Culture

Where to Find Jesus in Oxford, England

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Since starting my master’s at Oxford this fall, I’ve been looking for a church. A new life in a new country meant I needed a Christian community to remind me who I am. I found one just in time for Christmas. Here’s what I learned on the way.

There are a lot of churches in Oxford. Honestly, you can’t walk down the block without tripping over a church. They tend to be Anglican. But after visiting various services, I started noticing two general kinds of atmosphere — two distinct styles of worship. Now, I’m a layman to my core. I have no business evaluating doctrines or denominations. This is just what I saw. 

First there’s what I’ll call solemn worship. Solemn worship is high-flown language and immaculate choral singing inside ornate gothic cathedrals. It’s quiet contemplation and stiff handshakes. At Oxford, solemn worship is the standard operating system for most college chapels.

Then there’s what I’ll call revival worship. Revival worship means rock music, long sermons, and enthusiastic prayer. Depending on the church, it can mean people lying on the floor or speaking in tongues. Interestingly, though, revival worship happens in all kinds of churches — from Oxford Community Church, which is pointedly untraditional, to St. Ebbe’s Church, which is garden-variety Anglican.

Wherever you find it, revival worship upends the delicate formality that’s natural to British culture. The students at St. Ebbe’s, where I eventually settled, are sincere and outspoken. They host campus-wide Bible studies. They go out of their way to spread the good news.

I didn’t object to the solemn services I went to. But they did leave me cold. Maybe it’s just the difference between American and British sensibilities, but the congregations all seemed small and unenthused. Folks headed directly home after the last “amen.” I don’t think I learned anyone’s name or told anyone mine.

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By contrast, revival worship is electric. The services at OCC and St. Ebbe’s are noisy and energetic; people hang around chatting for hours afterwards. You leave the room with your hair standing on end.

I don’t want to tell anyone how to pray. But I want to suggest that the difference between my two experiences wasn’t church architecture, or musical selections. It obviously wasn’t denomination. Rather, all the churches that fell flat for me had one thing in common (besides the Book of Common Prayer): they all made precious little mention of Jesus. The Bible readings were recited and then never mentioned again. The sermons discussed current events or campus life. They tiptoed around Christ with classic British discretion, avoiding Him like an uncomfortable topic at a dinner party. For me, it felt a little empty.

From what I can tell, Christ is all the Church has to offer. Churches that ignore Him end up dithering hopelessly. Churches that wrestle with His words, that struggle to reconcile their project with His life, come roaring to life themselves — revival services regularly draw standing-room-only crowds. St. Paul had it right: keep your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). If nothing else, He packs the house.

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Here’s the thing: we all have this delusion that there’s such a thing as normal, everyday life. Where on earth did we get that idea? This is high drama we’re dealing with here, shot through with surpassing triumph and unthinkable tragedy. The Sistine Chapel exists. So does ISIS. Here we are, water and dust, stitched together into unfathomably complex biological structures. Capable of love. Doomed to death. Science describes the nuts and bolts, but it doesn’t do a damn thing to explain why it’s all so breathtakingly intense, why the stakes are so high. That’s what Christianity explains. Christians account for the majesty of it all by affirming that God is personally invested in humanity. That He walked among us and died for us. That He’s thunderously present in every place and time.

When left to our own devices, we forget this. Somehow, in the middle of this miraculous universe, we manage to get complacent. We doze off at work. We lead boring church services. But Christ’s story makes manifest this spectacular fact, that somehow the ordinary world is bursting with the divine. That’s what we’re celebrating this month: the mysterious entry of God into the world and the infusion of our own petty lives with cosmic meaning. Christ reveals to us how staggeringly significant our actions are when we thought we were just going about our day-to-day.

What I learned from looking for a church is that on our own, we just don’t get it. At least, I don’t. My own outlook is woefully mundane. But Christ re-frames the entire picture — His life holds us accountable to a higher-octane existence. He fills churches and people with passion and purpose. That’s what’s on offer here: life overflowing, there to be grasped. Merry Christmas.

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