St Benet’s: fellowship of the ecumenical table

Matthew Reisz talks to the master of Oxford hall and ‘place of inter-religious encounter’

December 12, 2013

St Benet’s Hall, says Werner Jeanrond, who took over as its first lay master last year, is “the only place in Oxford based on the medieval idea of the students assembled at one table around the master – and now his wife. We don’t want to increase beyond the one table, so we retain the model of ‘table fellowship’ and also intellectual exchange.”

Technically defined as a “permanent private hall”, St Benet’s is one of six religious foundations (three Catholic and three Protestant) attached to the University of Oxford.

But whereas the others focus on specific tasks such as training for the ministry, St Benet’s is a college in all but name, with about 50 undergraduates – selected on academic merit rather than religious affiliation – studying for standard degrees in theology, Classics, history, oriental studies, and philosophy, politics and economics.

Yet it is also a monastic community with two senior monks (a prior, responsible for the chapel and monastic rule, and an 80-year-old librarian) and four student monks. It is overseen by a subsidiary of the Ampleforth Abbey Trust.

Jeanrond is a distinguished academic, a former professor of divinity at the University of Glasgow, with long-standing connections with Oxford. On coming to St Benet’s, he was immediately made a full member of the university’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, where he carries out research and teaching duties. Born near the Franco-German border, he is also a member of the department of German and Dutch.

Personally well integrated within Oxford, he stresses that “there’s nothing special or religious about our syllabus” (or indeed its fees), and he is keen for the hall “to be a player within the university”.

His core goals – to upgrade the hall’s current home opposite the Ashmolean Museum, add a new building, increase its number of postgraduate students to around 20, offer student bursaries and secure the hall’s future through a general endowment fund – sound broadly familiar. The particular ethos and status of St Benet’s, however, make it highly distinctive and lead to a number of specific challenges.

Alms for an ex-monastic body

Take the core question of money. Jeanrond is a full voting member of the committee of “heads of houses” who run the Oxford colleges, yet the permanent private halls are not allowed to participate in a fund that transfers money for building or renovation work from the richer to the poorer institutions. This has forced St Benet’s into a “hand-to-mouth” existence, as it has no independent endowment. (Given that it was exclusively monastic until the 1970s, its alumni base is notably lacking in hard cash.)

Very much at the progressive end of the Catholic spectrum (and married to a Swedish Lutheran), Jeanrond claims to have fought all his life for “the equality of women in Church and society” and to have made it a condition of employment that St Benet’s should start to admit female undergraduates. Yet because there is also a monastic community in the hall, canon law requires that all students have to be men.

It will take a new building to get around this strange “architectural problem” and bring St Benet’s in line with the other Oxford colleges.

Benedictine way

While Jeanrond describes St Benet’s as “a normal university institution with a religious ethos”, this still makes it fairly unusual in terms of the “student experience”.

In general terms, the master sees the “Benedictine ethos” he tries to live up to as consisting of three key elements. The first is “a commitment to the other as a person in whom you take interest”. This goes beyond mere hospitality to “welcoming the other who, in Benedictine understanding, can always be an image of the face of Christ”.

Second (and equally important) is the intellectual ideal of the “thinking believer”, since “faith which is not critical and self-critical is of no value”. The final point is that “you can only become a human being in community – it’s an egalitarian but anti-collective approach to life”.

The hall’s formal meals (which students have to pay for in advance and so tend to attend) are accompanied by a reading from the Rule of St Benedict as well as the Latin Grace. The result of all this, in Jeanrond’s view, is that “we are not individuals and a collective, but persons and a community”.

When his fellow heads of house are invited for meals, they sometimes send him notes afterwards thanking him for a rare opportunity to sit next to “a real student”.

Although the hall’s terms of employment require its master to be Catholic, only one of its other tutors is – and Jeanrond is delighted that a student body including Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Hindus and non-believers means that St Benet’s can serve as “a place of inter-religious encounter”.

Committed to a style of theology that is “open and welcoming rather than inward-looking, closed and afraid”, he seems unfazed by the fact that Oxford is also home to some vociferous critics of religion.

“It would be very unhealthy for theology not to be challenged in its silent assumptions, like any other discipline,” he says. “You can’t have it both ways. If theology participates, it has to participate on the same grounds as everybody else. You cannot claim any caveats. I encourage those debates even in the hall.”

St Benet’s is a curious institution unlikely to have been created in its present form by someone designing a university from scratch. Yet Jeanrond’s impressive plans see it as a centre of academic excellence, a community embodying a certain set of values and a place for debate between and about religions.

Yet he also hopes it can serve a further purpose as “an occasional platform for forward-looking Roman Catholic contributions to discussions on major issues”.

He adds: “I don’t want to be associated with any kind of Catholic plans for taking over England or the world – I distance myself from those Catholics as much as I can – but I do think in this country some aspects of Catholic intellectual culture have not received the attention that perhaps they should have.

“I hope we can play a role in bringing them forward, not on their own, but in a concert of others.”

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