I don’t often think of Oxford - though I spent a total of eight happy years (out of my first thirty), on and off, in and around it - but, when I do, it is often triggered by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Maybe it is because I find in Hopkins a fellow soul - both in the way faith was for him both life-giving and a confinement, and also in his longing and creative expressions of another, and transcendent, world, drawing on wisdom from the past and the ‘book of nature’ of present and in-breaking creativity. Oxford at its best can be like that - not for nothing did Matthew Arnold famously name it ‘that sweet city with its dreaming spires’ that needs not summer ‘for beauty’s heightening’...
Oxford has raised up some brutal figures - including the rogues gallery of so many postwar British Prime Ministers - but, for some of us at least, walking its streets and breathing its air (even in the late year dampness of the Thames Valley!) is to walk with living ghosts with extraordinary minds, sensibilities, and open questions - in Oxford as a ‘Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!’ as Matthew Arnold also put it.
Maybe that differing dreaming spirit - which variously helped form Wyclif, Shelley, and the Oxford Movement, to name but a few other subversives - is also connected to its medieval foundations. Medieval of course became a ‘boo’ word in European thought thanks to the different interests, successively, of the Reformations, the Enlightment and Modernity, but there was real loss. As a person, like Hopkins, partly formed by a much much deeper, wider and more diverse set of traditions, it is however possible to see or imagine other things. Such is the continuing living legacy of anglo catholicism (irrespective of denominational allegiance) where it keeps alive the Spirit and not the mere outer forms of its life and grace. That was part of Hopkins’ gift of ‘inscape’ and of the dynamic of his ‘sprung rhyme’. We might express it differently perhaps, but, for some of us at least, we also draw upon the inspiration of the giants who went before us.
I often used to think medieval history was not my bag, but some days I know that, like Hopkins, I breathe it inwardly still - for me, not least the 12th century Renaissance (so much richer, in my view, than the Reformations which still determine so many Western Christians), and I do wonder what might have happened to Christian Faith had the Franciscans, like Duns Scotus (Hopkins’ hero in this poem) and Bonaventure prevailed, with the further guidance of the great female mystics, and what might still happen to Western forms of Faith if we opened our eyes, ears, hearts and lives afresh to the greater depths and complexity of what we claim to inherit, as well as what we, urgently, need to learn from others…
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.