ONE of the peculiarities in being the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, is having to reside in the Deanery, which is one of several houses that the monarchy lists on its website as an “unoccupied royal palace”. Charles I decamped to Oxford in 1625, when London was hit by one of its periodic bouts of plague; and then lived at the Deanery for a lengthier period when he was evicted from London by Parliamentarians in 1642. Charles II occupied the Deanery during the Great Plague of 1665.
In 1625, Charles I had planned a lavish wedding to Queen Henrietta in Westminster Abbey, but she refused to travel to the plague-ridden city. Instead, courtiers married them “remotely”, by proxy-contract, in Paris. Henrietta then came to Oxford, and slummed it at Merton College, while Charles and his entourage were a few doors up the road, enjoying the fine environs of Christ Church. Although they were now a married couple, they had not really been formally introduced; so a gate was cut into Corpus Christi College, enabling chaperones to oversee Charles and Henrietta, and allow them some quality courting-time.
Every year, on their wedding anniversary in June, we unlock the gate (now at the east end of our cathedral), and toast the happy couple. They were, indeed, happy. The marriage lasted until the King’s death in 1649, setting a good precedent for royal marriages that are arranged and contracted remotely — theirs did rather better than the founder of the modern Christ Church, one Henry VIII.
THE Church of England has been practising “social distancing” since 1662. What else is an Sunday 8 a.m. Book of Common Prayer eucharist if it is not that?
Minimal eye contact with your neighbour, and sit at the back of
the church and apart from others, ideally in your own designated pew, despite there being plenty of room at the front. No exchange of the Peace or any other awkward gesture or unnecessary physical proximity is required. A nod to the priest when you leave, perhaps — no handshake, lest one be corralled into a rota for making the coffee or mowing the churchyard.
This is but a small part of our prescient English brilliance: consecrating social distancing at the beginning of every week.
Bread on the waters
WITH London in lockdown, our sons (24 and 27) are currently living with us. The Deanery is slightly bigger than their two-bedroom flat in Crystal Palace. Now they are both here, they help to keep us sane. They are also rather good cooks and, since leaving home some years ago, appear to have developed unusual habits, such as cleaning kitchen floors, emptying dishwashers, and generally keeping spaces tidy and clean.
These are tutorial tasks that I long supposed that we had failed in, but our sons’ reappearance has reminded me that the enduring value of a good education cannot be taken for granted. Despite the absence of any sign that your students or offspring ever listened to a word you said, you can suddenly discover that the message got home after all.
AND, despite lockdowns and social isolation, vibrant community networks everywhere have sprung into action. They were there all the time, like dormant bulbs waiting for a bit of sunshine and rain. A crisis often brings out the best in people. A Skype call with the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire last week revealed a common pattern: empty diaries, but never busier.
The amount of co-ordination going on in our local communities is substantial — small acts of attentive kindness which are organised and focused. In this county, as elsewhere, initiatives range from contacting the elderly and vulnerable to making sure that food and medicine get delivered. As one older member of the cathedral congregation remarked on the phone the other day, they have never been so alone and yet in such good company. Sometimes, the virtual is better — and more real — than reality itself.
The body corporate
DAILY prayer, at times like this, is both a duty and a joy. Prayer requests are sent to me as attachments by Edmund, our cathedral Sub-Dean.
Until recently, I took them — on the iPad — through the Alice Gate in the Deanery, which leads directly into the cathedral. The vast space functioned temporarily as a private chapel. At 7.15 a.m., I would sit alone in my stall facing the shrine of St Frideswide, offering the prayers of the people. At 6 p.m., my Canon colleagues would try to join me remotely, and we’d say prayers together using Zoom.
Now, I use the cloister garden for prayers, surrounded by the prayerful stones of the cathedral, though not inside it. I marvel at our capacity to be connected and collegial, even when we are apart. As the grain once scattered on the hillside, so are we gathered together — every day — into one body.
SPARE a thought for our dog, Lyra. A German Shorthaired Pointer, she normally makes new friends daily on Christ Church Meadow. But few are out and about at present, and the dawn jog that she accompanies me on, before Morning Prayer each day, offers no other dog-walkers to hob-nob with. There are no Lycra-clad students either (not always a good look, incidentally), rowing rhythmically up the Cherwell with their steady strokes.
I miss the company of our students, and their cheery greetings as the morning mist ascends from the river. But the deer are out and about in force, and the swans, geese, and ducks are strutting about, puzzling over the vanished tourists who could usually be relied on for endless supplies of sandwich crumbs to squabble over.
And I remember it is spring. Life will return, the wildlife will retreat back into the woodlands — and yet the peace of the meadow will still be there for all to enjoy.
The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.