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Oxford Connections 2018: bringing hope to Macedonia

Building houses, teaching English, and hosting Children’s clubs; these are some of the traditional activities undertaken alongside many Christian missions, but what about giving academic lectures? Although unique, the Oxford Connections trip to Macedonia involves just this and has become a much anticipated and fruitful aspect of the Pastorate’s year.

For the past eight years, in partnership with St Aldate’s Church, we have taken groups of postgraduates and senior academics to assist the work of the Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture (BIFC). The Institute, based in the capital city of Macedonia, Skopje, comprises a number of offices, a coffee - and book-shop, and is also the home of the Macedonian language publishing house, ‘Metanoja’. Both the Institute and the publisher were set up and run by Kosta and Nada Milkov, graduates of Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities, respectively, and past members of St Aldates Church.

The Oxford Connections week gives postgraduates the opportunity to present lectures on their academic research at a number of state and private universities, cultural institutions and civic centres in Macedonia. The offering of these lectures provides wonderful opportunities for the BIFC to ‘connect’ and foster relationships with these institutions. Out of this initial contact grow future collaborations and invitations to upcoming events of the Institute. BIFC events can be faith-based, apologetic, or aimed at fostering understanding and respect among different ethnic, religious, or political communities. This year’s Oxford Connections event included a book launch of three of C.S. Lewis works*, addressing the topical theme: ‘Ethics for the 21st Century: C. S. Lewis on Moral Integrity.’ Over many years the Oxford Connections week has enabled Kosta and Nada to build bridges and trust with people at these institutions – an important work in a country whose political, cultural and religious landscape has been historically divided.

In a review of this year’s Oxford Connections, Kosta writes with an example of this fruitful relationship building with the State University of Tetovo where this year’s team gave four lectures,

'After several years of cooperation with this University we have established mutual trust, but this time we have seen a new level of transparency and openness. The overall feedback from the departments was that the OC constantly offers excellence, and that with it we contribute to the peacemaking among different ethnic and religious groups in Macedonia'.

In further reflection on this year’s Oxford Connection’s programme and on the aims of the initiative over many years, Kosta writes,

‘One of the most established and distinguished features of Christian theology is hope. Indeed, of the three virtues (faith, hope and love), as Paul mentions in 1 Cor. 13, “the greatest of these is love”. Faith and love in Christianity are distinguished in aspects unique to its teaching when compared to other belief systems, while hope as Christianity sees it is a class of its own, sui generis, and it is categorically different from wishful thinking. Christian hope is often defined as an “assurance about the future”. But Christianity is not first about the future; it is much more about eternity. Hope is better defined as “assurance about the ‘now’ that has already been inaugurated into the ‘eternal’". It is not about things being OK one day, but that things are OK now, regardless of the current interim.

The truth of this unique and powerful Christian virtue has been manifested during the eighth “Oxford Connections” programme in Macedonia; a small and fragile country caught into the vortex volatility, and often described as a country without “hope”. Nearly seventy graduate students from Oxford and about ten tenured Oxford professors have generously offered their hard-earned scholarly expertise, time, and resources to engage with the academia, media, government and wider public, the aim being to share their hope for the world assured by God resurrecting Jesus from the dead. The reassurance for the resurrection and renewal of all created order involves the mandate for Christians to bring about the flourishing of society as one of the best ways to manifest the “reason for our hope” (1 Pet. 3:15).’

*The three works of C.S Lewis launched were Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man, and are available from the Balkan Institute for Faith and Culture.