One body, many members

by
28 June 2019

Richard John Keeble describes the value-added benefits of a new-old initiative in Oxford

Members of the Oxford Scriptorium

Members of the Oxford Scriptorium

LAST year, I heard a particularly memorable sermon. In the epistle (1 Corinthians 12), we heard of God’s diverse gifts: that in the Spirit all Christians are one body boasting many members, each endowed with a different purpose. The priest stood up, glared at us, and said: “Think of the epistle we’ve just heard; now think of all the denominations that annoy you. Amen.”

In spite — or perhaps because — of its brevity, the sermon’s poignant message of Christian unity was hammered home, and has come to resonate with me, especially more recently.

My own ecclesiastical background could be broadly defined as Prayer-Book Anglo-Catholic. Now studying for a Master’s in theology, I am blessed also to be the sacristan at Pusey House, Oxford. Re-engaging with the tradition of my upbringing has proved a happy homecoming: the beauty of holiness expressed in the liturgy; its literary elegance; the theatrical drama of choral and visual splendour; and the impressive dance of servers around the sanctuary all witness to the sacramental reality at its heart.

The three physical wings of Pusey House — its library, chapel, and social space — highlight a deliberate combination of this worshipful pattern with study and community. Recognising the interrelation of these activities as part of a greater formation is at the centre of our life here. While the daily offices provide a prayerful structure to the day, the emphasis on hospitality, on the one hand, and serious scholarship, on the other, enables a gradual formation (and re-formation) of character, cultivating spiritual and emotional as well as intellectual growth, all as part of the deepening of Christian faith and witness.

In this context, the establishment of Scriptorium (in April 2018) has proved nothing short of providential.

A SIMPLE, though inadequate, way to define the Oxford Scriptorium is to label it a “study group”. It was set up by a co-founder of the original Round Church Scriptorium in Cambridge, Dr James Orr (recently appointed to a university lectureship in philosophy of religion at Cambridge). Essentially, Scriptorium members meet Tuesday to Thursday each week at the Pusey House library, sit down together, and follow a structured plan for the day, consisting of four 90-minute work sessions, punctuated with two tea/coffee breaks, and a lunch hour (refreshments provided).

The day is bracketed by two occasions of communal prayer. The morning prayer session includes a reflective reading: typically, we work through one book per term using selected passages. This year has featured The Intellectual Life, by A. G. Sertillanges; Leisure: The basis of culture, by Josef Pieper; and St Augustine’s Confessions. Then, before the silent studying begins, we each talk about what we hope to achieve by the end of the day. It is a rare chance for accountability. One person may be aiming to read three chapters, for instance, while another plans to write 500 words for an essay or dissertation.

Scriptorium thus shares with Pusey House a vision that seeks to hold together a pattern of prayer with study, community, and social life. All this is held within the deeper context of Christian vocation, where these various activities flourish in their shared purpose of seeking the Kingdom of God. We pray each morning in the words of Aquinas’s “Student’s Prayer”: “Guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to successful completion.”

Of course, this endeavour deliberately echoes the original scriptorium: a room assigned to medieval monks for working together in preserving and developing the riches of the Christian intellectual life, exploring the scriptures, producing theological treatises, and preserving great works of antiquity. From these fruitful efforts grew European literary culture, and, with it, the earliest universities. If our universities have now become, as Dr Orr often observes, “multiversities”, lacking any central or coherent focus, then a home for academic Christians to work, talk, and pray together while dedicating their studies to God is all the more vital.

ASIDE from the welcome increase in productivity which I owe to Scriptorium, there are two particular aspects of the experience for which I am grateful.

The first is the intellectual company that it has brought. Despite the Anglo-Catholic backdrop of Pusey House, a majority of Scriptorium members hail from Evangelical backgrounds, and many are from the United States. Two large Evangelical Anglican churches in Oxford — St Aldate’s and St Ebbe’s — are strongly represented among my everyday companions. These include astute theologians, ethicists, patristic scholars, and medievalists. Discussions regularly involve the great names of the patristic and medieval Church, along with such current figures as N. T. Wright, Don Carson, and Rowan Williams.

The intelligence and academic integrity of my companions is often humbling, but it is also indicative of a sincere pursuit of the divine logos which grounds all created things. Not that my Evangelical friends are unaffected by their surroundings, of course: the invigorating chapel life of Pusey House, ever present and available, has opened new liturgical and theological windows for some Scriptorium regulars, some of whom have barely, if ever, encountered this tradition before.

PERHAPS even more significant, however, is the opportunity for genuine fellowship. Studying in a high-pressure environment such as Oxford can be tough. Charities such as Nightline and Student Minds exist for a reason — for students with a strenuous workload, peppered with solitary stints in the library, loneliness, depression, or anxiety can arise all too easily.

Still in keeping with the monastic tradition, Scriptorium is very much a communal endeavour. The prevailing atmosphere of welcome and mutual support is a wonderful demonstration of Christian love. It is inspiring to delve into the day’s work, deadlines looming and tension high, with people in the same situation, who, nevertheless, share such a spirit of generosity and warmth. That these pursuits have brought together a group with different traditions and charisms only enhances their value.

It is little surprise, therefore, that, with members’ evangelistic spirit, Scriptorium participation has ballooned. A third branch has just been established at Edinburgh University, and more are, we hope, on the way.

JUST like that one-sentence sermon, with elegant simplicity Scriptorium has pointed me and others toward the reality of the Church Catholic. I am immensely thankful, both to God and to my fellow members, for this transformative experience and the opportunity to appreciate more fully St Paul’s vision of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12.

The word “community” — now so over-used, yet undervalued — genuinely describes this wonderful instrument for Christian fellowship and vocation, where boundaries within and without the Church of England are crossed; where Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Anglicans study, talk, and pray together in the service of God.

As we pray at the end of each Scriptorium day: “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Richard John Keeble is the Convenor of the Oxford Scriptorium.

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