In the afternoon I bunked off. I really did. There were three sessions on Chrysostom in Syriac, but I looked at the abstracts and the urge to go waned. The sunshine called to me, and I went out instead.
First I walked up to the Bodleian Library, and dropped into the admissions office. My pass had expired, so I renewed it. In the process I learned that the manuscripts and rare books department had been kicked out of Duke Humphrey’s library and were squatting in a basement room in the Radcliffe Science Library. The phrase “seated three to a chair” was used. Apparently the New Library building is to be demolished, and a brand new building constructed by 2015, in which “special collections” will be based. The fate of the historic Duke Humphrey’s is unknown. I heard all this with some scepticism. The problem at the Bodleian has always been that not enough material is available on the shelves, and ordering material from the stack takes ages. I do hope that all this work is not merely in order to improve the working conditions of the staff — which it seems certain to do –, but also improves the usefulness of the library to the readers.
Then out, and along Broad Street. The sun poured down and there were few cars and people walking in the road. Blackwell’s bookshop is still there, but I didn’t go in. So was Balliol College, of which we used to say, “C’est manifique, mais c’est n’est pas la gare”, parodying the observation of a French officer during the Crimean War on the Charge of the Light Brigade.
But it differed from my day in a couple of respects. For instance, Thornton’s bookshop was gone, replaced by … some nothing shop.
I made my way up to the Tesco Metro, which was killing the nearby Sainsburys. There I bought a couple of rolls, evidently fresh, came out and started walking down towards the station. I passed the market at Gloucester Green, which I never remember visiting in my student days, full of tatty stalls under striped awnings. A shop selling Italian bread and with dried hams hanging up was nearby.
I was on my way to Oxbow books, in 10 Hythe Bridge Street. Ahead of me, some blonde dolly bird was walking, evidently sightseeing, and eventually stopped to photograph the river. The street itself was rather industrial, and Oxbow books occupied what looked like a converted office, up a metal stair. There I bought the TTH translation of Hilary of Poitiers for less than £5, but nothing else.
Then back, sauntering in the sun, until I reached the Examination Schools where the conference is being held. I had decided to attend one of the 4pm workshops, and hear the first paper, on the Pistis Sophia and astrology. The links between ancient astrology and gnostic texts seem like a worthwhile idea to explore to me. But the talk was incredibly technical, and required a lot of knowledge of both text and astrological jargon. There was a lot of noise from outside as well. After 10 minutes I gave myself mercy and slipped out.
Then over to the marquee, and I sat at my stall for a while, working out what to do next. But as I did so, Carol Downer came by. Carol translated the Coptic for the Eusebius book. It was nice to meet her for the first time.
The next step was to go to a meeting of Evangelicals involved in Patristics (5:30-7). This was taking place at Wycliffe Hall, at 58 Banbury Road, which is quite a step! But I walked up there, passing the science labs in South Parks Road — where Cromwell once parked his cannon during the siege of Oxford, and the revetments used to be visible. As a student I walked this route to lectures regularly.
There was a large turnout for the meeting, and rather too small a room. Four speakers each said something about evangelicalism and patristics, mostly from an American point of view. But as I listened, I began to become somewhat uneasy. What I was hearing was, if anything, putting evangelicalism down.
If the word “evangelical” means anything, it means a bible-believing Christian, who has met Jesus and decided to make Him the Lord in his life and bases his life on the bible — that which the Lord taught, the apostles preached, and the scripture records, without the sort of additions that Catholics and Orthodox make, and certainly without the wishy-washyness of the liberal, who is always “progressing” and “enriching” and stuff like that, and whom Tertullian aptly describes in De praescriptione haereticorum.
But the panelists, one and all, spoke as if evangelicalism was something to get away from, something that was only one part of the church, where people needed to learn about the “richness of other traditions”, and they saw patristics as a way to induce evangelicals to do this. Lots of questions came from people boasting about how they were managing to get evangelicals to do this, by one method or another.
Questions were asked for, and I put my hand up. I pointed out that in Oxford 2 centuries a young evangelical started studying the fathers, and his name was John Henry Newman; and asked them what they thought the dangers were in evangelicals studying the fathers. Newman and his colleagues, of course, all abandoned the faith of their youth and most ended up as Catholics or Ritualists. But the panelists saw no problem, no danger. Indeed their responses indicated that they thought that evangelicals “enriching” (i.e. changing, for the word means nothing else) their faith was a good thing.
In other words, these people were not evangelicals at all, but liberals, or rather heretics — people to whom opinions are really secondary and to whom conviction and sincerity is, if anything, amusing. No other sort of person treats the faith once delivered to the saints, by which we live, and by which we will die if necessary, as something that can just be modified as seems convenient under cover of the sort of stale rubbishy phrases about “enrichment” (=change) or “diversity” (=change).
By “evangelical” I suspect that they meant only the incidental cultural things that tend to be associated with what used to be called Low Church. There was certainly plenty of the lazy sloppiness in arrangements, the overrunning of time, and the over-mateyness that is too common among Christians these days. But that, to them, was I fear all that “evangelicalism” meant. A certain Rob Bell, who has been accused of universalism, was mentioned approvingly, and the criticism he has received mentioned with a smile. This, again, is not bible-based Christianity.
Any group that is centred around an ideology or a set of principles — rather than a social group — must define itself, in order to exist. It must define what it is, and what it is not. The attitude I found there was one of pure liberalism. The Fathers were men. Much of what they say is tosh, as is the case for all of us. You don’t add the Fathers to the biblical teaching. They may illuminate it for us, they may have interesting things to say or examples to offer; but at the end of the day they are not inspired.
I walked back down the Banbury Road afterwards, rather annoyed to see the Fathers being hijacked in this way. It is useful, however, to know that the term “evangelical” in patristics means nothing. What I did think, however, was that I ought to write an article on the Right use of the Fathers. Indeed I think a book of that name exists somewhere. Because using the Fathers to deconvert Christians into Churchianity is NOT what I do, or want to see.
I got back to my room, and decided that I would go to the organ recital this evening, from 8:30-9:45. The theme was Bach and his influences, and it was held in Christ Church Cathedral. It was getting dark as I set out. In the evening Oxford becomes a different place, warm, inviting, with restaurants everywhere. But the staple student emergency food, in my day, was provided by some mobile vans that appeared after dark. These served beef-burgers — at least, it was supposedly beef — with lots of onions and greens, and were generally known as the “death burger vans” and supposed to serve rat meat. Hygiene was probably a word that the owners could not spell. I was amused to see, in Oxford High Street, the modern version of the same thing, offering kebabs etc. I hope the standard is better.
The recital was, in truth, tedious. The pieces by Bach were good, but I did not find the rendition of them particularly inspiring, and the other pieces were dirge-like. One, indeed, I could not help feeling was being misplayed, unless that composer really did introduce wavering notes and uneven intervals.
We exited with what I felt was probably relief all round. I found myself following the distinctive figure of T. D. Barnes down the High Street from Carfax. A side alley contained a sign “Carfax chippy”. Well do I remember that dubious fish-and-chip shop where — personal experience — washing the potatoes before chipping and frying was optional. It was still in business, amazingly.
Then back to the college annex. It’s been a good day, and the room is quiet now. Here’s hoping for sleep!