(Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Oxford is fallen

What do they know of faith who only multi-faith spaces know?

Mine is not a happy fantasy but it is a warm one. Imagine, if you will, the last threads of doctoral scarlet yielding to the gleeful dance of flame and thus joining, in ashes, the remains of a label that once proudly bore the legend EDE & RAVENSCROFT as well as par-burnt pages of textbooks innumerable. Round this meagre fire – for such things burn so very much quicker than they are made, and give much less light in the former process than the latter – are huddled the fellows of St Hilda’s in desperate search of heat and light. They once entertained – which academic that has idled under Tom Tower or over the Sundial Lawn or through the arches of Canterbury Quad could not? – dreams of postings at Christ Church, the great buck on St Aldates, or at Merton, the shrewish powerhouse of books tucked down its own eponymous street, or at St John’s, the vast and wealthy spinster who dominates St Giles. Such ambitions fell by the wayside and so they settled on seeing out the days, lecturing in the genetic variations found in the flea or the nature of igneous rock or the cultures of exchange in medieval Europe or whatever it was which had first set their hearts a-beating all those years ago, in the little college by the bends of the River Cherwell known as St Hilda’s.

It may take environmental cataclysm to convince the fellows of St Hilda’s of the merit of a physical reminder of the limits of human knowledge

When the lights started going out and the cracks appeared in the manicured paving stones of Broad and Turl and High, St Hilda’s and her fellows knew not where to turn. The final grain of sand had dropped for the city and her haughty seat of learning as nature returned to take her due, subsuming her quads and statues and halls back into the bog from whence they came. The fellows at Merton and Johns and Christ Church, though they had long been mocking, sometimes downright contemptuous, of their chapels discovered now what they were for, and, just as their very first – and subsequent – forebears had there gathered to seek deliverance from anarchy or warfare or plague, so they too clustered under tearful arches and returned to earth. The poor fellows at St Hilda’s could do no such thing. Their subsuming into the primal led them only to their Multifaith Space: a room that would not even permit prayer to creep into its title. There it was that they gathered together the gowns and books they had worn and written with such pride and sought comfort in the short-lived flames they gave off as the determined lapping of the Cherwell grew ever closer to their frightened ears.

St Hilda’s College, Cowley Place, Oxford, 1921. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Universities have long conceived of themselves as lights of reason amid the dank darkness of ignorance. Oxford, of course, is the most enamoured with this foundational myth – it is, after all, a university that continues to indulge Richard Dawkins – although now waxy and condemned to a cupboard a la that other prophet of indefatigable progress, Jeremy Bentham, no doubt. Yet for so many students university is an incredibly dark place and the bright lights of Oxford the darkest of all. An arena of hearts broken, hopes dashed, and failure confronted. It may take environmental cataclysm to convince the fellows of St Hilda’s of the merit of a physical reminder of the limits of human knowledge in the midst of a place which now seems to see itself dedicated to the lie that no such limits exist (which surely is the definition of blind faith). But it is a limit that those who study and have studied there know and feel all too well.

Nobody was ever comforted or made furious or seduced by a Multifaith Space or its Director. They do not save students from suicide or inspire them to impish mockery or lure them from gilt to lives of service. They won’t even have flammable interiors to keep the fellows warm when nature comes to claim back her stainéd plot. Not only is the university a very dark and comfortless place for many, but the world which it claims to study and to seek to understand is equally so. The myth of the unstoppable march of reason (whoever she might actually be) is as hard to maintain in this era of plague, pestilence, war, dogma and unrest as it has ever been in the grubby bad old days of the past. To replace a person dedicated to the querying of that narrative, as well as to provide the comfort of the eternal in a university and city and world that is obsessed with the transitory, with someone tasked with overseeing snatched moments of that most nebulous of concepts, ‘contemplation’ is bad enough. But then what? Next the people who stood where once chaplains did will dutifully plough the management consultants of the future back into earning the college’s dirt-clad donor bread: what else are they there to do? This is not only a wilful promotion of ignorance (enough to damn any university, one might have once thought) but also an indictment of commercialised and de-contextualised abstracts which the university now conceives itself as being.

Let the spires dream their final dream and sink beneath the bubbling peat. Let Oxford return to swamp and be done with it

Communities that are conceived of as neutral abstracts don’t survive. This is the reality of modernity, and especially of that which thinks of itself as elite but is, in truth, an exercise in superficiality: the elaborate displays of the Ideal Home Show are consigned, inexorably, to the lick of skip fires in the backlots of Olympia and those flower arrangements, once so carefully sketched out in anticipation of Chelsea, are ground back into the earth from whence they came. Oxford is nothing more than these – a wretched Disneyland in Bath stone that feeds on blood-money and angst and ever has done. Now even those illusions of community comfort, those few goodly fig leaves put in place to assuage the consciences of monsters past, are gone or going. Yet, short of those cracks appearing on the High Street, little can or will be done. Let the spires dream their final dream and sink beneath the bubbling peat once more. Let Oxford return to swamp and be done with it.

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