Visiting Oxford last summer, one of the places I went to was the Univeristy Church of St Mary the Virgin. This lovely Church is part of the Church of England. It is very historic indeed, and has stood there for more than a thousand years. By the Twelfth Century, it had become the heart of the medieval University and it became the setting for religious services and also for the awarding of University degrees.
The Reformation and the Civil War changed the way people expressed their faith, and ultimately it could be seen as being somewhat ‘cold’ or distant. This was the cause of disappointment for some in the Church, including a preacher called John Wesley, who famously preached three times at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, and who would later become the founder of Methodism.
In 1827, the nearby Oriel College, just around the corner from St Mary’s, gave the Church a young vicar, who was also a fellow of Oriel. His name was John Henry Newman. He sought to breathe new life and vigour into the Church and to give it a stronger place in British society. As the years went on, Newman realised that the only place he could find what he was looking for was within the Catholic Church and he ultimately converted to the Catholic faith, where he served as a Priest and, later, as a Cardinal. His view was that only the Catholic Church could trace it’s lineage back to the Apostolic Era. His friends, however, saw things differently – their goal was to restore the Church of England, not to leave it. And so ‘the Oxford movement’ began. Churches themselves were restored and were made beautiful once more – but the Church itself was also restored in many ways. Newman’s little oratory at Oriel College can still be seen, that little space where he prayed and considered his options and no doubt made some of the monumental decisions of his life.
Today, the little Church of St Mary the Virgin is constantly thronged with visitors from across the world, who have come to see Oxford and to learn about it’s history and it’s place in education and in faith.
And yest despite all this, the little Church remains – more than anything – a place of prayer and worship. Visiting the Church last year, I was delighed that so many people had lit candles at several of the Altars, including the one pictured here and dedicated to the Mother of God.