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Oxford 2014: Healing the past and hopes for the future

(Vatican Radio) Theologians from different countries and different Christian traditions are gathered in the English university city of Oxford for the 8th international conference of the Ecclesiological Investigations research network. Their three day meeting is exploring the theme of new hope in ecumenical and interfaith relations, with a particular focus on the English context of Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

Philippa Hitchen is attending the conference - listen to her report: RealAudioMP3

From the soaring spires of the medieval Oxford colleges to the brand new, prize winning chapel of the seminary at Cuddesdon where we’re staying, participants in this conference are being constantly challenged by memories of the past as they search for hope in the modern ecumenical movement.

Ripon theological college was built in the mid- 19th century by prolific English architect George Edmund Street who’s best known as the designer of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. A leading practitioner of the Victorian Gothic revival, he also designed the two Anglican churches of All Saints and St Paul’s in Rome . Built in the idyllic and peaceful setting of rural Oxfordshire, just a few miles from the city centre, Ripon is today the largest training institution for Church of England clergy with around 70 men and women currently being prepared for ministry.

On the first evening of the conference, we gathered in its ultra-modern chapel for a liturgy drawn up by the ecumenical Iona Community famed for its new inspirational music and styles of worship. Standing beneath the pale, slender, interlacing timber columns of the chapel’s stark, light filled interior, we remembered the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the day he was executed in a concentration camp for his defiant resistance to the Nazi regime.

The following day we were taken for a whirlwind tour of some of the oldest Oxford colleges – Christchurch, with its ancient cathedral, stunning stained glass windows but also some surprisingly modern art works designed to make visitors pause and consider the role and place of religion in contemporary society.

Then Oriel college, the birthplace of the Oxford Movement which sought to reclaim the Catholic heritage of the Church of England. At the top of a narrow staircase near the entrance, we visited the small oratory where John Henry Newman prayed and worked before being received into the Catholic Church, while in the grassy graveyard outside his companions John Keble and Edward Pusey are buried.

Finally we finished the day with evening prayer at St John’s college, passing on the road the place where three Anglican bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, known as the Oxford martyrs, were burnt at the stake under the Catholic Queen Mary in 1555.

Such vivid reminders of past divisions and efforts at reconciliation make a fitting backdrop for this conference. How can we effectively heal bitter memories that continue to hinder the work of reconciliation between the different Christian Churches? How can we recover our shared spiritual heritage from the centuries before the Reformation or the schism between East and West? Participants here are hoping that their discussions, in some small way, can help on that journey of bringing new hope to the ecumenical future


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