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Angela Tilby: These emails are a Lenten parable

28 February 2020


Christ Church, Oxford, the cathedral spire seen from Tom Quad

Christ Church, Oxford, the cathedral spire seen from Tom Quad

THE most recent revelations from Christ Church, Oxford (News, Press 21 February), provide a parable for Lent. We are all called in this season to self-examination and repent­ance. Evagrius, the most psycho­logically acute of the Desert Fa­­thers, taught that spiritual growth involves pay­ing attention to our thoughts, which, for him, were not mental reasonings, but something more sinister: the false rationalisa­tions by which we jus­­­­tify to our­selves our unruly desires.

The emails from Christ Church show what happens when thoughts intended to be private are revealed. It is difficult not to be repel­­led at the state of mind of the individual who entertained the fantasy of the Dean’s “wrinkly, withered little body” being found at Osney Lock. Malicious thoughts, disguised as drollery, are easily tolerated by intelligent people when their wishes are frustrated. But, in the light of day, the funniness dis­ap­­pears. Such thoughts reveal out-of-control emotions: anger, con­tempt, secret envy. They give in­­sight into the hidden violence that the entitled sometimes resort to in the struggle to protect their advan­tages.

The college says that the emails are unimportant. The Governing Body, which should be the college’s decision-making body, has lacked even basic inquisitiveness, appar­ently accepting that the toxic con­tents of the emails were just col­leagues letting off steam.

Busy self-absorbed Oxbridge aca­demics, under constant pressure to publish, can easily persuade them­­­­­­selves that they have no time to run college affairs, let alone get wound up about a few indiscreet remarks.

Christ Church delegates much re­­sponsibility to a committee made up of former censors (senior tutors). Some of its most sensitive business is, in effect, conducted in secret, with only edited versions available to the Governing Body. This is why the Governing Body has neither seen, nor insisted on seeing, a full report of the Smith tribunal that exon­erated the Dean last summer. It worries me that under­graduates are ab­­sorbing the lesson that se­­crecy, lying, and emotional abuse are ac­­­ceptable, if they serve your in­­­terests.

For the rest of us, a useful exercise this Lent would be to turn on the light of the gospel in the house of the self, and uncover the clever, murder­ous thoughts that we habitually en­­tertain about those whom we most fear or despise. Gos­sip and malicious daydreams are not the sole preserve of acade­mics. Clergy are particularly prone to what Evagrius called “thoughts”: the half-conscious, half- repressed fantasies that bubble up from our instinctive life and then become rationalised to justify our preju­­dices.

We can hide such thoughts from ourselves, but we cannot hide them from God — and, if we fail to at­­tend to them, they poison our lives and relationships.

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