Prophesy to the Wind: The Full Text of Vincent Strudwick’s Essay
Prophesy to the Wind
The Future of the Graduate Theological Foundation
in the New Normal .
When Dr John Morgan carefully began planning the new chapter for GTF following his retirement there was no hint of a global pandemic in the air.
Nor was there when Dr Paul Kirbas, when appointed Chair of the new Directorate, began to outline planned for the Fall 2020.
However confronted suddenly by Covid 19 radical fresh plans had to be conceived, and to set these in motion and focus our attention on the task, Paul invited me to offer an historical perspective of the vision of the Foundation, as a basis for thinking about the future in the new normal of Post Coronavirus world, because the story of my life for the past thirty years has been entwined with that of the Foundation in many important respects.
Telling stories is the way we make sense of our lives, and all religious faiths begin and are sustained by a story that seeks to explain the mystery of human existence and its purpose. Richard Holloway, Chair of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and more recently a Gresham Professor of Divinity, writes in his new book: ‘The word ‘story’ is inevitably associated with ‘fiction’, the stuff we make up. But fictions can be true or false. True in the sense that they tell us something valid about the human condition, false in the sense that we can wilfully misread them. Religion is full of true fictions, stories that carry meanings we have to work for, much the way that spies have interpret the coded messages they receive from headquarters. The trouble is that too many people fail to recognise that reading in an interpretive art, that stories can carry many different layers of meaning, and that the most obvious or literal meaning may be the furthest from the intended truth’.
What follows is inevitably my story and readers will need to interpret, de-code it and relate it to their own story ‘as if they were God’s spies’, if it is to be useful.
A Call for Ecumenical Collaboration
It was in 1982 that John Morgan, newly appointed Director of GTF heard Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury speak in the National Cathedral in Washington DC, calling for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, Orthodox and Protestants to learn to work ecumenically to face the changes he foresaw in that time of political and cultural instability and uncertainty.
John Morgan wrote to Runcie, explaining the work of the GTF and in particular the new Masters program he was planning.
He not only received a warm affirmation of this, but also appointed the then bishop of Bristol, the Right Reverend Professor John Tinsley, to be his continuing link with the Foundation.
Throughout the 1980’s the annual convocation lecture was offered by a succession of leading academics in a wide variety of faiths, all reflecting the spirit of Runcie’s call.
At this time, the GTF was unknown to me but I also had been working to explore the work of the churches in adult and continuing education, and co-incidentally was asked by Robert Runcie to be the Education process consultant at the Lambeth Conference 1988 –a gathering held every ten years for the world-wide Anglican (Episcopalian) Communion.
At that time I was both Principal of a distance learning theological course, and Tutor in Religious Studies at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. From this base in 1992 I pioneered among other ventures a two week international summer program at Christ Church, Oxford to resource people engaged in ‘doing theology’. With tutors offering a variety of seminars and a schedule involving leisure and sight- seeing, the pilot scheme gained approval from Dr Geoffrey Thomas the Department’s Director, and that of the newly appointed Dr Angus Hawkins, in charge of OUDCE’s outreach programs.
It was during the second year of the new school that Dr Morgan arrived without warning and explained his vision for GTF offering to guarantee a number of students for the summer program each year. The immediate outcome was an invitation to visit the GTF, then with office, library and conference premises on the convent campus of the Ancilla Domini, headquarters of an order of nuns in Iowa, to learn about the GTF and to enthuse about the summer programme. This I did, and learning of the Runcie link particularly thrilled John Morgan; while I was impressed by the students I met, and looked forward to their presence at the summer program.
During the whole of the 1990’s I was frequently in the USA fulfilling lecturing engagements on behalf of the embryonic Kellogg College, the University faculty of theology, and the Smithsonian Institute. Whenever possible I began to combine these trips with a visit to GTF, both to be involved in its activities when invited, and also to foster the relationship, growing into a friendship, with John, his wife Linda GTF Provost and the Morgan family. On one occasion I remember staying at the Morgan Farm and being taken to meet the Amish community with whom John was on terms of great respect and warmth. It here we had a discussion on ‘change’ and how necessary it was to learn how to manage it, lest at some future time Christians would be visited by curious tourists viewing them as strange relics from the past as they were currently visiting the Amish.
GTF was rapidly becoming part of the planning process for the
Oxford summer school as well providing a stream of eager and diverse students (including one Paul Kirbas); and in 1998 John Morgan offered the resources of the GTF to provide a brochure outlining the themes and lecturers for publicity purposes. The first of many in the series was entitled: ‘Gospel Tradition and Change’ featuring on the cover Millais’ famous portrait of John Henry Newman.
We both had the conviction that ‘change’ was not a ‘one off’ or a ‘once in a generation happening’, but rather a process in which humans and their institutions are constantly engaged. In a jointly framed foreword we said:
‘Students in this summer program come from all over the world and we have welcomed participants from the Gambia, Barbados, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Australia, Uruguay and Indonesia as well as the USA and UK. This provides an exciting cultural mix and a range of experience that brings new and different insights to the theological issues being studied.’
We then indicated gently that this inter-active process, both in the sessions and in collegiate social life, provided challenges and tensions.From experience we knew these included deeply held differences and convictions in versions of history offered, and widely differing points of view in evaluating the standpoint from which events are viewed from differing geographical and cultural settings. There are diverse rules of scholarship associated with interpreting sacred texts. Skilled work is needed to understand and provide for the cultural norms and expectations of a global grouping in a social setting, and we needed to learn those skills. I am not saying we succeeded in all this. Of course not, but rather that it was now part of our continuing learning agenda. As well as this we were confronted with the problem of all institutions: the sheer inability of certain personalities to be empathetic to one another, including ourselves. We were experiencing something that in the on-going life of the GTF, and all serious institutions is to be expected.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and every faith community, the understandings outlined need attention whenever change is on the agenda, and some members engage in providing a setting and environment where the pursuit of truth is prioritised as a risk worth taking while others choose to affirm the traditions of the past to maintain their integrity. GTF was to embrace change.
As we put it in our foreword: ‘The objective of this program in all its aspects is: ‘How To Change’ in spite of tensions and difficulties, so that our faith communities may play their part in the search for truth and care for people that is part of a common global vision for humanity.’
There were practical principles and patterns of learning between the GTF and the SAOMC, the course of which I was Principal, about which we agreed and tried to follow.
- All institutions exist in two modes: gathered & dispersed. All students, whatever their religious affiliation, would be familiar with this pattern, so it should be replicated in the life of the learning provider (GTF and SAOMC)
- Members join with a formation background that is to be valued and taken seriously.
- When in ‘gathered’ mode the dynamic of each course session should be structured with boundaries for high quality in-put and discussion.
- As each course series develops, there is need for flexibility, with attention both to the input and questioning of both lecturers and learners because of the tensions outlined above.
- When in gathered mode there must be daily opportunity to develop fraternal friendships and engage in informal discussion at meals and through social opportunities.
- Corporate conference worship, and worship according to the tradition of each member or group of members is always to be on offer and expected.
Inter-Faith Perspectives Become a Reality
When the GTF was conceived, the founding Director Mgr Robley Whitson launched it as an Inter-Faith initiative, but it took time to expand from its Christian roots. When John Morgan took over, the first foundation faculty professor he appointed was Dr Ewert Cousins, a leading inter-faith pioneer whose book ‘The Christ of the 21st Century’ marked a milestone in many people’s learning and understanding, including my own. Thus the inter-faith agenda was prioritised.
Cousins had refined a methodology that he called ‘Passing over’ which had its beginnings in a lengthy piece of research he undertook into Native American beliefs, customs and practices.
In passing over we don’t just observe and listen, but we put ourselves into the shoes of those we wish to understand; we immerse ourselves in their context and try to see and feel things as they see and feel them. This takes time and imagination, but is necessary if we are to leave the familiar landscape of our certainties, and the language in which we express them.
Then we ‘pass back’ into our own familiar context to record and reflect on the insights gained.
Lord Jonathan Sachs, former Chief Rabbi of the United Congregations of the (British) Commonwealth puts it like this:
‘In our plural and dangerous inter-connected world, we can no longer afford to see God’s image only in those who are in our image. It will take courageous leadership to remind us that after Babel, to be authentic to one truth, does not mean being exclusive of others.’
This was the vision, and the GTF leadership began to take the message into unknown territories, some of which appeared to be dead ends; but before the early years of the millennium began to dawn, we were experiencing signs of an exciting break through towards making the vision a reality.
In 2000 Robert Runcie died, and the Foundation decided that at the annual convocation, the keynote lecture should be named ‘The Archbishop Robert Runcie Lecture’. Following my introduction to the series, ‘Seeking the Common Good through Theological and Ministerial Renewal’,Professor Jane Shaw, now Principal of Harris Mansfield College Oxford and a Pro Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, spoke about the relevance of another former Archbishop’s vision in the year 2000, under the title ‘William Temple’s Social Gospel for the 21st Century’.
She concluded that Temple pointed us to the humble listening of stories, and the need to take courage to recognise and give up the privileges that have belonged to Western, white, paternalistic Christians, and to engage in the type of theological education that would be a foundation for social analysis and action.
This was a call we tried to follow, and in the 90’s those of us in Oxford attatched to GTF enjoyed being ‘Ordinarius’ to a large number of GTF students from whom we often learned a great deal, as well as guiding them as we journeyed with them over several years if necessary, meeting with them both in Oxford and USA. The preparation for their ‘Defence’ was the final step in the process if not the relationship, and we tried hard to attend. John Fenton, John Macquarrie, Jane Shaw myself and others attempted to model the ‘Defences’ on the Oxbridge ‘Viva’ to which we were accustomed, often with roles given (good cop/bad cop) so the examinees had to work hard defend their work, its originality and relevance and were not just smiled through.
GTF also initiated ‘Foundation House’, designed as a ‘Virtual’ Oxford venue, with accommodations arranged in the city, and with access to an Oxford GTF tutor who would arrange a program, access to the University libraries, and generally ensure welcome and hospitality. For some time running it was my privilege, being followed in the role by Fr Robin Gibbons.
Expansion and Outreach.
While the GTF was a ‘family business’, there was a continual drive to extend the academic faculty and give them key roles in its life and work.
I remember with gratitude a host of scholars as part of this process, among them Dr Jorge Colon CSsR, The Very Revd Dr John Moses, Fr Bernard O’Connor, The Revd Fr Dennis Billy, C. S.sR, Ann V Graber, Bishop Richard Harries (now Lord Harries) Peter Roussakis, Rabbi Norman Soloman, Dr Basil Mustafa, Dr Irma Hernandez Torres, Sister Raymunda Jordan OP and many more.
Occasionally one or other of us would be recruited to be part of an expedition to expand GTF’s global outreach, and I recall in particular a wonderful visit to Puerto Rico, which at the time seemed to come to nothing, but later flowered. Sometimes it was the other way round and John seized an opportunity that arose from the employment of Oxford friends.
For example while on a Sabbatical in Rome I had been introduced to, and impressed by Fr James Puglisi. He had allowed me to use his magnificent library in the Centro Pro Unione for the my research. Jim was, and is, a Franciscan of the Order of the Friars of Atonement, and was friendly with colleague with whom I was staying, at that time part of the staff of the Anglican Centre in Rome on the Via del Corso. Later while leading a summer school for the SAOMC in England, I invited Jim to give a talk and happened to mention it to John. He flew over to meet him on the next plane, and the GTF connection was established with the Centro which the new Director visited last summer, as part of his ‘familiarisation’ process of all the Foundation’s activities.
Among the fellowship of GTF supporters, Professor John Macquarrie was particularly enthusiastic, enjoying both faculty and students. He felt at home in America where he had worked in his youth, enjoyed the variety of students GTF attracted, and in turn became a major source of inspiration for the Foundation. In 1999 John Morgan had the idea for a celebration of Ian’s (as he was known to friends) 80th birthday, and asked if I could provide a venue. I had no funding but managed to supply one at OUDCE, as well as catering staff. GTF provided the funding.
The event took place in June 1999 and was a most convivial occasion. The international guest list of the good and the great included as many scholars as we could muster, and was followed by a book,‘On Being a Theologian’, compiled and edited by John Morgan, published by SCM Press. It was intended as an insight for GTF students and a wider audience as to what it had been like in this great man’s experience, to live and work as a theologian. It was an original kind of Festschrift for his life and work, and as it turned out provided the occasion for him to confide that he wished his extensive library to become part of the GTF resource when died; something I was able to facilitate in 2007.
The Runcie lectures were now well established and in the Fall of 2001 Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB, an international biblical scholar, and that time Master of St Benet’s Hall University of Oxford offered ‘Holy Land – Whose Land ?’ This was a shrewd analysis of the complex issues surrounding solutions to the Palestine problem, by a scholar who not only was familiar on the ground with the territory, but also understood the religious history of the many groupings involved.
Together with John Fenton, and Sister Raymunda Jordan, we flew to Ancilla Domini at the beginning of September 2001.
Dom Henry delivered his lecture and then returned to the UK for another engagement. John Fenton, Sister Raymunda and I remained as we were teaching different seminars for the whole of the program.
On the morning of 9/11 after a walk round the beautiful lake with its Canadian geese, I went to the office to request copies of a hand-out I had prepared.
‘Something strange is going on’ I was told, and we’re not sure what it is’.
That moment heralded a story that changed the world we had known, for we had been overtaken by the unimaginable, and
were stunned. Immediately it was the sheer horror that overcame us.
There were those present from New York, some with family others with students in the area of the twin towers. Most wished to get home as quickly as possible whether that was Stateside or overseas. However events overtook us and very swiftly we realised we were in lockdown, with no traffic of any kind, and no communication either. Within an hour or two and without prior warning, we had become a community in social isolation.
GTF: a gathered Community in Crisis
Through the mists of memory after nearly twenty years, but also with a certain clarity because of the enormity of what we were experiencing, this is what I recall.
There was a great deal of peer group and peer/staff group solidarity as fears and anxieties were exchanged. A few wished to self -isolate; but most wanted to be in company.
A huge television screen was erected in one of our leisure rooms and this was available at all times as the terrible events unfolded and were interpreted.
Voluntary worship arrangements were arranged through conversations across the board.
Classes resumed for those who wished to attend, while tutorials were also available. Some were anxious to be distracted by continuing with their seminars, while others were too close to victims of the attack to pay attention to anything else. There was also some anger around over this difference, as members tried to walk in each others shoes and felt the pinch.
I recall the ‘sound of silence’ while walking round the lake and an increasing awareness of the natural world, and the stirrings of one’s own heart and soul.
The wait seemed endless. Finally there was the resumption of communication and movement as lockdown ceased, and we prepared to leave each other and disperse uncertain of what the future might hold. For the faculty from the UK the journey home was enabled by Dick Gilbert, a GTF student and hospital chaplain who lived in Chicago, and came to Ancilla Domini to enable us catch the first flight out of Chicago O’Hare for Heathrow.
As we approached the airport we passed a tall building with its upper windows displaying the message: ‘REVENGE’. At the O’Hare the easy casualness of flight we had got used to was replaced by rigorous security and the approach to what had been the ‘friendly skies’ was replaced by an atmosphere of hostility and general unease.
In the year 2000 the Millenium had been greeted with an outburst of celebration and hope, with the possibilities of the internet opening up new possibilities of global understanding.
It was, alas, below the radar of most of us that there was growth of nationalism, fundamentalism of differing kinds, local wars and an unprecedented movement of peoples becoming homeless refugees.
In Oxford, as we reflected on these things in the OUDCE adult learning programs, but at the same time the government began to withdraw its interest and financial backing for continuing education. We were also conscious of a movement towards withdrawal into ‘faith education’ by the churches, and an increasing sectarianism.
Against the tide, Dr Geoffrey Thomas the Director of OUDCE, had begun to develop plans for expanding the global program of the Department and creating a new graduate College of the University alongside the Department. This became Kellogg College, now the largest and most international of all Oxford’s Colleges. On being elected to a Fellowship, Kellogg and the University, not the Church of England, became my employer, and I was given enormous freedom in developing courses, and helping to establish the ‘culture’ of the new College.
In 2004, a new site on the Banbury Road was found apart from the Department and we began collegiate life there the next year.
The work load was quite heavy, and meanwhile the theology summer program continued to flourish and expand under the direction of Jane Shaw.
At Kellogg we established a Centre in 2005 to facilitate a neutral academic forum with Robin Gibbons and Professor Roger Trigg in charge, drawing interest both from within the College and around the University. We hosted visiting speakers from UK and overseas, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu became the Patron.
For a variety of reasons, technical, financial and personal, the life of the Centre was limited and it ceased to function in 209/10.
Aware of this, John Morgan generously offered to fund an annual lecture with a similar brief, and the first of these was given by Lord Harries. The series has continued with distinguished speakers including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, which was the last that John Morgan himself was able to attend.
However each year the Foundation has been well represented and in 2019 the speaker was Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger on the theme of ‘Civility in Public Life’, attended by Paul Kirbas and John Kenney on their ‘familiarisation circuit’ and welcomed by Professor Jonathan Michie, now Kellogg’s President as he thanked GTF for providing this annual event in Kellogg’s life..
Director Kendra Clayton, who had succeeded John Morgan, handed over the administration of the Foundation to the new Board of Directors in 2019. The home of the new Board is in Oklahoma City where it began to plan for the future, and then the world was confronted by the Coronavirus.
All our ‘parent’ institutions religious, academic, secular or sacred have been thrown into confusion and disarray as scientists and politicians have tried to address the change this has meant to how life is lived, and it is becoming clear that it will be at least 2020 before a global new normal will be achieved. We all need help.
‘The Two faces of Janus’
Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings, he faces both backwards and forwards, which is what I understand I was asked to do. The past year has been a tragic and unimaginable year for many of us in matters both personal and public.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
‘No worse, there is none. Pitched past
Pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled as forepangs
Comforter, where, where is your
Looking back to recent history, I gain strength from the way GTF has responded to earlier crises. In the post 9/11 world we have had a series of ‘wilder pangs’ in which we looked backwards and forwards, trying to surmount the barriers, and build bridges of understanding which Paul Kirbas set out in 2008 in a book I edited.
He described theological principles for theologians in a time of change, and I recognise them as part of the GTF tradition in which I have been involved.
- They are not formulated in a vacuum but inter-act dynamically with the environment in which they are offered. ( VS: For us, this is one of climate change, economic hardship, increasing political tensions, and a new ‘dark age’.)
- Faith in God is not the same as clinging to dogma. It is bound up in the dynamics of relationship. (VS: the dialogic practice pioneered and described in Foundation Theology 2008 with all the multi-faith contributors makes
compelling reading for today, not least the essay on Moral
Leadership by Paul Kirbas.
In the same volume Senad Agic writes: ‘Relationships of Love are an essential and integral part of faith in God’ and ‘Sympathy for one’s neighbour – and even formal inter faith prayers – are not enough. They must be accompanied by generosity and self sacrifice, or else as one leading Turkish scholar of inter-religious dialogue wrote: ‘We live in a world in which either we live together or we will perish together’.
‘ Prophesy to the Wind’
The Hebrew Scriptures which are part of the tradition of Islam and Christianity take us to the valley of dry dead bones.
Can these dry bones live ? GTF theologians are ‘out there’ in different parts of the world to resource the people, and the Foundation’s task is to resource them. My conviction is that with the collaborative leadership that GTF has pioneered, and with a dialogical process appropriate to the uncertainty of the times, it can be done.
From my own Anglican tradition I conclude with this:
‘ I am doing a new thing says the Lord, pay attention to it’.
Oxford August 2020