St John’s College Oxford is the patron of St Michael & All Angel’s Church in Summertown, the two institutions are separated by less than a mile of the Banbury Road. St John’s, in fact, is patron to a good many parishes in the Church of England. It is one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, college in Oxford – and alongside it’s namesake in Cambridge – represents a significant landowning body. According to popular legend one can walk from St John’s College in Oxford, to St John’s College in Cambridge, without ever stepping off St John’s soil! As incumbent of a St John’s Living, I am sometimes invited to share in the hospitality of the college. Last week I sat at High Table with the great and the good wondering how on earth I had arrived amongst such academic prowess!
During the second or perhaps third course, I was inevitably asked about my own education. I look upon this type of question as an inquisition rather than an inquiry. This is, of course, my own defensiveness and guilt which I brought to the table. I was left with a dilemma – to tell the truth (not a bad course of action for a priest) or try to evade the question altogether. The truth is that my own education can only be termed in today’s OFSTED speak as “causing concern”, or even “requiring special measures.” When I see my education through the filter of my own children’s experience, I question why I was so disconnected at school and why I was unable to grasp the most basic concepts in all subject areas?
Interestingly, as I reflect upon my High Table experience, the more I talked openly about my past academic failings, those around me talked about their own misgivings regarding education and their desire for improved pedagogical practices. I was able to speak about my ordinary ‘O’ levels and not such advanced ‘A’ levels with little less difficulty. By the end of the meal I was feeling quite liberated (or was that the wine?) and able to celebrate a rags to riches rise in academic competence which concluded with a postgraduate Masters in Theology, here in Oxford.
The purpose of education, for me, is that it never truly comes to an end, it is continually serving to intrigue, to wonder, to ask. We come to understand that ‘the more we know, the more we don’t know!’ This is a calling into a greater understanding of oneself and the world in which we live. Advent is the season of the ‘more we know, the more we don’t know.’ Helped by the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets of past and present, the trailblazers like John the Baptiser and Mother Mary, we are given so many clues, indications of God’s plan for humanity. And yet, are we truly educated? Is our knowledge so convincing that we can truly comprehend God’s plan? Should we resist the temptation to be closed to further learning? This Advent, let’s set up our own pedagogy which liberates the vulnerable, enabling a transformation in mind and spirit.
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