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​Food for the soul: Christians in Academia alumni reunion

Oxford Pastorate staff have the pleasure of investing in the lives of many postgraduates through our year-long formation groups. In June, some of the alumni from the past three cohorts of Christians in Academia were reunited for a dinner at the home of Professor of Theoretical Physics, ‘molecular gastronomist’, and Oxford Pastorate Trustee, Ard Louis. Amy O’Donovan, co-leader of Christians in Academia, reveals a little of what their evening involved…

On a balmy summer evening in early June, Ard Louis and his capable team of helpers set before us food that surpassed all expectations: an amuse bouche of cauliflower foam and scallops, followed by Beef Wellington and a Heston Blumenthal chocolate soil tiramisu pot plant.The hat game over crudités enabled us to discover more about each other’s cohorts as we tried to guess subject specialisms, retreat highlights and memorable conversation topics. (The most illuminating of which was the purported connection between weasels, eagles and our sense of vocation!) The real joy of the evening, however, was the opportunity to catch up with old friends, and to reminisce about funny and touching moments from our respective years together.The evening closed with an inspirational reminder from Ard about the importance of creating and maintaining Christian community in the unique and often spiritually challenging context of academia.

The reunion was a snapshot of what I have found most rewarding about co-leading the programme this year: sharing food, insights and life experiences with a talented and humble group of godly people seeking to better understand themselves, each other, God and the world. Postgraduate study can be a lonely calling, and the opportunity to share its struggles, joys and insights with others on the same journey is one of the great strengths of the Christians in Academia programme. Both as co-ordinator, and as a part-time student completing the Postgraduate Diploma in Theology, it has been such a privilege to talk through the particular struggles and opportunities of being a Christian in an academic context.

Over regular lunches and dinners, readings have catalysed discussions exploring concepts of virtue and character, our sense of calling, notions of home and responsibility, potential avenues of service, and the role of humility and integrity in a competitive and often self-promoting world. Academics, including Lorna Smith of St Hilda’s College and recent programme alumna Kezia Gaitskell, have given us insights into their own journeys in academia and the ways they have seen God at work. Church leaders from St Andrews and St Clements have shared their experiences of leading local churches with many academics among their members, and offered sage advice on how those pursuing advanced degrees can best integrate into the wider body of Christ. An annual retreat has provided opportunities to strengthen friendships and delve deeper into diverse and challenging topics.

Perhaps most rewarding of all, however, has been hearing from fellow students about their own experiences of incorporating faith and academic study. The challenges facing a biochemist, a social anthropologist, a theologian, a musician and a robotics engineer vary hugely. Yet what unites us all has been a desire to be salt and light, to build relationships of integrity with our colleagues and supervisors, and to discern in a godly manner whether academia is short-term training for other contexts or our calling for the long haul.The great encouragement has been realising that each of us can rely on God’s good and loving character, his faithful plans and his consistent work in all circumstances to make us more like Christ.