Vocational degrees

December 22, 1995

Elaine Williams reports on a group of Oxford students for whom the academic challenge is not the only test they have to endure. Simon Uttley is one of the University of Oxford's growing number of mature students. He is 29 years old, a former policeman, outgoing, sociable, plays rugby at Christ Church, likes the odd drink, goes to parties. You could be forgiven for thinking him a bit of a lad.

But he is different. He is in a religious order, a Jesuit scholastic nearly half-way through the long training that the Society of Jesus requires of its professed before their ordination as priests. He is nearing the end of his degree in politics, philosophy and economics, which will be followed by two years working in a school, before studying for a further four years in theology.

Simon is one of a number of students going to Oxford after entering orders, who are taking an increasingly active part in the general life of the university. Almost 100 years after the tentative and chary return of Catholic orders to Oxford since the Reformation, with the establishment of private halls - Dominicans at Blackfriars (where there are also nuns); Franciscans at Greyfriars; Benedictines to St Benet's Hall and Jesuits to Campion Hall - there is a growing acceptance among monks themselves, and the university community, that they have a more mainstream role to play.

Monks now form a particularly coherent body at Oxford. In the Middle Ages Oxford attracted resident scholars to the town and its established monastic houses. Worcester College, for example, once Gloucester College, was a centre for training educated clerics, run from the Abbey of Gloucester. Trinity College was established for monks from Durham. St John's College was Cistercian. Canterbury College, for the monks of Canterbury, is now part of Christchurch.

After the Reformation these colleges became Anglican foundations and it was only after the repeal in the 19th century of laws suppressing Catholics that they returned to the fringes of university life, although it was only 20 years ago that laws forbidding the wearing of habits on the street were formally removed from the Statute Book.

In truth, most monks when out of hall wear secular dress. Although they live under obedience and the rhythm of the day is set by the Divine Office, they participate in everyday undergraduate Oxford. For many the increasing integration and openness of life at Oxford proves a crucial and testing time for their vocation. For the majority it is undergraduate life the second time round and can prove a poignant reminder of their former existence.

Simon Uttley read law at the former Leeds Polytechnic and graduated to become a policeman in Birmingham. He is now one of four Jesuit undergraduates at Campion Hall. "I was the most ordinary student you could hope to meet; very sociable with lots of friends," he says. "Celebration is very important to me now as it was then."

A Catholic convert aged 18, the way became clear to becoming a Jesuit "at five o'clock in the morning, parked up on a roundabout in a Panda car.

"Being a student as a Jesuit means I have access to the world I live in and on a good day that gives you an invaluable sense of perspective and clarity of vision. On the flip side you are constantly aware of the element of life you have renounced. There's no chance of underestimating the sacrifice you have made."

Other students are, he says, "intrigued by what makes us tick.

"It's a very counter-cultural thing to do, very difficult to market from a secular point of view. They say 'Celibacy - you're crazy. You can do lots of good work and be married.' That's true, but vocation goes beyond simply doing good works. You're not just choosing between several charitable options. It's about responding to a particular calling, maintaining the presence of God in one's life and having an inner sense that this is the right path.

"I can have a drink and go to parties. But we are under vows. It's a case of enjoying life but retaining the integrity that those vows demand. It's easier said than done. One works through trial and error."

As part of his pastoral commitment Simon Uttley runs retreats for students - days of "recollection" - away from Oxford. He is only too aware of the stresses and strains. "A lot of students never get out of Oxford (during term time). This is such a pressurised university. I am constantly amazed at how much pressure people are under in terms of work and expectations. I like to think that being a student myself and having to jump through all the hoops, gives me a sense of what they are going through."

Father Henry Wansbrough is Master of St Benet's Hall and a monk of Ampleforth, the largest Benedictine monastery in Europe. Ampleforth has benefited from a growing interest in community and its numbers have risen steadily to around 100 over the past ten years. It now has 25 monks in training: seven novices, nine simply professed and nine studying before ordination for the priesthood. The experience of Oxford normally comes at a crucial time in their formation - one year before taking final vows.

St Benet's has opened out under Father Henry, a respected biblical scholar, the first monk of the hall to lecture in theology in the wider university and the first to lecture in Worcester College since the Reformation.

There are 45 students in St Benet's, 15 of them monks from eight different monasteries. Eight laymen read theology and the rest study subjects across the disciplines. Father Henry says: "Before I came it was decided that St Benet's would be wholly monastic but we now have five non-theological laymen a year. That contributes to the liveliness and the intellectual stimulus of the place."

It also means that St Benet's can have a football team and a boat. Indeed, the boat team has a female cox and in the gloom of a winter's evening the sound of rhythmic pumping from the ergonometer (rowing machine) could be heard through Father Henry's study window as Brother Christopher, Captain of Boats, worked out in the cloister.

Three nights of the week monks can invite guests for dinner. "I encourage openness," Father Henry says. "It's important that monks have a wider experience. It helps them to be fuller people, complete personalities. There are no bells marking out the rhythm of the day. It's a time when they need to think things out while constantly subject to a good deal of outside stimulus, without the protection of the monastery, constantly meeting people who are non-believers."

That monks complete their studies and attend Matins are the two essential disciplinary requirements. Father Henry says: "If you have had a late-night party you are still up for morning prayers at 7am."

"Quite a number" of monastic vocations have been lost during this time at Oxford, but none, according to Father Henry, during the past five years.

Brother Oswald McBride, an Ampleforth monk within two weeks of taking solemn vows, was a doctor in Edinburgh who was training to be a surgeon. He gave up his job before approaching the Abbot of an order he did not know and had never seen. Now, aged 29, he is taking his BA in theology in two years instead of three. The rigours of academic life pose no problem. He says: "I have a fairly disciplined attitude to life, I am a hard worker. Indeed the abbot has had to convince me to relax.

"In a way the fights, tears and heartache came when I was about to take simple vows (after the novitiate)." Benedictine monks spend their first two years enclosed. McBride's novitiate was made up of an ex-head teacher, an Oxford theologian, a Cambridge lawyer and one of the Vietnamese boat people; all strong personalities. "That was hard, extremely hard." It was an intense, sometimes explosive situation. Being a student at Oxford was a minor challenge in comparison, though he was aware of high expectations.

Once fellow students recovered from the shock of discovering he was a monk, he found he was often asked to listen. He says: "Because I am a monk people do talk to me. I have been a confessor to many people over the years. You don't tell them what to do, however, you just sit and listen."

Brother Anthony Marett-Crosby, aged 25, a history graduate of Oxford, has returned as an Ampleforth monk to take a theology course towards ordination. Highly academic and reserved by nature, he too had been asked to listen by students questioning their lives. He says: "We are not counsellors with brass plaques on our doors. There is nothing more dangerous than setting yourself up as someone who can solve other people's problems. That shows an acute lack of self-awareness. But I am certainly there as someone who listens. In that prayer is important."

Since Oxford was associated with his former life, being there a year before taking final vows provided an excellent opportunity to reassess his position. He says: "We are all aware of other options in life. Being at Oxford makes that more pronounced, it gives one the chance to make an informed choice. Oxford reminds me of the things I have given up. But there is no reason why that should be negative. Monasticism does not live in opposition to the world."

Brother Alban Nunn , a 34-year-old Australian, gave up a lecturing post in music at Melbourne University and a career as a music critic and noted avant garde composer to become a Benedictine monk at Ealing Abbey.

He believes there is a new romanticism in the air, that students are more prepared to accept the mystery of sacramental faith. "It's easier to practice as a religious here than in Australia," he says. As somebody who has spent most of his life in a university, living at Oxford posed no threats. He felt solemn vows would come and go "and I'll still be trying to get my Greek into some semblance of order".

Monks are encouraged to face the challenges of student life at Oxford head on, to become involved in the larger community, to widen their horizons. Father Henry takes a more active role in the wider university than any former master of St Benet's, a fact that makes huge demands on his time. Indeed, to save time he can be seen whizzing in and out of Oxford's traffic on roller blades, an acceptance of modernity not many other heads of colleges would ever be likely to contemplate.

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