Monday 29 October 2012


From George Herbert in town to Helen Waddell in the sticks

If you live in Oxfordshire or within reach, you will be spoilt in November with a feast of speakers available to nourish your soul and feed your mind.  Fresh from putting on a splendid series on Benedictine Wisdom at St Giles, OCSG will be laying on a reflective day on Saturday 17th November, exploring the work of George Herbert, Poet and Priest, with the help of a Professor of English at Oxford and Mark Oakley, a Canon at St Paul’s.  It takes place all day at Corpus Christi College and you can find details on their website,

Out west beyond Woodstock in the gorgeous Evenlode valley,   you’re just about into the Cotswolds when you reach Spelsbury.  The imaginative Chase Benefice has laid on some Advent suppers (delicious home-cooking, if last year is anything to go by) every Wednesday from November 21st as well as a line-up of Oxford-based speakers who will come to talk about “people in whom they have seen Christ incarnated.”

Thus Ed Newell, Sub Dean of Christ Church, will talk about Sir John Betjeman, Professor George Pattison about Etty Hillesum, Mark Chapman (Ripon College, Cuddesdon) about Charles Gore, and Canon Angela Tilby about Helen Waddell.  Book soon from as half the tickets have reportedly already gone.

Helen Waddell, Northern Irish poet, playwright and translator of medieval Latin, was a scholar and an authority on the church in the Middle Ages.  Her translations as well as her poems have been set to music by composers from Holst to Paul Spicer.  A prize-winning biography was written of her in 1986 by a Benedictine nun … which brings us back to those wise Benedictines (every Thursday at St Giles until November 29th).

Tuesday 23 October 2012


Benedict at St Giles' - Michaelmas Term 2012

Thus Father Stephen Ortiger at St Giles' Church in Oxford last Thursday!  Silence, he pointed out, can be empty or eloquent, depending on how we approach it.  Injunctions to pray can be counterproductive.  Instead we should listen expectantly, or "attend" - Benedict uses the word at the very beginning of his Rule - before, as Fr Stephen enjoined us, "bringing our reality to God".  

Addressing the topic of Holy Listening - the second talk in a weekly series on Benedictine Wisdom - he began by explaining that Benedict's vow of stability (so different from the Franciscan way) was designed to facilitate the interior journey, the "journey to the centre".  As someone once said, the longest journey is from the head to the heart. And Fr Stephen encouraged his audience to keep making that journey. 

Another former Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison (as seen on TV), echoes that Benedictine desire to "step back, be still and look inwards" in his book Finding Happiness - Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, which is our current focus at Wychwood Circle's monthly discussion forums.  His emphasis is on "internal freedom" - freedom from the constant exercise of our much-prized external freedom, seen in such happiness-seeking activities as 'retail therapy' which involves "choosing and choosing again".

This, says Jamison, can become and end in itself, distracting us "from that interior world which is the true source of happiness".  Blest are the pure in heart? A contemporary version might use the expression "freedom of spirit" which, he goes on to say, "describes the condition of human beings at their best".

Benedictine Wisdom: Timeless Guidance for Today's World 
Thursday Lunchtime Talks at St Giles' Oxford  Oxford Centre for Spiritual Growth

Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life
Abbot Christopher Jamison  Orion Books 2009

"The interior landscape of our life
A discussion based on the second and third chapters of Finding Happiness
November 11th 7-9pm Wychwood Library OX7 6LD

Sunday 21 October 2012



Good to see that the scientists at CERN (where the so-called God particle was finally found) are asking the big questions. They come up with very different answers, but is it more a case of varying perspectives than any real disagreement? 

Where one says that science "can only gain by looking at the bigger theological picture", another says that claims about God are "not falsifiable" and therefore "highly non-scientific".  The link above includes an audio clip where Professor Krauss (Arizona State University) and Professor Lennox (Oxford University) are quoted giving seemingly opposite views on the roles of science and religion. Yet it is the same science which "points away from God" for one, and "points towards God" for the other! 

The Director General, Professor Heuer, wants particle physicists to continue to talk to those with very different answers to the very big questions.  He says: "There is a need for us as the naive scientists to get a little bit educated about what other people in philosophy and theology think about the time before and around the Big Bang."

John Lennox, professor of Mathematics at Oxford, echoes this sentiment in saying how "understanding the place of science in the big picture" will enable "a dialogue with people of different world views."  

How vital is that?...

Monday 15 October 2012


"Regardless of your religion, cathedrals can have their own language and logic, of generosity and grace"

Within a culture of "deep diversity", cathedrals offer the ability to "meet and bond across boundaries". Nick Spencer - clearly a man after my own heart -  might have been listening in to our discussions yesterday evening, both about the value of monasteries in their wider community and about the role of cathedrals in their diocese.

In today's Guardian, he quotes research contained in a new study called Spiritual Capital.  It seems that nearly half of people questioned agreed that "cathedrals reach out to the general public, not just those who are part of the Church of England". More than half (53%) agreed that "cathedrals are welcoming to people of all faiths and those who have no faith"

It seems to be perfectly possible, he says, since cathedrals  are known as Christian institutions and yet successfully reach out to the general public, "to be both confessional in your identity, and inclusive in your operations".  Cathedrals, he goes on, "have their own language and logic, of generosity and grace, hospitality and holiness, worship, love and sacrifice, words and ideas that are formed by Christianity and not social policy."

Guardian article by Nick Spencer

Our cathedral in Oxford offers a number of open events to feed the mind and - maybe - nourish the soul.  Currently the Sunday evening After Eight series is called Across the Faiths.

Thursday 11 October 2012



On Sunday 14th we begin to base our monthly discussions on Abbot Christopher Jamison's Finding Happiness (Phoenix, 2009). Jamison traces the history of happiness from fertility and luck, through the fulfilment of our deepest desire, to the classical tradition of virtue. And he warns: "Monastic steps across this territory will involve being wary of signposts that point to happiness as feeling good and will look out for paths that lead to the joy of knowing the good and the delight of doing good."  Heady stuff...

Join us this Sunday at Wychwood Library (OX7 6LD) from 7pm to 9pm.

Sunday 7 October 2012


Cheltenham was lovely and autumnal this weekend for the start of their literature festival. Mary Robinson was an unassuming but impressive figure at the event to mark the publication of her book, Everybody Matters: A Memoir (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012).  She mentioned very early in the interview that she has been inspired by her Christian faith and how she has stood out against convention and expectation numerous times in her already long and full life. 

As the blurb described it, “Mary Robinson has spent her life in pursuit of a fairer world. Here, the former UN High commissioner joins us to discuss her life and her memoir, Everybody Matters. In a fascinating interview she reveals what lies behind the vision, strength and determination that has helped her to achieve so much for human rights around the globe, and what it is like to be a member of The Elders - the smallest club in the world.”

Her Cheltenham talk was hosted by an organisation which is very relevant to Wychwood Circle, the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, also known as simply “Coexist”( David Ford - who is speaking at Christ Church Cathedral’s Sunday evening After Eight series in Oxford - introduced the session and described the aim of the Programme as, amongst other things, trying to increase "religious literacy".  I perked up when I heard this,  and was also struck by Coexist's tag, which reverberates well into West Oxfordshire: "Making sense of religion today" - worth following up. 

Since leaving her post at the United Nations, Mary Robinson has moved on to campaign for what she calls Climate Justice.  This is also worth pursuing: The Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice (MRFCJ) describes itself as "a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change who are usually forgotten - the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world."


I hope to get to at least one of Christ Church’s October After Eight series entitled “Across the Faiths”. David Ford starts it off this very evening.  In November the theme will be “Taking a Stand” and is subtitled:  Four Christian activists on issues that matter.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Debt on our doorstep: some moral, religious and political issues


BBC Panorama’s UNDERCOVER:  DEBT ON THE DOORSTEP (Monday Oct 1st)         

 This revealing and worrying documentary showed just how badly indebted the most ordinary people are in our own neighbourhoods  – and not just the average household but also the poorest and most vulnerable.  And today Credit Action reported that UK personal debt amounted to trillions of pounds.  One has heard and seen the adverts for payday loans and maybe heard of the extortionate rates of interest that can apply to them (APRs well into the hundreds) but the programme showed an undercover reporter being trained by Provident Financial – a regulated lender and a major UK financial company – and followed some experienced agents doing their rounds.  Elderly and isolated people were offered small loans at first, and then tempted with ever-larger sums which build and build until they are completely at the mercy of their creditor. 

It hit home hard in terms of the life of dependence and the loss of freedom which results for  a victim (there is no other word) and reminded me of the analysis made back in 1997 by the then Bishop of Worcester Peter Selby in the wake of the first massive credit explosion under Thatcher and Major.  On the international level, with Greece and other southern Europeans nations suffering under its burden, international debt and its repercussions has come much nearer home than the so-called third world.  Peter Selby’s book,  which I happen to have picked up again recently, was called “Grace and Mortgage” (Darton Longman and Todd, 1997). 

Selby was not the first to liken debt, and in particular the international debt trade,  to slavery.  In 1995 someone wrote a paper entitled “Debt: the most potent form of slavery” and called for its “abolition” because it resulted in much the same human cost as the slave trade.  If debt – for a person or for a nation – is intractable and demeaning, a debilitating constraint on vulnerable people’s lives  and a long-term burden, maybe it raises the same fundamental moral and economic issues that slavery did. 

On an everyday political level, as the BBC programme suggested and as Gillian Guy of Citizens Advice emphasized, we need to be aware of the exploitation which is going on our streets, maybe even in our own families.  Provident Financial is a professional regulated firm but it’s getting away with this every day.  Not mentioned – this time – were ‘loan sharks’ (illegal money lenders, who are unregulated) and our own (regulated) banks and credit card lenders whose livelihood also depends on our credit and debt economy.   What should we, in our compassionate lives, do about the victims, the perpetrators and the system?

More on Provident Financial and the BBC One programme can be found on the BBC Business News website (Monday Oct 1st) :