At the pub with religious historians

Posted on October 14, 2005 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Graduate School in Oxford

This afternoon was my weekly seminar with the five other students in my Ecclesiastical History program. It was in Christ Church College - hurrah! It was great to waltz right through the non-visitors entrance, walk across the gorgeous courtyard with a fountain in the middle, and into a lecture room just next door to Christ Church Cathedral.

This was the first of eight weekly seminars on Historiography that we'll have throughout the term, and these form the core of my course. We'll have to write four essays for each of the four periods we study in these seminars, and then the big scary examination paper at the end will test our knowledge. The other lectures are kind of extra, just to further prepare myself for the examinations, my tutorials next term, and my eventual dissertation.

The first part of the seminar was on the books of Luke and Acts in the New Testament, which are generally thought to be a two-part history written by the same author. We discussed the author, date, and audience of the books and to what extent the author could be called a "historian." Really interesting stuff.

I presented the second part of the seminar - my palms were good and sweaty, but it wasn't too scary. I gave an introduction to second-century Christian writers and their views of the Roman Empire and Greco-Roman culture. As this is the area I'll probably do my dissertation on, at least I was pretty familiar with the subject. It seemed to go over well - even got some nods from the tutor throughout - phew!

The seminar was two hours long, from 3 to 5pm, and then all of us went to a nearby pub for drinks. It was great fun, and nice to get to know my fellow students a bit better. As you can imagine, we have lots to talk about since we're all interested in the same general subject, and the conversations were really interesting.

One of them is named Russell, from Denver. He was a lawyer for eight years but is working on a change in career. He just completed a BA at Oxford in theology, and is now working on a degree in the area of Reformation history. He's thinking about looking into the relationships between reformers like Luther, Islam, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Interesting! He has a wife and two small children here with him - wow. We also went around and asked what everyone's church background is - his is evangelical. Sounds like he may be looking to go into the ministry after his degree, rather than teach.

Next is Jeff, who is also from Denver by coincidence. He looks sorta like Robert Sean Leonard from Dead Poet's Society, only skinnier. He's also doing early Christianity, but he's not sure what he'll focus on yet. His church background was the most interesting of them all: "Western Rite Antiochian Orthodox Church." Not what I expected of a guy from Denver. He was quite interesting to talk to given his unique background and our shared academic interest.

Dominic, who I didn't get to talk to a whole lot, is English, a member of the Church of England, and is also doing early Christianity. He looks kinda like the hobbit named Merry in the Lord of the Rings. He just did a BA at Oxford and is planning to focus on "Christology in St. Augustine." Christology is the branch of theology that has to do with who Jesus is and St. Augustine is a 5th-century Christian writer who I did part of my master's thesis on.

Another one is Sam, who is from Wales. He also just completed a BA at Oxford. He's studying modern charismatic/Pentecostal churches in England. His background is charismatic evangelical.

For much of the time I talked with Sam and Russell about their view of the Church of England. Both of them are evangelicals and both have similar viewpoints - Anglicanism is way too liberal and the churches are practically empty, while the evangelical churches in Oxford are flourishing and packed with people. So naturally I had to ask their opinion on the Archbishop of Canterbury, especially from Sam, being from Wales. (The Archbishop was Bishop of Wales before he got his current role.)

Sam does not like the Archbishop at all - says he is so liberal that he hardly holds to any of the creed of the Anglican Church, and yet he is the leader of it. He also complained that he never gives a straight answer on his beliefs. He said the Archbishop is extremely intelligent and good at doing the political thing, and always sidesteps questions. Russell had very much the same opinion.

We left at about 7:00, and I yacked with Jeff about the Orthodox Church until we went our separate ways in the city center. I walked all the way home, being too cheap to buy a bus ticket, but it was a very nice walk. It was dark but not terribly cold and there were lots of people out on the sidewalks and going by on bikes, and the air smelled of fall leaves. Good stuff, this Oxford thing.