The Pastorate in the Present Graduate Ministry

 

Perhaps the biggest demographic shift Oxford University has witnessed in the last thirty years has been the growth in the postgraduate population.  The previous snapshot focused on the Pastorate’s work under the leadership of Rev. Michael Green at St Aldate’s in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  At that time, there were some 2,500 graduate students, comprising less than a quarter of the total student body.  By 2009, the figure had more than doubled to in excess of 7,000 graduate students, comprising more than a third of the total student body and more than one half of all students being matriculated each year.[1]  The graduate community is now one of the most vibrant, variegated and dynamic groups in Oxford.  The University website proudly acknowledges this:

As a graduate student at Oxford, you will join a diverse community of over 7,000 highly intelligent and committed fellow graduates, drawn from over 120 different countries. More than one third of our students are graduate students, who come here to benefit from Oxford’s world-class graduate training. Whether you want to join the next generation of academic researchers and teachers or build successful careers in other fields, Oxford’s outstanding academic staff and facilities will serve as a strong foundation.

It was with this demographic shift in their minds and on their hearts that the Pastorate trustees and council members began to consider the possibility that God was leading towards a new epoch in the Pastorate’s long history of faithful ministry to Oxford students. 

The council and trustees were aware that they were looking to appoint a worker to inhabit and minister in an immensely complex context – the graduate students’ world can best be pictured as a network of myriad paths, thousands of flows and innumerable nodes and junctions. 

The graduate students who flow into this network each year are a diverse group.  They come from over 120 nations (63% are not British); speak many languages; and are of different religions.  They might be single or they might arrive with their families.  Some are from immensely wealthy and privileged backgrounds while other scholarship students have known real poverty.  Some arrive for a ten month course while others expect to be in Oxford for at least five years.  There are students who arrive in the knowledge that Oxford will be a fun interlude away from their primary career trajectory, while others arrive with the weight of the world on their shoulders, deadly serious and overburdened with fear of failure, of blowing this once-in-a-lifetime chance.

The network around which these 7,000 graduate students circulate is equally complex: they will be registered on one of 93 different postgraduate courses (which are, in turn, subdivided almost ad infinitum).  They will be members of one of 45 colleges and permanent private halls which might be the centre of their academic and social life or little more than an administrative nicety.  Some graduate students are given accommodation on the central college site, far more will be in college-owned accommodation across the city, in University family housing, or in private rental property.  Their free time might revolve around faculty groups, college MCRs, sports clubs, social centres, national groupings or the pubs, clubs and bars of the city centre.

The Council eventually advertised for a Graduate Chaplain:

After a period of reflection and prayer [it] became apparent that there is a need in Oxford for a full-time worker committed to bringing the Gospel to the growing graduate community [...] The person appointed will have the opportunity to develop the role of Graduate Chaplain, working in partnership with the Pastorate Council, the Graduate Christian Union and evangelical churches in the centre of Oxford [The Chaplains duties] will be: to promote among University postgraduates ‘a true and lively faith in Jesus Christ and a knowledge of divine truth’, as stated in the 1893 Trust Deed of the Oxford Evangelical Pastorate.[2]

 

In September 2008 the new Graduate Chaplain, Jonathan Brant, started work along with two associate chaplains, Sally Hitchiner and Christian Hofreiter.  They were commissioned by John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, at St Andrew’s Church on Friday 7th November.  At the service Bishop John preached from Acts 17, challenging the new chaplaincy team to work hard at understanding and interpreting the Christian faith for the particular cultural group of Oxford graduate students.  In particular, he recommended a pattern of affirmation, explanation and proclamation, using the film Cinema Paradiso as an example of Christ-like affirmation of all that is good in human experience.  The Bishop also looked back upon his own days as an undergraduate at St Peter’s college and spoke appreciatively of the impact that the Pastorate had had upon him and upon his peers. 

As explained above, the primary modus operandi of the Pastorate is relational ministry.  For more than a century, Oxford students have found the Pastorate chaplains to be men and women of mature Christian faith who are willing to support and encourage young adults in their Christian journey.  The current Pastorate team continue on this trajectory, seeking through personal contact and occasional events to encourage the flourishing of true and lively faith among Oxford's graduate students.

In such a complex situation the work of the Pastorate in this new epoch of its ministry was never going to be simple or straightforward.  The very first Pastorate Chaplain, operating in 1893, ‘was conscious of occupying an exceedingly delicate position, with many critical and not altogether friendly eyes upon him’.  However, ‘by tact and good judgement he managed to avoid every appearance of clashing with [the] authorities’.[3]  If the Pastorate’s decision to cease operating under the banner of St Aldate’s and to focus on the graduate community has been met with some incomprehension, it is to be hoped that a similar exercise of ‘tact and good judgement’ will aid in the growth of trust and understanding. Indeed, in the first year of this new phase of work progress was made and God’s graciousness was witnessed in innumerable ways.



[1] References from Oxford University Gazette, http://www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/univstats/studnos.htm, accessed 18 September 2009.

[2] Unpublished document, ‘Further Particulars – November 2007’, Oxford Pastorate Council.

[3] Thomson, The Oxford Pastorate, pp. 26-7.