Monday, October 31, 2011

Banqueting House Whitehall

I mentioned that when I visited London on St. Edward’s Eve, I did more than listen to two great choirs. One destination was the Banqueting House at Whitehall.

Seeing the great ceiling paintings of Peter Paul Rubens is worth the price of admission and is, in fact, the main attraction.

The main reason I found the paintings interesting is the insight they give into the mentality of Charles I. He had the paintings done in honor of his father King James I and, boy, do they honor him. I found them over the top to the point of being funny.

In the central painting, King James ascends up into heaven accompanied by the heavenly host. In another, personified England and Scotland look gratefully upon the wise James on his throne. And the whole scheme has virtues triumphing over vices, because of King James, of course.

The ceiling portrays the past King of England as godlike . . . which is not far akin from how Charles saw himself as king. An examination of the ceiling gives a good idea as to how Charles could be so insufferable he got his head lopped off.

And the ceiling is one of the last things Charles saw, which is ironic indeed.

By the way, Oxford, which was King Charles’ friendly home for much of the Civil War, still seems to be fighting said war. Portraits and statues of him are everywhere.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

An 18th Century Oxford Experience

While at the Oxford Beer Festival I had an interesting conversation with a student about differing models of university education. (No, I am not kidding. Oxford is both social and brainy that way.) And said conversation gave me the idea for a post or two here.

The first model I will look at is that of 18th Century Oxford. Oxford has a well-earned reputation for rigorous education, but it was not always so. In 1700’s, students were left to their own devices to a great extent. Many Oxford tutors were notorious for not wanting to spend any time with those annoying undergraduates. And the demands on many students were slack.

Therefore many students (who tended to be younger than today’s university students) were slack themselves. And even those who were not often found themselves at a loss as to how best to proceed with their studies.

So how did they graduate? The oral examination system was often perfunctory, especially if the examinee was of a high social class, which he often was. Such became the butt of jokes. One Lord Eldon was said to have been examined thus:

Q: What is the Hebrew for the place of a skull?

A: Golgotha

Q: Who founded University College?

A: King Alfred (a legend steadfastly believed against all evidence at the time)

Examiner: Very well. You are competent for your degree.

And such slackness became somewhat scandalous as well. That is one reason Oxford has a more rigorous system today, which expects more of both faculty and students, much more.

But something is to be said of the 18th Century model, in which there is not constant pressure to prove oneself academically. IF a student knows what he wants to study and indeed wants to study it, there is both tremendous freedom and opportunity with the excellent libraries of Oxford, which today are augmented by the internet.

In fact, on this trip to Oxford, I decided to mimic the 18th Century by eliminating academic pressure altogether. I am not taking a course for credit. (I am not actively seeking a degree, so I have that luxury.) I read what I want when I want.

And I find that this is very productive for me. Not only am I reading and learning a lot in the general area of English Medieval Church History (even though I have already studied the subject much in recent years already). But when I find a book I particularly like and in which I want to spend a lot of time, I look the book up on Amazon. If it is available and reasonably priced, I wish list it to buy it when I get home, and spend more time on books not so readily available back home, thereby multiplying the effect of my visit here.

If I had constantly to prove that I am reading and learning by writing papers, I would have much less time for actually reading. And on some occasions, I would not be able to profitably delay reading certain books until I get back home.

Of course, the problem with giving students such freedom is that many of them will take advantage of that in the wrong way, by being lazy, blowing off their studies, and, yes, getting drunk and obnoxious. Having experienced some of that from “students” first hand, it would not surprise me if past Oxford slackness contributed to town vs. gown riots of notorious history. But I better not get going on that subject.

And there is also the problem of how to evaluate student performance. For that, surely a student must produce something. But if a student is harried by demands for the production of papers and the like, can that not get in the way of real and thoughtful studies?

I do not have easy answers. But that won’t keep me from poking a stick at the issue.

In the meantime, I am thankful that I get to have something of an 18th Century Oxford experience augmented by 21st Century technology.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


One would not think the UK is a gun nut’s paradise, and it is not . . . except for Windsor Castle.

I greatly enjoyed my tour of Windsor Castle yesterday. The famous portraits of kings stand out, but there is so much more that it is really impossible to take it all in.

But I have to admit what was most memorable to this Texan was all . . . the . . . guns. The two guard rooms contain an amazing display of old guns. There had to be hundreds of them, in cabinets, arrayed on the walls, everywhere! I’ve never seen anything like it. It made me think the Royal Family are a bunch of gun nuts.

But, yes, there are other things to see. So if opportunity presents, take the first non-peak train there (to avoid lines getting into the state rooms as I did) and go see it. And do be sure beforehand that the State and Semi-State rooms are open.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Corpus Christi College, Oxford

This past week, I finally got to visit Corpus Christi College, Oxford. This has been problematic because the college is always closed, at least every time I’ve walked by during my three stays in Oxford.

But I have discovered that polite asking can get you a long way in England. Some Oxford colleges especially put up a front of being almost inaccessible. (And when there are hoards of tourists about, I do not blame them.) But that is often an illusion. If you are polite and earnest and ask, it is surprising how far that can get you here.

So, with Corpus Christi closed, of course, I went to the Porters’ Office and pleasantly told the two porters I am a student from Corpus Christi, Texas, that I’ve been in Oxford three times, but I have never gotten to visit the college and very much wanted to do so.

With a smile he let me right in with the only restriction that the Chapel is the only building I should enter.

And Corpus Christi is an amazing college to visit. It is the smallest college in area in Oxford. So I was not expecting much. But it makes marvelous use of its space. The main quad is simple but stately with a tall sundial in the middle and with a formidable statue of the founder, Bishop Foxe glaring over you. There are two smaller quads – much smaller. Remember that Corpus Christi is hemmed in by Christ Church and Merton College and so has little space with which to work. But the smallness of those quads make them that much more interesting.

The Chapel is the narrowest I’ve seen in Oxford, but still impressive and peaceful with interesting monuments, a nice screen and the oldest eagle lectern in Oxford.

But my favorite part of the college is its garden. It is an oasis with three huge shade trees and a high wall that looks over Christ Church’s gardens and Christ Church Meadow. The garden is narrower than other colleges' for sure, but you do not feel hemmed in at all. Just the opposite. It is surely a most pleasant place to sit and read as I saw one student doing.

My visit to Corpus Christi College was interesting and refreshing. I am very glad I asked my way in.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

You might be dining with Oxford Anglo-Catholics if . . .

. . . if a priest insists, with not a little persistence, that you drink some wine on the Feast of St. Frideswide (as I experienced last night at Pusey House).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

St. Edward the Confessor Eve in London

This past Wednesday I spent an excellent Eve of the Feast of the Translation of St. Edward the Confessor in London. My chief missions were two:

1. To worship on the special day at Westminster Abbey, founded by St. Edward. The Choral Evensong was packed with some having to sit in the Nave and was broadcast on BBC, which said broadcast can still be heard for a couple more days. Although I would have selected different music in places, the choir sounds great.

But, having worshipped on the same day at the Abbey back in ’07, there were two disappointments this time. After the service, we did not get to circumnavigate the shrine of St. Edward. And when I stepped outside, there was no change ringing from the Abbey bells. But I am still glad I went.

2. To hear the Choir of King’s College Cambridge sing Mozart near King’s Cross. It was a very interesting and enjoyable performance. And the choir sounds great as always.

Mainly early Mozart was performed, particularly Missa Brevis in C, K140 and Missa Brevis in D, K194. Both were lively as is typical of Mozart and, well, brevis and that for interesting cause. The Archbishop of Salzburg at the time was of a reforming bent and did not like long masses. In fact, he wanted them no longer than 45 minutes! Mozart did not appreciate that much as is understandable, but he certainly adapted well in his composition.

A much longer piece was also played, Divertimento in B flat, Second Londron Night Music. The piece was entirely instrumental, being played by the Dante Quartet. It is interesting, and I enjoyed it, but it takes a little endurance to listen to the whole piece. It was amusing to see some of the idle boys in the choir get bored.

One pleasant surprise of the evening was to see Samuel Landman back in the choir, a choral scholar now and a bass of all things.

By the way, my seat was front row. That is not supposed to be the best seat for a musical performance, but I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. It was great.

As if my day was not full enough, I did some exploring as well. But I will leave off for now.

(Aside: Yes, I finally got some serious sleep overnight. Can you tell? I think the matriculating Freshers drunk themselves into an early stupor yesterday.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Oxford Matriculation

Even through my sleep deprived eyes, I could see that today was a glorious day in Oxford. The sun was shining brightly and literal armies in academic dress converged on the Sheldonian from their various colleges. It is the day new Oxford students are matriculated, if in assembly line fashion, but in proper Latin.

Afterwards, many students parade around town in their fancy dress. If there is a day when Oxford lives up to the stereotype of students walking around in flowing academic dress, today is it. Not a few immediately begin celebrating and, yes, drinking, still in said academic dress.

And who can blame them.

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Apology and Prayer Request

I’m sorry that I’ve been slow to post. For one thing, I had a wonderful Eve of the Translation of Edward the Confessor and desire to post on it.

But a lack of sleep has made posting difficult among other things. There is a problem with noise outside my room. I think, with God’s help, I will be able to deal with the situation adequately. But lack of sleep has literally made me sick in the past. And I am not at 100% now. So I would appreciate your kind prayers.

Thank you.

Today is very sunny . . . yes, in Oxford! So perhaps a nap in the sun will do me some good later. I am now having a profitable morning in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library, in spite of my sleep deprivation, after an uplifting start to the day at Pusey House.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Church Etiquette Lesson #2

Lesson #2: When the organ begins playing before a service, cease any conversation immediately.

One would think the English, with their Anglican heritage, would get this, and most do. But my contemplation and listening before services has been disturbed more than once already by those English who do not get it.

Even by secular standards, yakking away during the organ prelude is disrespectful to the organist and to those wanting to listen to his effort. By Anglican standards, it is irreverent and bad form.

And even after the service, if you must yak it up during the organ voluntary as so many do, kindly do not do so next to someone still sitting and trying to listen. Go outside!

The Sermones Catholici or Homilies of Aelfric

I’m already flourishing in the wonderful libraries of Oxford. Being surrounded by old books, stained glass, and portraits of English worthies glaring down on my studies inspires me.

Perhaps my most important discovery thus far is the Catholic Homilies of Aelfric.

I first came across some of them browsing in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian. I quickly was impressed and edified by them though I’ve only read or skimmed a few just yet. I’ve even found good material for my Sunday School. I particularly find the sermons for Advent Sunday and for Christmas creative and insightful. Brilliant medieval minds often found gems in the scriptures us moderns miss today.

But it took me a while to find a good complete set of them . . . in modern English. I very much wanted to find such, not only for my current studies but to acquire for future study, even if I had to pay up to acquire an old edition. And what I did found was old, from the 1840’s, Benjamin Thorpe’s The Homilies Of The Anglo-Saxon Church: The Sermones Catholici; Or Homilies Of Aelfric, in two volumes.

The format is excellent, with the Old English on one side (Aelfric (of York?) compiled the sermons in the 11th century.) and a modern English translation on the other. The sermons cover at least most of the church year and additional topics as well.

So imagine my joy to find reasonably priced reprints are available online. Thanks be to God!

Friday, October 07, 2011

All Saints North Street, York

The touring part of my trip has ended, and I am happily in the haven where I would be, Oxford.

A highlight of my trip and certainly my favorite parish church so far is All Saints North Street in York. I visited it first chiefly to see the medieval interior, particularly its renowned stained glass.

And the medieval stained glass is outstanding. At York Minster and elsewhere, much medieval glass is quite a puzzle after enduring time and questionable, if not “indifferent” restorations. (One window in the Minster even contains a 20th c. confession of “indifferent” restoration in 1789.) But in All Saints, the old glass is in wonderful condition and easy to interpret.

The windows that stand out are the Prick of Conscience window, which portrays the last fifteen days of the world. Yes, medievals were into horrific end times, too. Nearby is the warm Acts of Corporal Mercy window. Another window portrays a miracle of Christ appearing in the Mass. At the bottom of it is the remains of an indulgence for those who gaze reverently at the window. Yes, such a window surviving the ravages of the Reformation and Civil War is very rare indeed.

All Saints also has a long history of anchoresses and anchorites, even in the 20th century!

As I visited, I noticed they were having a special mass the following Sunday evening for their Dedication Day. So I decided to go to that.

When I arrived early for the Mass, their change ringers were joyfully busy pulling their church bells. Much of the small congregation was already there.

This is very much an Anglo-Catholic parish. The rector wore an actual biretta when he processed then began with Asperges. Later, the Canon was silent – the first time I have seen that in an Anglican setting. Although I read the Canon in my mass booklet because I wanted to know what the priest was praying, I actually did like the silence during the Canon. It added an appropriate reverence and sense of holiness after the Consecration. The service ended with a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, complete with a procession around the interior of the church!

I very much enjoyed the service, and it certainly enabled me to worship personally. But that was not all. The rector invited me to join others in the congregation to proceed to a nearby pub afterwards. This is a godly parish indeed! Thus concluded an excellent evening this past Sunday.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Church Etiquette Lesson #1

Baptismal fonts, no matter how large and deep, are not to be used as wishing wells.

(This lesson is prompted by seeing staff at Lincoln Cathedral early this morning busy hand removing coins from their medieval font. They and I were amused by the improper offerings. But still . . . )

Monday, October 03, 2011


Although I’ve been to England before and explored cathedrals and abbey ruins, on this trip I cannot get over how . . . well, how big some high medieval houses of worship were/are.

York Minster, which I am presently spending a lot of time exploring, is huge. It claims to be the largest cathedral in Northern Europe. Even the chapter house is imposing. And the famous East Window (now under a massive reconstruction. I do hope I get to see it one day.) is bigger than a tennis court.

But it’s not just York Minster. Close by are the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. The size of that impresses.

Earlier from Durham, I made a walking pilgrimage to the ruins of Finchale Priory. I had never heard of the place until my last day in Durham and decided on the spur of the moment to go there. It is a mostly pleasant walk through countryside. I ate blackberries by the path to keep my energy up.

The ruins of the abbey were both more intact and larger than I expected. It is a beautiful and imposing place. And, yes, the priory was big.

The size of such houses of worship speaks still to medievals’ powerful desire to glorify God. And it certainly discredits any delusion that the middle ages were a backward time. Centuries later, the work and technology that went into constructing York Minster and a multitude of cathedrals and abbeys still astounds.