-45, the story of Jesus healing the leper. In the RSV (1971 revision, and NRSV 1989) verse 41, following the majority of Greek manuscripts, was translated, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him.”
John pointed out that a key manuscript in Cambridge University Library, Codex Bezae, had a completely different word in Greek, which is translated, “moved with anger.” This is the more “difficult reading” he said, which in other cases suggests that it may be the original and that this was toned down by a later scribe, who was worried about its implications. The New English Bible (1961) gives a combining compromise, “moved with warm indignation” and the Revised English Bible (1989) opts for Codex Bezae, “moved to anger.”
I remember the depth of discussion this produced and still prefer “moved to anger” as the “more difficult” reading. Jesus was not so much angry with the leper as with the leprosy, which was marring a human being created in the image of God.
Other key moments for me during my three years of reading theology included hearing lectures in Old Testament studies by James Barr (Presbyterian), in New Testament ethics by G.B. Caird (Congregational), in systematic theology by John MacQuarrie (Anglican), on the Trinity by Andrew Louth (then Anglican and later Orthodox) and on early Christology by Kallistos Ware (Orthodox).
I warmed especially to Caird, who was also a hymnwriter and a Protestant Observer at Vatican II. Philippians 1:10 “… to help you to determine what is best” and Hebrews 5:14 “… those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” were his key verses for New Testament ethics, and he always concluded with the Book of Revelation before sweeping out of the lecture room, with his gown billowing behind him.
I still chuckle at Ware illustrating the subtlety of language differences between Greek and Latin, which sometimes caused difficulties in Christology. By way of illustration, he mentioned a noticeboard in an English churchyard: “Visitors are allowed to climb the church tower, after asking permission from the vicar, but are warned that they do so at their own risk.”
Significant turning-point essays for me included one on the “Radical Reformation” for Barrie White at Regent’s Park College, which warned me of the dangers of demagogue charismatic leaders such as Thomas Müntzer in Germany.
Loving your subject helps with academic work. The Bible had become a source of delight for me since my conversion, and now I was studying God, God’s Word, and God’s ways with the world full time — love of subject in multiple meanings.
Sundays were busy. After early morning Holy Communion at Hertford College, I would attend St Aldate’s church, usually staying on for a student lunch afterward to quiz the preacher. Michael Green became the rector in 1975. I remember Hugh Montefiore, then Bishop of Kingston, preaching at St Aldate’s on ecology and questioning the ethics of building the supersonic airplane Concorde. The rector tactfully omitted the Second Collect in Morning Prayer: “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord …”
Eminent visiting evangelical preachers would be invited to speak at the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) on the Saturday evening (a “Bible Reading” consisting of an hour’s exposition of a passage) and on the Sunday evening (an evangelistic address). With friends, I would usually attend these.
For the year 1975 I was the International Secretary of Hertford Christian Union, and from the summer “Trinity” term 1976 to the spring “Hilary” term of 1977 I served on the executive committee of the OICCU as Outreach Secretary and had to organize the Sunday evening addresses.
Some members of the executive committee would usually dine with the speaker before the Bible Reading. I remember two speakers in particular during that year. The entry in my spiritual journal (which I had started in 1974) for Saturday, February 12, 1977 records the speaker being a junior research fellow at Merton College:
Tom Wright on Daniel 5 — best BR I’ve heard at OICCU in my time here. Had dinner with him, Tony Walker and Shaun Atkins at the Mitre pub beforehand. He said Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans 6 had been a turning point in his life. Bought it this evening.
I also was moved to meet over dinner at the Mitre pub David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, who had captained England at cricket while serving as a curate at St Mary’s Islington and was an advocate for social justice, as well as evangelism, being part of mission.
Two student missions stand out for me. In 1976 the OICCU invited David Watson, vicar of St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, and a leading evangelist, to preach every day for a week at the Union Debating Hall, accompanied by a drama group. Many students were converted. Colleges had their own visiting assistant missioners, and I attended one of their joint morning meetings with David Watson. I noticed that he spoke from a Filofax notebook — and have used one myself ever since — and that one of the assistant missioners, Jonathan Fletcher, prayed earnestly for “concrete fruit.”
In 1977 the College chaplains invited Leo Suenens, a Belgian Catholic cardinal who was prominent in the Catholic charismatic movement, to preach for several days in the Sheldonian Theatre. It was the first chaplains’ mission that OICCU encouraged its members to attend. Cardinal Suenens spoke alluringly about the power of the Holy Spirit to change people’s lives. Many were changed.
In July 1975 I took part in another mission in France with Operation Mobilization, this time in Rennes, Brittany. In August 1976 I worked in our parish in Chigwell, Essex, starting a youth group and arranging an evangelistic rock concert. The previous month Alison and I stayed with our French friends near Paris and she then took part in an OM mission in Pau, Southwest France. In Paris I saw M. Le Play, an executive of L’Église Reformée de France, to explore the possibilities of serving with that church after graduation, but was somewhat disillusioned. Oliver O’Donovan in Oxford the next term told me intriguingly, “If you want to evangelize France, become a Roman Catholic.” This did not appeal.
Instead, I went on “Islington Week” in early December, organized by the Church Pastoral Aid Society for evangelical students at Oxford and Cambridge to test a vocation to ordination in the Church of England. This involved a week’s immersion in the inner-city parishes of Islington, with Bible studies and talks about the Church of England at St Mary’s Church in the morning and visiting people in their homes in the afternoons. Together with a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, I froze in the vicarage of St Mary Magdalene, Holloway Road.
At the end I asked Justin Welby if he was going to pursue ordained ministry further. He said he thought he would be going to work “in the City,” in finance. I replied that I felt called to ordination and maybe serving overseas later on. That week I discovered that I loved the challenge of mission in a new cross-cultural environment and the depth of parochial ministry in the Church of England.
In January 1977 I had an interview with John B. Taylor, then the Archdeacon of West Ham and Diocesan Director of Ordinands in the Diocese of Chelmsford. He encouraged me to continue the process and visit theological colleges. I stayed with Justin Welby in Trinity College, Cambridge, when I went for interview at Ridley Hall. The principal, Keith Sutton, who had served with the Church Missionary Society in Uganda, offered me a place.
Life at Oxford was not all theology and Christianity. I enjoyed punting on the river, parties with friends, and playing sports regularly for Hertford College: soccer, tennis, and table tennis. I nearly got sent off as captain of the soccer team by David Elleray, a geography student who later became a well-known Premier League and international referee.
My love for Ali developed and flourished. She had to retake her first year math exams and, after passing them a year later, decided to study social sciences at Bedford College, London. So I regularly used the phone box in a corner of a corridor in the Bodleian Library. Ali’s phone, in the hall of her family’s home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, was not so private.
Amongst our group of friends, three women at Lady Margaret Hall became engaged to three men at Hertford College: Sue Green to Jeremy Brewer, Jane Bedford to Fraser Martin, and Ali to me. We all went on holiday together to Keswick in the Lake District in 1974 and 1975. Ali and I were told we were staying in a flat on an estate: it turned out not to be a council estate but Lord Rochdale’s country estate, Lingholm, on the west edge of Derwentwater. Beatrix Potter had written The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) in our flat at the top of the house. On the day of our engagement there, September 3, 1975, Ali inscribed our interlinked initials in our new copy of that book.
Published originally on Covenant 18 July 2022.