It is impossible to escape Christmas, although the country is no longer even 50% Christian, according to new data from the 2021 census.
By mid-November, the lights are up; shops are full of tinsel and canned festive music is everywhere. It is about the time of year, when someone points out this is not what Christmas is all about. But it will not be Canon Graham Ward, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity.
‘It doesn’t matter (the tinsel etc)…It’s a beautiful moment in the year, when we give gifts and try to be nice to others,’ says Professor Ward, with emphatic pleasure. ‘If that’s what giving a day or a few days in the year can do, it seems to me, it’s a good thing, wherever you’re coming from.’
He adds wistfully, ‘Within a calendar to have two days when things shut down and people think about people, other than themselves, I just think that, socially, is better than having nothing at all….and it keeps a sense of enchantment alive. It will get tarnished, but to have an image of the world that is different to the everyday, I think that’s worth celebrating.’
Professor Ward is anything but the stereotyped clergyperson or cliched Oxford professor. Although he has spent more than 30 years as an influential academic theologian and 40 as an ordained Church of England priest, a brief conversation suggests he does not appear to ‘tick the boxes’. In fact, he would certainly question the existence of the boxes, or at least their relevance. In no particular order, Professor Ward is not from a family of clergy, or academics. He did not attend a famous school. He is more likely to be found reading contemporary American fiction than the Tales of Barchester. And the amiable professor, who when appointed, asked for a two bedroomed flat in preference to the grand canonry which came with the job, is fascinated (not scared) by cultural religiosity – although he would probably not agree with those words.
Sitting in the book-lined room, he recognises the declining levels of ‘religious literacy’. ‘It’s a problem for the Humanities,’ Professor Ward says. ‘Cambridge now has someone who teaches Christianity to English and History undergraduates, just so students can read novels and understand what they’re on about.’
He laughs, ‘I went to talk to some first-year undergraduates about evil. They were reading Augustine’s Confessions and I pointed out that the incident where Augustine and his friends steal pears and throw them away is an echo of Adam and Eve, the tree of life, the apple and the fall. One student looked really bemused. When I turned to her, she said, “I don’t know what you mean by the fall…the fall from what?”’
It must have been at least slightly surprising. But, Professor Ward maintains, just because mainstream churches are not prospering, does not mean there is no ‘spirituality’ (another word he would question). He says, ‘In one sense there is a lack of religious literacy, in another sense, what comes through a lot of contemporary literature is, in fact, the spread of Christian language well beyond its churchy confines.’
Some in the church will not see this as a positive, but Professor Ward insists, it is no bad thing. ‘I see it as a healthy way to start. Reflecting upon the religious words we’re using comes without many religious preconceptions. So, in some ways, the lack of institutionalised religious literacy is beneficial for my interests.’
He maintains, there is ‘spirituality’ (that word again) in the world around us, and it is a question of inquiring into that and making what sense we can of the religious. ‘Students can think more about their experiences: those times when they have registered something, bigger than they are. Like the photographer, Ansel Adams, standing before one of the granite masses of Yosemite. If you’ve got too much religious literacy, you are already fitting the experience into the categories handed down to you. We have to put pressure on the categories themselves.’
Although previous occupants of his chair may not have faced this dilemma, Professor Ward is conscious he is in a very long line of Regius Professors of Divinity. The position was founded by Henry VIII, nearly 500 years ago. The first occupant, Richard Smyth, was a Catholic, who had to flee to the Continent.
Heritage and continuity give perspective.
Theology was the first ‘subject’ at Oxford. But in 1123, says Professor Ward, ‘the first theologian was appointed at the Augustinian priory here, where the cathedral is…I’ve even read some of his stuff. It was just Christian theology taught here then.’
He reflects, ‘At Oxford, we all enter into a long and profound tradition that proceeds and will follow after us. That can be something overwhelming…but it also gives you a sense of the people who have passed through this place over the centuries and made their mark. It grounds you…These places have got deep textures of time written into them.’
Professor Ward’s sense of this history, and his delight at the approach of admissions interviews, are linked to his own beginnings. He came from a family, a community and a school where people did not go to university, let alone Oxford, and certainly did not become professors.
‘My background is very important for the work I do,’ he confesses. ‘I came from northern Manchester, a broken home, no father, brought up by my grandmother (his mother having died), but I managed to get a scholarship at Cambridge.’
He had been a clever child and had wanted to read English Literature. With his hunger to learn and a love of reading, his grandmother had gone to the Local Education Authority and demanded they give him a grant to stay on at school after 16. She got it. And teenage Graham took A-levels. He says, ‘My grandmother had to go to work at 13. She was going to move heaven and earth so that someone could have what she had not had. She told them that if they wanted me to stay on at school, they would have to pay.’
Thanks to his grandmother’s persistence, he went to a sixth-form college. Not many from his area were at the school, and not many went to university, but he was identified as possible Oxbridge material. At his school’s suggestion, he originally applied to Oxford – and to Christ Church. But, nearly 40 years before he returned as the Regius Professor, he recalls: ‘The school recognised the intellectual hunger in me, and I was willing to put in the work, as you have to with the Humanities. There are no shortcuts with literature. You have to read widely and well. When I came to Christ Church for an interview to read English, I was just stumbling over Harrovians who could quote Milton and Shakespeare. I didn’t feel I had anything to say. My own preparation seemed inadequate. Christ Church didn’t accept me. The college is nothing like that now. Totally unrecognisable.’
It was to prove a minor set-back only. The next summer, he got three As at A level – an extraordinary achievement, since there was a cap on the numbers who could get top grades. The Local Authority gave him a grant to stay on for one extra term, to allow him to apply to Cambridge.
This time, he was successful.
It was to prove transformative for him, for his community and family. Professor Ward recalls, ‘You become something of a hero in your community. But you also have to cope with the fact your education is going to change you. I didn’t want it to change me but family expectations changed…you’re somehow an outsider and they need to keep you outside…because you have done something quite extraordinary. You become the boy who got into Cambridge or the girl who got into Oxford.’
But what was very important, he insists, was that it showed what was possible. As admissions interviews approach, Professor Ward says, ‘I see that even now…people coming forward who never dreamt it was on the cards for them…but they show a drive, a curiosity to know and they are hungry to be taught. I was hungry to be taught.’
He adds, ‘If you come from a background like mine, this changes not just one person’s life but the whole community around them.’
Going to Cambridge was not an easy transition. It was a time of a gilded generation of Footlights stars - think Rowan Atkinson, Gryff Rhys Jones and then Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. And, he says, others had read far more widely than he. Professor Ward remembers, ‘The first year was like treading water and a struggle to keep afloat’. But the time studying literature was important. It crystalized a desire to write. ‘I was desperate to be a novelist – which never happened (yet).’
He went to London after Cambridge, even had an agent and some success with short stories, ‘But breaking through to the novel market, that dream disappeared.’
To fund his writing, he taught drama in schools, but, he says, ‘I came to realise teaching drama was not what I wanted to do.’
There was no Damascus moment, but having become involved with the Anglican church when still at school, he realised, ‘The only thing pressing upon me was to be a priest.’
So, he returned to Cambridge, this time to study Theology. But he was determined to go into parish work – not academia, although everyone, except him, realised he was destined to do just that. He started as a curate in Bristol, but it was not long before he became chaplain and a tutor at Exeter College. From there, he went to be Dean of Peterhouse, and from there to the University of Manchester, to be head of Theology and then head of the School of Arts, Histories and Culture.
Christian theology has changed over the last decades. It has become more of an academic subject and less tied to education in the church, as it had been when his predecessors occupied the chair of Divinity. Professor Ward says, ‘To my mind, the big questions, such as who and what we are as a species, why we’re here, where we’re going, and what this living is all about...these are perennial questions. And, for me, theology has got to be involved with the larger cultural and scientific pursuit of these questions. If it doesn’t get involved, then it becomes counter-cultural - as many now see the Christian churches.’
He adds, ‘Institutionalised religion is declining but, even when you’re talking about something quite secular, the same perennial questions keep arising.’
What, to play devil’s advocate, does his belief in the interplay of theology and culture mean for the Protestant tradition, the ‘reformation’, for revelation and the sweeping away of cultural Christianity that happened 500 years ago and led to the establishment of the Church of England?
He responds, ‘For me, if someone uses the word revelation, I ask what they mean by that? Some direct rupture of time, space and materiality?’
It is not as confusing as it sounds…or is it? Professor Ward’s studies have focused on ‘the way in which theology articulates things which are not just about the divine, but also about the cultures, languages, experiences and questionings that arise in any given time.’
Professor Ward explains, ‘[Films and books] can actually pick up religious themes and even when an author or director may have rejected any strong religious affiliation, something resonant remains. Something about the pursuit of those big questions. And that interests me.’
He explains, the reality of a world faiths like Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism is not monolithic. These faiths are not lived everywhere in the same way. These faiths have, and always have been, affected by their cultural setting and lived out differently by different peoples. Professor Ward says, ‘Religion is highly adaptive. It’s entangled in larger cultural movements. Perennial, like the big questions.’
Here and now, Christmas has become a cultural event, at the same time as it is celebrated in churches and among Christians. Is there hope for the churches?
‘Though numbers decline...in the Anglican church, cathedrals are becoming foci. Is this just nostalgia? Are they museums?... There are elements of this. But people still come. Sometimes there are 500 people at a midweek evensong at Christ Church. Some may not understand a word on the service sheet…but it is part of a cultural heritage and they want to understand that culture. Even absorb it.’
Many of his colleagues may fear for the future of the Christian churches in the UK, but Professor Ward is unafraid, trusting, perhaps, in an innate sense of the spiritual (I know).
But, he suggests, Christianity is far from finished, ‘While there remain church steeples in Britain, some kind of presence is being registered culturally, even if some of those buildings close down.’