Academics in Dog Collars

by | August 25, 2022

The University of Oxford is strange. Its structures are antiquated, its reputation disproportionate, and its influence unparalleled. For many prospective students, this is in large part the appeal of attending the University. And yet the preservation of such archaism for the sake of a conservative aesthetic leaves these institutions essentially divorced from their original realities and in need of ‘catch-up’ reforms as the social context changes. The result? A crisis is currently underway in what was once seen to be an undeniable cornerstone of the Oxford collegiate experience. Embroiled in several prominent scandals, the Anglican Church’s relationship with the university is currently being tested. The allegations against, and later dismissal of, the Dean of Christ Church is the most news-worthy example at present. Nowhere are these strained relations more obvious, however, than where the secular and the spiritual most deeply intersect – the chaplaincy.

The chaplain, effectively installed as the original HR department, the mediator between student and college community just as much as between layperson and God, holds an office that is simultaneously concerned with wellbeing and with order. These ideals, at times of rapid social development, are clearly contradictory. Without full reform to attune itself to a contemporary context, an institution such as the chaplaincy is almost bound to conflict with the new political demands of a changing society – whether expressed in the increasing visibility of sexual assault, large-scale efforts to expose institutional racism, or the decline of spirituality more broadly. At Oxford, the sharp demographic turnaround within the student body, with state school entries jumping from as low as 45% in 1970 to almost 70% in recent years, and women now constituting 55% of those admitted, has had a particular impact on these age-old institutions. That the chaplain is a less familiar figure to those from non-publicly educated backgrounds ought to be self-evident. This is perhaps the most significant factor in the waning camaraderie between the officeholder and the student, as their role as a community leader and friendly face is undermined by their archaic and often alienating association with a class system that is far beyond its sell-by date. Equally estranged from the cultural homogeneity of the university in the past, although this estrangement is occurring on a significantly longer timeline, are the moves towards secularism and the inclusion of a more diverse set of cultural backgrounds within the student body, particularly of non-Anglican denominations and faiths. Actual practice is thus almost impossible to identify as the successor of a system where, only a hundred years ago, students were chastised for non-attendance of religious services such as Evensong.

Beyond Oxford, changes in society and wider culture demand changes in the role of the university. The more fervently formalised and medicalised approach to mental health issues at the university, as evidenced by the unprecedented rates of diagnoses, pharmaceutical prescriptions, and therapeutic referrals, has the old-fashioned ‘all in this together’ approach to welfare, but strangely combined with an individualised body-centred stance on health. Declining church attendance, meanwhile, makes the office’s more spiritual obligations, including leading chapel services, a far less demanding priority, compared to the other responsibilities piled onto them. The chaplain is thus even further removed from the actual collegiate experience. Anecdotal experiences suggest that these factors may well operate in a feedback loop. The reduction of ecclesiastical responsibilities leads to an increased preoccupation with social welfare to a degree that the office does not have the capacity to facilitate, at least in a professional sense. The result is an institution alienated from its original function yet also distanced from the everyday affairs and needs of the corpus it is meant to represent. In terms of both the composition and ideological attitude of the student body, and society more broadly, then, the reality of Oxford is unquestionably removed from the contexts in which it was originally spawned. The tenacity of the chaplaincy in light of these changes, while remarkable, speaks to both the deep conservatism to which the university is tethered, and the real consequences at the level of the individual that these conflicts produce.

Recent negotiations between students and higher-ups have led to the rejection of Oxford traditions perceived as exclusionary, and efforts to produce a safer environment have resulted in the explicit outlawing of student-tutor relationships. However, the contrast between the relatively reformed structure of certain colleges and the dysfunctional intervention of their chaplains only serves to further emphasise the conflict’s institutional nature. Having to resort to the chaplaincy for welfare resolution was not, the subject of one incident asserts, normal procedure, and was a result of a temporary vacancy in their college’s alternative welfare provisions. After a member of their cohort sexually assaulted them, the interviewee turned to senior tutors at their college for support. Although they were informed that no legal process of exclusion could occur owing to a lack of “formal evidence,” they were reassured by the deliberate actions which college undertook in protecting their well-being and that of others in their cohort. When concerns re-emerged for the victim the following year, however, they were urged by college to attend a welfare session with the chaplain. Their conversation with the chaplain, they claim, beyond being simply inappropriate, was at times actively offensive. They were accused of displaying a lack of compassion for the now socially ostracised perpetrator, and told that they ought to take a degree of responsibility for their inebriated state at the time of the incident. This conversation culminated in what they perceived to be an invalidating and infantilising set of recommendations, including suggesting their welfare might improve were they to wake up earlier and being given cartoon books on dealing with feeling down. The office of the chaplain, having intended to relieve welfare issues, had in fact exacerbated them.

Prompted by these concerns, accusations of mismanagement and irresponsibility by chaplains across the university have been brought to my attention. One such account was relayed to me by the student involved who suggests that their chaplain made classist and racially insensitive comments during disciplinary procedures while still ostensibly operating in a welfare capacity. After having expressed discomfort at the use of racial slurs by one of their peers and the ensuing emotional problems that they faced, this student was informed that they need not take the problem too seriously. They were then pressured to rusticate, owing not to their mental health issues, but rather to their unfamiliarity with the content of their course compared to their more culturally privileged classmates. The failures here again point to a confusion in the exact definition of the chaplaincy’s role, resulting from its alienation both from its original function and from the nature of contemporary society. Is it perhaps this conflation of roles, then, which in part serves to undermine the chaplain’s role at college? This was certainly the position taken by one college’s MCR, which recently voted in support of separating the spiritual and welfare dimensions of the chaplain’s office entirely. The decision, I was told, came as a result of both the actual failings of the office in dealing with sensitive cases, and the confusion that postgraduates felt towards the office’s responsibilities as a result. These issues were perceived to be at root a consequence of the ambiguous, dangerous even, limits of the chaplaincy’s jurisdiction.

That the welfare role of the chaplain is untenable in its current form appears a reasonable conclusion, then. The need for reform of the office’s spiritual obligations is equally palpable. At another Oxford college, frustrations were expressed to me by an organ scholar regarding the apparent ambivalence of his chaplain to the proper operation of the chapel and the neglect of his role as active leader of the assembly. These concerns eventually led the organ scholar to depart from his position, having had his proposals to improve the chapel’s musical programme by broadening the cultural and musical appeal of its services shot down by college. His departure saw service attendance dwindle to effectively zero, with the chaplain not having continued the student’s fervent efforts at promotion. The roots of these issues lie, he told me, in the prevailing notion that chaplains ought to be academics who happen to be ordained, rather than clerics who also happen to be academics – that is to say, academics in dog collars. This produces a situation in which services are held and promoted only out of contractual obligation rather than genuine commitment or appreciation of Anglican custom, and the chapel becomes an exclusive dining club for the choir. This is not only a negligence of the duties of a chaplain to their assembly but to the chapel spaces themselves, gorgeous buildings whose use is restricted to sparse services on Sunday evenings, rather than the lively setting for concerts and lectures that they have the potential to become. These ought to be the active duties of the chaplain and yet they appear to have fallen by the wayside, with many, he alleges, not recognising the dramatic shifts in the need for promotion of services after decades in the position.

The chaplaincy is failing to function in both of its stated goals at present. No longer the familiar face of collegiate cohesion, nor the advocate and perpetuator of student spirituality, the chaplaincy is in crisis not because it has changed, but precisely because it has failed to. Continuity is an entrenched value at places like Oxford, where, for many, the conservative sheen constitutes its appeal. When that conservatism clashes with irreconcilable social change, when it begins to have a real and pernicious impact on people’s lives, while straying simultaneously from its dictated function, this continuity exposes itself as unsustainable. The University of Oxford originated as an ecclesiastical centre for secular study by clerics as far back as the eleventh century, and the crises it has faced over time – including the conflict between town and gown resulting in the University’s formal founding in the 13th century, and the Reformation and civil wars in the 16th and 17th centuries which eroded its effective independence from the state – evidence an institution consistently arriving at a certain boiling point before it finally embraces reform. Whether this boiling point in the office of chaplain has been breached is yet unclear, but its days as presently formulated appear numbered. The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Venerable Jonathan Chaffey, was unresponsive when contacted about the future he envisions for the role.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that those seams underpinning the university are once again coming loose. After all, why should we expect an 800-year-old institution to be perfectly attuned to the demands of a 21st century student body? The crisis in the chaplaincy nonetheless has a real, material impact, neglecting the office’s spiritual obligations, and operating in an actively detrimental fashion to the collegiate welfare it is expected to promote. There is evidence here of challenges beyond simply the maintenance of an institution, but also of a need for radical transformations in the way in which the chaplaincy’s traditional roles are approached.∎

Words by Anonymous. Art by Aryan Goenka.