What are you doing here?
Oxford proper sits on the Thames River and is about two square miles in size. It has 20,000+ visitors a day. No, that is not a typo. Many are drawn to the various colleges of Oxford University, more than a few come for the architecture and history of the place, a (very) few it would seem for the churches, and gobs ‘n gobs for all things Harry Potter – many of the movies scenes we’re filmed here.
The “all-things-Potter” phenomenon has actually been a great financial windfall for Christ Church in particular. Christ Church is both the Cathedral and the College. But, the windfall seems to come at a price. As far as I can tell at this point getting to the cathedral, any part of it at all excepting about ten minutes or so before scheduled services, costs money.
Now, Oxford does not lack for open and accessible places to pray – the University Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin and St Michael at the North Gate to name a couple. Further, I get the financial and other challenges imposed just in being open and accessible. I’ve not yet gotten used to being in the midst of services with tours and tourists passing to and fro, and Christ Church works hard to avoid such collisions. On Sundays and for daily services one may enter for free, but only a few minutes before the service. As I was standing chatting with the porter, the charming gentleman in a bowler hat at the gate, many people approached cameras predominately strapped around their necks who where clearly frustrated by that they could not get in earlier, and not consoled by the fact that the cathedral and close would be open at 2:00 for tours and walkabouts.
It is no easy-to-solve matter. The way the cathedral sits, it is on the far corner of the gate at the street, with no real way to offer access to one of its chapels. Still I am disturbed, without being judgmental (I don’t walk in Christ Church Cathedral’s shoes), because as I understand it one of the fundamental elements of being a cathedral is being a church for all people. It gets complicated and compromised by the also existent responsibility to maintain and even protect that which God, the Church, and her people have put into our care.
We are called to respect both the person and that church, so to speak. I can tell you from my time at the gate, and as a dean, that there are plenty of people who believe they are entitled to come in, but offer no respect to either people or the church. As I said, this is no easy matter. Through the gates of Christ Church Oxford pass many of the most facile minds on earth, if it were easy to solve it would have been solved long ago.
Perhaps this represents and opportunity for a new “via media,” a middle way. Richard Hooker used the term to talk about a Church that was (is) the richness of the Church Catholic and the energy of the Church Reformed.
Perhaps that new “middle way” is to embrace the opportunity to be seen at prayer even if it nibbles at the edges of our expectations of solemnity or reverence in a world that finds what we Christians do a curiosity. If even one person should ask why we do it, there is new opportunity to welcome. No doubt some who wander through travail and are heavy laden and are in need of Christ’s rest, and even healing.
God asks of Elijah and me, “What are you doing here?” For me it is, perhaps to listen anew for ways to live and to empower our Cathedral Community to express welcome, love, healing, and forgiveness.
What are you doing here …
******** The Sabbatical Diary is published with gratitude and appreciation to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan for granting me sabbatical time and funding, and to the Graduate Theological Foundation, Oxford Foundation Fellowship, which made access to Oxford University for reading and research possible.